Seun Kuti, Afrobeat musician and leader of the Egypt 80 band, is certainly under no illusion about where his interest lies. Though the son of Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti, he has, over the years, created a niche for himself as a Pan Africanist, activist and an unrepentant lover of his people. Nominated for the Grammys this year, he is at home not just with books but also with cultural theorists such as Frantz Fanon, Samir Amin, Edward Said, Mahmood Mamdani and dependency theorists. In this interview with NEHRU ODEH he speaks about Nigeria, the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa and the place of blacks in the global imagination.
What does Afrobeat mean to you?
Afrobeat is the music for the people. My father created it as a way to express what is happening to the majority of the people of this country. I think that is what Afrobeat still means. And for anybody that is a true Afrobeat connoisseur, apostle or disciple, they will understand that that is what the music is about.
You’ve been in the struggle for 28 years. Has there been any change in the society since you started your career?
I think, for the political and business elite in Nigeria, there have been a lot of progress. There have been a lot of avenues for them to amass more wealth and accumulate more power. But, for the common man, I think Nigeria has actually stagnated. That is why things seem so much hard these days because there are too many poor people. And the amenities, infrastructure and social welfare that we all have to share have been exactly the same since the 1989s. So because of that there is so much pressure on the infrastructure. Nothing has really changed. Things have stagnated for us, and stagnation is also backwardness. So for the common man in Nigeria, things have actually gotten worse.
Nigerians just witnessed another general elections and new leaders have emerged. Do you think there is a leeway for change?
I think the same person won. Even if Atiku Abubakar had won, there would have been no change for the common man in Nigeria. It is very important we stop living vicariously through our political and business leaders. We all tend to live vicariously through them because we have been indoctrinated to believe money is going to solve any problem that we have as a people in Nigeria. So everybody believes that if they have money they don’t have problem. So when they see any of the politicians or rich Nigerians having problems, they suddenly start thinking it’s our problem. And they start supporting them. If Atiku had won, another set of elites would have begun to enjoy, and things would have been better for them. But things would have still remained the same for the Nigerian people, as it has always been. When people say Nigeria is hard, I always tell them it has always been hard for the poor and working class people of this country since the 80s. Anybody that is saying that Nigeria started getting hard today is either ignorant or a bastard. So we shouldn’t act as if hardship in Nigeria started under Buhari’s regime just because our own benefactors are no longer in power. We have to speak the truth. Nigeria has always been hard for the people of this country. So whether we have Buhari or Atiku would not have changed anything. What we need to do is find a way to create a party that would represent the whole country. That is why I have the Naija Resistance Movement. I will use this as a platform to spark an awakening among the people, to organize ourselves to create something that can liberate us from our oppressors. We as Nigerians have to see ourselves as the enemies of our oppressors. As long as we make excuses or dream of being out of them, we can never be free as a people. We can never achieve our potential.
Are you saying that the rich impoverish the poor in Nigeria so they can remain rich?
Yes, you have to understand that even the access the rich in Nigeria have to Nigeria is limited. A large part of Nigeria is still controlled by foreigners. Nigeria is under the thumb of the imperialists. Many of our biggest commodities, many of our biggest markets are cornered by foreigners. Maybe 70 per cent of businesses in Nigeria are controlled by foreigners. Look at the upstream sector of our oil economy. Look at the media. DSTV is the biggest media industry in Nigeria. MTN and AIRTEL are foreign companies. You think many of our businesses, even our banks are owned locally, but if you look at the shareholders and the board of directors, you will find that they have taken a lot of foreign investments. And many of these foreign investors are majority shareholders in our banks. You find that the way you cannot get a loan as a black man in America and the UK, since the banks are owned by whites, is the same way we as black people here cannot get loans from our own banks. And I know I am not wrong about that. So for me we have to find a way to see things from our own perspectives, even if the TV, the churches and mosques, the schools and the universities are telling us otherwise. Our own need to survive should tell us the truth because the evidence is right there for us to see. It is not as if it is hidden anymore. But they don’t want us to see those things as important, as a real pointer to the fact that we are living under an oppressive system.
Do you mean that the narratives are the same, that the same oppressive relationship that exists between African countries and the West is the same existing between the rich (the compradors) and the poor in Africa?
