Catching Up With Seun Kuti on Finding Fela

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Finding Fela is an unforgettable documentary that sits with you, long after the music ends and even the image of Fela Kuti—Nigerian musician, political activist, creator of Afrobeat and subject of the Broadway musical Fela!—begins to fade. Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney has created a film that moves and shakes, one that will bring you to your feet, right before bringing you to your knees—so awe-inspiring is the story of the legendary artist, who passed away in 1997 due to complications from AIDS. Just as Afrobeat was a brilliant fusion of jazz, traditional West African beats, funk, highlife, and psychedelic rock, Gibney’s tale is a fusion of footage from the Tony-nominated musical (and interviews with the great minds behind it), videos of Fela’s performances and political speeches protesting Nigerian’s ruling dictatorship in the 1970s and ‘80s, and—perhaps most importantly—interviews with his family and close friends. Of all his roles, it could be argued that Fela took the most pride in his role as a father, and his children bore witness to his incredible life, some even groomed to follow a similar artistic path. His youngest son, Seun Kuti, was so engrained in his father’s work, he cannot even recall the first time he saw him perform. So natural and so commonplace was his time watching his father create and share now-legendary music, the early experiences seem unremarkable.

Now a musician himself, Fela’s youngest son carries on a strong legacy, even as he stands apart from his father as his own man and his own artist (he’s in the middle of a world tour right now for his latest album, Seun Kuti & Egypt 80: A Long Way to the Beginning). Paste had the honor of speaking with Kuti about Finding Fela, African politics (and American misgivings), and the unbreakable bond he still has with his father.

Paste Magazine: What was your initial reaction to the Broadway production?
Seun Kuti: It was a good show! I was not there for the opening, but I saw it about twenty times. I saw it on three different continents—in Africa, in America, and in Europe. So I’m a huge fan of the show. Not even as Fela’s son, just as a fan of the show.

Paste: Can you talk about working with Alex Gibney a little? What was his approach to your father’s story?
Kuti: I met him just one time in Lagos and I didn’t know who he was before that. I’d never seen his documentaries. But now I know his docs are always more on the political side, in that Michael Moore kind of way. (laughs) Meeting him in the house in Lagos, we spoke and I saw his vision and what he wanted to do. It was a unique—he was not interested in the superficial aspects of things. He wanted to get to the essence.

Paste: Yes, I think he achieved that. Looking back, do you have a memory of the first time you saw your father perform?
Kuti: No, I don’t have a first memory. He was in prison until I was three-years-old. And I remember the first time I saw him in prison, but that’s another story.

When he got out of prison, he started playing at the [Afrika] Shrine again, so the first time I saw him it was probably there. I saw him perform so many times it’s just something that I got used to, growing up. He used to take us on tour with him, we went to all of his shows.

Paste: Your father was influenced by American music like jazz and soul. I know you’ve collaborated with rappers like with M1 from dead prez. Is there a significant hip-hop influence in your work?
Kuti: Well, If I’m gonna be straight, all black music comes from the same place.

Paste: (laughs) Sure, this is true.

You’re an activist, and much of the film deals with your father’s activism and the political state of Nigeria in the ‘70s and ‘80s. What do you think Americans need to know about what’s happening in Nigeria now?
Kuti: (laughs) You can go on the Internet for that. What’s true about Nigeria is what’s true for Africa. The continent does not represent the people. The continent has come to represent western power and issues—except for maybe Botswana. Every other African country is going through this. But depending on the depth of what you want to know, you can research it yourself.

Paste: One especially powerful moment in the film came from watching one of your uncles talk about AIDS when he announced your father’s passing. Do you think the film will have any impact on the discussion of the disease?
Kuti: There’s nothing any young African does not know about HIV/AIDS right now. And it’s not our biggest medical problem in Africa. Malaria is killing one child every thirty seconds. At least HIV takes ten years to kill you.

This is not about awareness. This is about propaganda. It’s not like we don’t have the mentality of self-preservation. We Africans, we are the kings of self-preservation! You see how we are suffering and we don’t revolt? That’s self-preservation right there. Suffering and not revolting? We are the kings of self-preservation!

The truth—which your government and your media will not say about what’s wrong with the AIDS epidemic—is that the government doesn’t have the sense to produce, manufacture, and distribute medicine to its own people. And [lack of] well-trained doctors. This is a problem of African medicine, not Africans not accepting medicine. Medicine does not reach them! Hospitals are not there! Doctors are not trained well enough!

Paste: Yes, yes.
Kuti: That’s what it is. African politicians go to Germany and New York to see doctors! And if you ask them, “Why are you not using the hospitals in your own countries?” It’s because they know they are killing fields!

I lost a sister who was diagnosed with ulcers. And then three days before she died they realized she had cancer. So don’t worry about Finding Fela building awareness. Let’s worry about the government implementing and manufacturing the drugs for the people, and developing well-trained doctors and good hospitals.

Paste: Absolutely. And thank you for saying this.

I was so struck by the clip of you speaking at your father’s funeral. How old were you there? Do you remember that day?

Kuti: I was fourteen, and I had been in Nigeria for a long time so I knew that Fela was huge, and I was also the one that he brought on stage on his shows. So people that knew my father knew me, and everyone knew that he was grooming me to be a part of the band. So people started to chant my name at the burial. It was about 400,000 people, so there’s no way you could say no (laughs).

I didn’t want to give a speech, I was really in a bad state. But there was a saying we used to have. A reggae musician Black ‘Rice who was friends with my father used to come to my house and scream, “FELA! For Ever Live Africa! FELA! For Ever Live Africa!” So I thought that would be a good thing to say, just to get the crowd going and run away. (laughs) I also said I missed him and that he was a great dad and a great man—stuff like that. I don’t remember the day so well. It was a really tough time for me.

Most people that know me know that my father and I were really close. I shared a big bond with my father—a big bond. Even though I lived in the same house as my Mom, I really had no relationship with her growing up. I was always with my dad.

Paste: You’re in the midst of a big tour right now. Does that bond with your father come to mind every time you perform?
Kuti: No, I think that would be a distraction. Trying to think about all that before the show, like, what am I going to do—compete? Compete with the best?

Paste: (laughs) Sure. So how do you prepare before you go on stage?
Kuti: Before every show, I just try to still my mind. My friends are always back stage and I just try to still my mind and concentrate on what I have to do at that moment. Professionally, music can require a lot from you.

My mantra is, “Your last show has to be your best show.” And that’s how I clear my mind: “Your last show has to be your best show.” And then I say, “Say it again—your last show has to be the best show.” Then I say it again.

Paste: (laughs) That’s amazing! Thank you so much for this.
Kuti: Thank you.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.

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