Seun Kuti Talks His New Album 'A Long Way To The Beginning'

Seun Kuti talks his new album 'A Long Way To The Beginning' in an Okayafrica interview.

Photo by Johann Sauty

Last month Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 released their highly-anticipated third studio album. Co-produced by 'Black Radio' virtuoso Robert Glasper, 'A Long Way To The Beginning' is a relentless 7-track excursion into horns, drums and call and response. Glasper’s keyboard appears on several tracks, with additional collaborations coming in from M-1 of Dead Prez (“IMF”), Nigerian songstress Nneka (“Black Woman”), and Ghana's Blitz the Ambassador (“African Smoke”). This week the band kicked off their U.S. summer tour with a high energy performance (and a special surprise appearance from Glasper) at New York's Highline Ballroom. Okayafrica contributor Rob Scher caught up with Egypt 80's afrobeat scion Seun Kuti ahead of the show to talk the new record, growing up with Fela, rallying around #stolendreams and so much more. Read on for the full Q&A.


Rob for Okayafrica: What’s its like playing in New York? Do you have a favourite city where you like to perform?

Seun Kuti: I enjoy going everywhere to play music. I’m not a traveller; I don’t enjoy travelling for holidays. I enjoy travelling with a purpose: to play music.

OKA: You were eight the first time you were put on stage and played with Fela’s Africa 70. Was that Fela’s doing?

SK: I remember my first performance. Although most people think Fela told me to do it, I was never put on stage. He never asked anyone to do anything; he was that kind of dad. He wouldn’t even tell me I needed to go to school. If I didn’t want to go, I’d just say to him: “I don’t feel like going to school this morning,” and he’d say: “That’s fine. Stay at home.” I think that’s what has made his kids so great on their own because he allowed us to make decisions so early on in life. He always wanted us to decide things for ourselves. So we became experienced in making decisions as we grew. He also wouldn’t protect us from the consequences of our decisions. He allowed us to make those decisions and live through whatever consequences came from them.

OKA: What inspired you to decide you wanted to play with the band?

SK: It was after coming off an American tour that I’d been on with them. I remember they’d just played the Apollo. Remember, being a naive little kid I would see my dad on stage all the time, performing and having fun. And then, there was the backstage. Fela used to only take cash. Bank transfers or cheques were bullshit to him. Cash. So backstage, there’d be piles of money on the table, women everywhere, and I thought: this is the life; this must be the easiest job ever. When we got on the bus I said, “Fela, this is what I want to do. I want to sing.” He replied, “You wanna sing. Can you sing?” I said yes, so he gave me an audition. Of course, it helps when your dad is the boss. I did the audition and he said ok, when we got back to Lagos I could start working with the band.

OKA: Do you remember your first gig?

SK: It was at the Shrine, I remember it well. I was so excited when I got on stage. I remember trying to sing the song and get it right which involved having to also watch the band and get the cues. During rehearsals I’d been watching the band while learning the songs. So, when it was show time, I just did what I’d done during rehearsals: I grabbed the mic and faced toward the band throughout, you know, the way I did in the rehearsals. After the show Fela comes to me in the dressing room and says “Yo. You have to face them man. Face the motherfuckers!” I faced the crowd after that.

OKA: In a previous Okayafrica interview you speak of representing the majority through your music. How has this continued on A Long Way to the Beginning and what for you is so important about afrobeat music relating to people back home?

SK: Primarily, I’m still talking about Africa, if I go into specifics sometimes, then Nigeria, because it’s the first thing that impacts me. Even before I’m an African, I’m a Nigerian. For me, it’s absolutely foul for an African band to sing about champagne and money and fast cars and things that maybe only 2% of our population can experience. Maybe another 3% can fake it. You know in Nigeria, they pop champagne at night and then drink garri (ground cassava beans) in the morning because they spent all their money to show off [laughs]. So, why would I want to relate to such a small percentage, even if they’re the ones controlling the media, the ones with the money who can put out whatever they want? MTV Base will come to Africa and prop up that kind of thing, support it and tell everyone: this is the most positive message out there. It’s difficult to bring a real message of positivity to the forefront because there’s so much money backing this—I have to call it—ignorance. There are a lot of afrobeat bands now, not Nigerian, that are speaking for the majority of people from where they’re from. Brazil, France, New York, UK – this is the global afrobeat family and represents the music in its purity. They are the real global voice of the people, representing what the real people are going through.