Yes, Frantz Fanon calls them the pseudo petty bourgeoisie. The rich perpetuate the same system of oppression that Europeans perpetuate here. The same way police kill black people in Europe and America is the same way our police kill us here. The same way black people don’t have adequate homes in Europe and America is the same way the poor are homeless here. Black lives are cheap, especially in Africa. Nobody really cares whatever happens to you. Because even you as a black man are waiting for CNN to be outraged about your own suffering before you are outraged. You don’t think you have the right to be outraged about your own suffering.. If CNN doesn’t think it is legitimate, if BBC doesn’t think it is legitimate, you don’t think it is legitimate. If BBC and CNN do not understand your pain, you don’t think it’s pain enough.
This also applies to the literary arts. The West determines what is accepted as great literature here. Are you also saying that it’s the West that produces the narratives that we hear, read, see, listen to and believe?
Yes, of course. It is because the elites, both business and political, own all the institutions. They own majority of the media houses, the pastors and their friends own all the best schools, and they own many of the best universities that train members of the society and are able to control and indoctrinate others. The Nigerian elites, being a lazy set of people, want people to believe that it is only expression of wealth that is luxury. You have to understand that luzury is very white. Everything about luxury is white. There is no way to live luxuriously without making the white societies rich, without making white countries rich. So they want you to believe as a black man that the more foreign things you can accumulate and consume, the more successful you are, and not the more you impact your community. So yeah I put it right at their doorstep.
You just spoke about profiling. There have been killings all over the country and even recently the last elections witnessed massive killings, especially in Rivers state. Right here in Lagos, SARS kill people extra judicially. What is your view about these killings?
You know as I said to you many of our elites in Africa want us to believe that to be free is to be white. But there is nowhere in the dictionary that says whiteness and being free are the same thing. We have to understand what it means to be free as motherland people. The elites want to be the white people of black people. So you never hear their children being killed. Their children can never be arrested. They can never be killed and shot, just the way it happens to Europeans in Europe and America. So we as motherland people have to see and understand that, and always see things from our own perspective, that we are at risk in this system. We that are cannon fodder of capitalists, we should understand that we cannot be capitalists without capital. Even the richest men in Nigeria cannot be capitalists because they don’t have capital. So the best they can do is to be rent seekers, to take things that we need for our survival and sell it to us, corner our food, housing, fuel, health, education, electricity, water, all the basic necessities that we need to survive. And they privatize it and make it their own property so that they can make a living without competing with their masters
So what is the way out?
The way out is for us to develop the ability not just to compete, but also to compete for ourselves. And even if we are going to be slaves, we should learn how to be slaves to ourselves. The Nigerian elites have to find a way, if we are going to believe in capitalism, which I do not believe in. I believe in socialism. There is no need for us Africans to live for profit. Nature itself can no longer sustain profit. When you hear of global warming, it’s the white man way of saying they are destroying the world because the world can no longer sustain profit. We don’t need to live for profit as motherland people because the white man says that is how we must live. But we can go from raw materials to manufacturing. If we decide to develop ourselves and using our raw materials for our own benefit, we don’t need to live for profit. But because we believe we have to be white that is why we are fighting for profit. Because the white man says there must be scarcity. And which people is scarcity affecting in the world today? They are the indigenous people of the world that own the raw materials, from India to China, to Ghana to Australia, South America, the Caribbean. But they are the ones paying the price of capitalism. We are the ones that have to live under such immense poverty, while we cannot protect our markets.
Do you see the blacks as endangered species?
No. I don’t think we are endangered, but we are definitely under attack, genocidal attack. I don’t want to say we are endangered because we have the sense to think and protect ourselves. We can say animals are endangered because they don’t understand that humans are wiping them out. So they are endangered because they have no ability to protect themselves. We have the ability to protect ourselves, just that we don’t understand that we have to protect ourselves and our interests.
Growing up, what fond memories do you have of your dad? Could you tell our readers what people don’t know about him?
My dad was a great father. That’s what many people don’t know. .My dad was a cool guy and very fond of cracking jokes. He was really very normal and cool.
Aside from Afrobeat, what else would you have loved to do?
I would have played football. That is the only thing I loved as a kid. I still have all these football injuries I carry around. I was part of my school football team. I represented my community. I think the only reason I didn’t play was because my uncle said I shouldn’t play because as a footballer you have to stop at the age of 35. You stop early. And you still have to live or another 35, 40 years.. What are you going to do with your life after football? And it’s true. You find out that that is the problem majority of footballers have: what they do after football. And after making money as a young person, what do you do? You waste it, especially if you are black, you waste it trying to be white. You buy expensive clothes, cars every year. By the time your career is over, you won’t know how you lost money to live your life. You have to continue now working at something else. But as a musician I know I can perform till I am 70.
Why is your music political?
I don’t think my music is political. I think everything in the world is political. Even when people say that you are not political, that is a political statement. So if my music is political then it is political. My music is honest. It’s true to itself, true to people. I think my music is actually the real love music, not the music about making love with your girlfriend or buying her expensive things or telling her you love her. Everybody knows you love your girlfriend. But real love is talking about your people and the reality of their existence. I think I make love songs. That’s what I do. I write love songs about black people. The system doesn’t like that black people are loved. But when you love African people, just like my father did, they try to portray you like you are crazy and arrogant because you refuse to bend to the will of the oppressors. So they take the love of the people and turn it against you so that they don’t think of being like you; because they don’t want 10, 000 young people to be like you. They don’t want one million young people to think like you.
You are widely travelled and are in high demand abroad as a musician. Have you ever nursed the idea of relocating abroad?
No. My destiny is to liberate my people, to liberate my people from Europe or America, I have to be among them to experience what they see so that I will be able to analyze amd think of solutions.
How do you feel whenever you return home from overseas and see that life here contrasts with what obtains abroad?
I have never compared my people to other people or my country to other countries. I have always understood my responsibility. If I travel and come back, it reinforces my understanding of my responsibility. That is what is missing from the narrative in the mind of young black people all over Nigeria. So they don’t teach us that we are products of sacrifice. They let us think as If everything we have as black people is free, that yeah just live life. In this system black people have never been invited to the table or anything. To enter the bus is a struggle, to become a taxi driver, to go to school was a struggle. To form our own government in our own country is a struggle. Everything that we are or become, be it doctors, engineers, lawyers was a struggle. Black people have to die, have to pay the price. To vote in this system for us as motherland people was a struggle, be it in our own countries, even in our land here in Africa, in Australia, the aboriginal lands in South America or as black people taken as slaves. In America, the civil rights movement, everything that we have accomplished under this system of capitalism. We were the only group that was never invited; we are products of sacrifice. And they don’t want us to understand that. They want us to understand as If we were founded. They want us to believe as a Nigerian you were defeated by the British, you were conquered. When was the war between Oyo Empire and the British Empire? When did we fight the war? When did the British Empire conquer the Oyo Empire? When did we fight that war? We are still victims of oppression, manipulation and subversion. They don’t want us to understand our real power. They don’t want us to understand our real purpose, our real identity. That is why Nigeria, Ghana etc were imposed on us. Nigeria is nothing but an open air concentration camp, an open air prison to trap our true potential, to trap our true identity, who we are in the world. What is Nigeria but British imposed identity on people of this space. Nigeria was never created for the betterment of the people trapped in Nigeria. Nigeria was created by the British to exploit and extract from the people of this space. And that is what she is still doing? Nobody can tell me that Nigeria is doing anything other than that. That is why all of us are living in so much hardship in the midst of so much.
What informed your being a pan Africanist?
This is because Pan Africanism is our solution. Everybody keeps asking “What’s the solution?” And we say the solution everyday: Pan Africanism. Pan Africanism with scientific socialism. This is the ideology that liberated us from colonialism. Even if after colonialism the Nigerian military took over and returned us to capitalism, to fulfill the wishes of their masters. We have to understand that the Nigerian military was created to defend white interests. Before the various armies in Africa became territorial and known as Nigerian army, Ghana army etc., they were the West African Frontier Force, and their job in Africa was to protect white people from black people, to protect white interests From black people. And that is what every military person in Nigeria and the organization still stands for. That is why they can kill all of us on the streets. The uniform they wear was created to oppress black people all over the world. The Arabians have taken the northern part of Africa. The whites have taken the southern part of Africa. What else is going on till today? What is the difference? When are we going to see it for what it really is as a people and decide to liberate ourselves from this oppressive narrative that allows us to accept our own and our nation?
You have said things have always been bad. Do you think there is any solution?