OKA: What was your involvement in the #bringbackourgirls campaign? What are your thoughts on how it spread?

SK: I started the movement from my twitter handle with the hashtag #stolendreams. We organized the rally on May 1st. They tried to teargas us but we stood our ground. I’m not happy with what has come out of all of it though.

OKA: How so?

SK: If you look online you won’t see #stolendreams, or see me with any of the #bringbackourgirls things, because I feel that is dumbing it down. The original idea was #stolendreams. It was so powerful initially that we chased the government away from the May Day rally. Suddenly the media came in and picked up on this #bringbackourgirls slogan. Even the politicians we were talking about are now carrying placards saying #bringbackourgirls. So, who are we telling? We, the people are saying bring back our girls. Michelle Obama is saying bringbackourgirls, the president of Nigeria is saying bringbackourgirls. We are trying to put pressure on politicians to say bring back our girls and now the politicians are also putting pressure, but on who!? If they had used #stolendreams it would have made more sense, but I guess no politician wants to wear that on their shirt.

OKA: I guess it has the word ‘stolen’ in it…?

SK: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. Even if we do manage to rescue these 200 girls, what does this do for Nigeria? We need to get to the root of the problems, not merely the symptoms. We need to go deep.

OKA: This must be frustrating for your music. Trying to get your message across to the majority in Nigeria?

SK: It’s kind of sad in a way, but it’s also kind of inspiring. There’s a battle and I’m always inspired when there’s a battle. Maybe I wouldn’t be inspired if it was easy and I could just walk into the radio station and everyone’s happy to play my music all day in Nigeria. Then maybe I wouldn’t have to work so hard. The fact that we want to do it and we don’t care about the obstacles in our way, for me, that’s an inspiring thing. It’s difficult to reconcile the fact that even Fela’s music is never played on the radio in Nigeria. The African media is not for the African people. They only celebrate those people that are trying their best to be Western, to try as much as possible to be like Jay Z or Kanye West. These are the people that young black people all over the world are made to look up to. Take Pharrell Williams’ latest video with a black Marilyn Monroe. This is the mindset they want black people to have. Black Marilyn Monroe? What happened to Angela Davis? She’s already black – you don’t need to make a black version of her. Ella Fitzgerald? Nina Simone? Black Marilyn Monroe- what the fuck? Black people need to find a way to begin realizing their real heroes. Not the heroes the media is imposing on us. It’s difficult but I also see that there’s a big victory there. A victory we can say we achieved on our own, without mainstream media, without anything - just through people power.

OKA: How have you come to find yourself working with such incredible talents? Brian Eno on From Africa with Fury: Rise and now on A Long Way to the Beginning, Robert Glasper as your producer? What have you taken from these two great men?

SK: Well you know, because I have such a nice personality and warmth, it seems to attract greatness to me, oh, and of course teargas [laughs]. I met Brian when he invited me to an event he curated in Australia. He was such a big afrobeat fan and knowing who he was, I just latched on him and wouldn’t let it rest until he said ‘yes’ to working with me. He’s such a great guy and truly a god of sound. What Brian really understands is sound. But then there’s Robert, who is a musician and that was the bond we shared. So, to have someone like Robert in the studio was so great, and he could understand what I was trying to do. I could play off him and he could play off me. I write all my songs before going in to studio, so when I have a co-producer it makes it easier on them, because they can see the canvas and the painting and just add a little birdie here, or a little thing there. That’s how Robert and I worked and it was quiet easy being fellow musicians. Whereas, with Brian, it was an education - I was in the studio listening and saying “yes sir, yes sir” because Brian really schooled me. Working with him on my last album had a big influence on how I made my new album. I also realized from working with such great musicians, that the really great artists are humble and very accommodating and very open and willing to impart their wisdom.

OKA: What about the collaborations on your new album? How did you come to work with Blitz, M1 and Nneka?

SK: Well, do you want me to be really honest with you, the three of them are my friends and I knew they weren’t going to charge me any money. I knew from the start. “Call them up,” I said, “it’s going to be free.”

OKA: If you could have your choice of collaborating with anyone musically, who would it be?

SK: I don’t have anyone specifically. I would like to work with musicians with substance, anyone who’s going to add to the music, basically, any music that has positivity and a positive message to share with the world.

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80's 'A Long Way To The Beginning' is out now on Knitting Factory Records

Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.

Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'

"SOFTIE" Movie Poster

Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko

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