I have just said so, that the solution is Pan Africanism. Can we as black people in Africa take ourselves seriously for African reasons? There are more Nigerian doctors in the state of New York alone than in Nigeria. These doctors will tell you it’s for them to go and get a better life .But after they get a better life in Europe and America, what do they do? Do they come back here to liberate us with their knowledge, to build good hospitals, to help their people? No. Even if they decide to come back they all want to be politicians, they all want to rule the people. They want to rule over us because they lived and served the white man. But they can’t come and serve their people as they serve the white man. Even if they drive taxi in Europe, they come back here to become ministers by force. Nobody is willing to come back and serve their people the way they served the Europeans or the Americans because they are not Pan Africanists. What do you think is the reason why young African people die in the Mediterranean? Why do they enter the sea even though they don’t know how to swim, and they want to cross the sea to get to Europe? Do you think it’s because they want to better their lives only? No. There is a psychological part of it, the indoctrination part of it. What do you think is the reason? It is because they have been Europeanized. They want to go home. Europe is home to them. It’s not just better life they seek; It’s home because this is who we are. This is how we have been trained to be. We are not Africans. We have been trained to reject everything African. Yes, because if you embrace the African identity and you are a Christian, it means you are going to hell. Tell me how you can be a Christian and an African without going to hell? Do you know that there is African Christianity in Ethiopia? In Egypt we have the Coptic Christians. How many Nigerians are Coptic Christians? How many Africans want to be Coptic Christians? We don’t want African Christianity. That is the last thing we want. We only want European Christianity because to be African is to go to hell. If you do anything African we go to hell. If you worship your ancestors, it is ancestral worship and sin. If you practice your African ideas you are a sinner. If you bear African names you’ve not been baptized, you are still living in Original sin, hell. So tell me how can your African behavior take you to heaven? How can you be African and be useful. So everybody must want to go to Europe to better the lives of Europeans.
How do you see the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa?
That is classicism. You have to understand. You have to see the xenophobic attacks in South Africa as the way Boko Haram kill black people here, the way Fulani herdsmen kill us here, the way our police kill us here, the way our hospitals kill us here, the way our roads kill us here. Africa does not represent African people. African elites do not want Africa to represent or benefit African people. So instead of the South African elites to tell their people that it is because their economy is controlled by the real foreigners – the whites in South Africa – they tell them that it is the black foreigners who are coming here to look for sources of livelihood. So there is this transference of aggression. Nigerians and South Africans are brothers and sisters. It is the false narratives in South Africa, just as it is in Nigeria that is the problem. Didn’t we do Ghana Must Go in Nigeria? Didn’t we Nigerians chased out the Ghanaians in the 80s? Didn’t we murder and kill them here? Because we thought we were the giant of Africa and our life don better finish. So it is because we are not students of history that they don’t let us understand the connections, the pillar of indoctrination of imperialism that exist through our education and our elites. So we don’t see our real enemies. So poor South Africans have to see other black people as enemies. When they pursue all of us finish nko they go still be like Nigeria. They don dey take light or South Africa now. They are coming. Sebi they don commot power from white people hand? Because another thing is that they have to show that we cannot run countries. So they put their own stooges there, their boys. Then they make you feel as if that is the representation of the best minds of black people. While they assist in killing and murdering the best African minds –Lumumba, Sankara, Sekou Toure, Ben Bella, Frantz Fanon, and the Nkrumahs of Africa are sabotaged.
What message do you have for Africans?
My message is that we have to become Pan Africanist and revolutionize ourselves. We need more revolutionary thinking. The elites are priming us only for reactionary and emotional behavior, which we must be against and resist We have to find ways to organize ourselves from the grassroots, understand our own suffering, different from that of our oppressors. We are not one with our oppressors. We have to divest our minds rom the mindset of our oppressors. For African people to be lynching poor black women on the road, saying they are witches they saw drop from the sky as birds and descend upon them; lynching them as white people have taught us to be burning witches. They are the first to start burning witches in Europe and America. They came to teach us here. We have to understand that this negative behaviour is what lingers in our psyche that is stopping us from going forward, our inability to trust ourselves. We listen to the pastors who tell us that our fathers and mothers are our enemies, our brothers and sisters are our enemies, our best friend is our enemy, our neighbour is our enemy. Everybody is our enemy trying to stop you, except the government and the rich. We have to understand their antics and attack on our solidarity so that we don’t trust ourselves. And if we can’t trust ourselves we can’t love ourselves. If we can’t love ourselves, how can we feel each other’s pain? How can we see that, if hundreds of our brothers die in Zamafara, it is hundreds of us dying in Lagos, Ibadan and everywhere. So this is what we must begin to resist in our minds, try and stand against and overcome. It is difficult because we have to understand that many of the people that influence us, telling us that this is the truth are paid by the oppressors. And we must no longer see ourselves as victims.. We must become their enemies if we are ever going to be free. Because the day you stop being victims you have become his enemy. The day you become the enemy of your oppressor is the day you stop being a victim. That is what Frantz Fanon, another of our great ancestor and teacher that is excluded from our educational curriculum, said.