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Seun Kuti.

Seun Kuti's 'Black Times' Is About "Knowing Who You Are As A Motherland Person In This World Today"

We interview Fela's youngest son about his highly-political new album and collaborating with Carlos Santana & Yasiin Bey.

Seun Kuti is back.

Fela's youngest son has just released his new album, Black Times, a potent afrobeat excursion alongside Egypt 80, his father's former band, which Seun's been leading since he was only 14. The now 35-year-old vocalist and saxophone player's latest record features 8 finely-crafted afrobeat songs alongside contributions from the likes of Carlos Santana and Robert Glasper.

"Black Times is a true reflection of my political and social beliefs," Seun mentioned with the release of the album's title track. "It is an album for anybody who believes in change and understands the duty we have to rise up and come together. The elites always try to divide the working class and the poor people of the world. The same oppression felt by workers in Flint, Michigan is felt by workers in Lagos and Johannesburg."


"We are all capable of change, us iron people, us workers. Black Times is the sound of the people, and a weapon of the future. The big picture needs more colour," says Seun.

Read ahead for our talk with Seun about the new album, the current political situation in Nigeria and the world, and his possible collaboration with Yasiin Bey.

Let's start with the title. Why did you call the new album Black Times?

Well, the song "Black Times," was inspired by a moment of clarity for me. So, Black Times is like an emotional state of mind. Something like a happy time, or a sad time, but that moment when you understand your history from our own perspective, knowing who you are as a Motherland person in this world today.

"'Black Times' is like an emotional state of mind... [it's] that moment when you understand your history from our own perspective, knowing who you are as a Motherland person in this world today."

You've said that Black Times is also a true reflection of you political and social beliefs. How have current political situations across the world influenced it?

For me, the current political situations in the world are manifestations of past policies on actions. Everything has a source, you know. The problem we have in the world is that nobody takes anything serious until they are personally affected. We no longer see our connection as humanity—we just see us and them. That's how the world is run today. Historical understanding has given me this complete view that I"m willing to express musically, also culturally and politically as well.

How do you see the current political situation in Nigeria? What are the main challenges for the country today?

Like many Motherland nations all over the world our problem is neocolonialism and imperialism still. I think that's the majority of the things that are holding us back. In my country, for example, we're ruled by people who are enemies of our country, if I can put it that way. You have the understand that the Nigerian army used to be the West African Frontier Force (WAFF), who were the protectors of the colonialists. Their job from day one has been to murder, maim, enslave, capture, oppress Motherland people. This WAFF were the same people that turned into the Nigerian army and many of the military in this region—all over Africa its the same.

These military people usurped power from the real nationalists. After a few years of Nkrumah ruling Ghana, or we having our independence in Nigeria, most African countries were heavily criticized by the West as having wrong economic policies. This empowered and strengthened members of the former WAFF and created coups all over Africa. These people who have been trained to ruin and destroy Africa and its people are the ones ruling Africa today. And that's still the same mentality they perpetuate and promote today with the media, their music, movies, and religion. Its that same imperialist agenda that's being enforced in Africa, but only now being it's being enforced by people who look like us.

"These people who have been trained to ruin and destroy Africa and its people are the ones ruling Africa today."

I think that's the main challenge that we have, politically, is that the people need to wake up. I think if we can have good leadership that loves and respects Motherland people and reveres the Motherland, I think only then can we begin to make the progress that is necessary. Because the decisions and policies that rule Africa do not come from a place of love and respect, they're coming from a place of economic advantage or disadvantage or profit margins. There's no way we can get the development we need that way.

Back to the album. The first single featured a collaboration with Carlos Santana, how did that come about?

Carlos is someone that I respect a lot. He mentioned me in his book and that's how I found out that I was on his radar. I'm really glad we were able to build that bridge. It's not just a musical bridge, it's also cultural and spiritual. I'm happy that Carlos also engaged from a place of deep love and respect, and I thank him and honor him for that.

I read Yasiin Bey and Nai Palm will also be featured in some new work?

We're planning to have a remix album and they're going to be on that. We have not started, we have not done it yet. It's maybe 80% sure.

You also worked with Robert Glasper again as in your previous album - A Long Way to the Beginning - how was that collaboration been forging

The partnership between Robert and I has always been growing. We've always been two people who are curious about each other's styles and look for ways to bring the best of both worlds when we work together. And it was the same with this project. I'm always very happy and honored when he's on board and we're able to do some good stuff.

Black Times is available now from Strut Records.


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Collage by Ta'Ron Joyner

I Would Rather Breathe Than Think Outside the Box

South African artists were already working for little to no pay, but the pandemic has unleashed a flood of exploitative work requests right when we need money the most.

This essay is part of OkayAfrica's SA Reframed series, featuring personal writing from some of South Africa's best young writers edited by Verashni Pillay.

On the radio the other day, I heard a small business owner of a costume design company being interviewed and asked how they have managed to:

a. Reinvent themselves during this period, and

b. Think outside the box while doing so.

Their conversation made me think about how I have not managed to wrap my head around any sort of future, or reinvention outside any kind of box—beyond the one that wraps itself around my immediate reality. When the lockdown was announced, three friends and I withdrew to a remote area where internet access was dubious and, most times, simply not available. I would need to walk a bit of a distance to locate a spot under a tree or up a mountain to be connected for thirty minutes, or so.

Then I would do a basic comb through my emails and respond to work or requests that were already underway pre-lockdown. I only responded to new requests that either afforded me the opportunity to earn an income or those that allowed me to be productive on my own terms.

I was tired, lowkey grateful for the global pause, and no longer interested in the overly productive, overloaded nature of my previous normal. Something about the forced halt made me realise that I was on the edge of everything—myself included. I turned down anything that required me to join the endless online festivals, zoom panel discussions, Instagram takeovers and live readings. I refused all opportunities that needed me to grapple with any sort of forced normalcy. The ones that offered data or airtime or solidarity as compensation or assumed that I had gone pro bono. I needed a moment. I needed the space and time to re-bargain with the point of it all.

The pause was both useful and scary. It brought to the surface fears and revelations about the shortfalls of our industry and how creatives are positioned within the productivity machinery and economy of South Africa, or rather all the ways we fall outside of it.

As Minister of employment and labour Thulas Nxesi mentioned in a briefing two months ago, "On the issue of freelance workers—unfortunately with the current legislation they fall outside. Maybe what we are going to do is that after this we will have to re-look at it in terms of our legislative amendments and start a debate about that." Why are there laws that have gone unchallenged? Who should be challenging them? Why are artists hearing, out loud for the first time, of convenient loopholes that render us outside of an economy that taxes us like everyone else, and consumes us and our work. Yet, in times of crisis, this same economy engages with our art and our productivity and our products, but still deems us on the margin, outside, and non-essential. If we are not assisted financially, how can we be productive, how can we acquire the resources to produce? How can we apply our minds to anything else outside of survival and scrambling to stay afloat.

Pandemics do not mean that artists have gone pro bono

When you approach an artist with the assumption that they have gone pro bono during this time, when you draft an email to request a collaboration, a commission, a participation, a productivity of any kind, please bear in mind that artists are up against an unconcerned and corrupt government that has failed to provide aid and assistance to their sector during this time.

Theatre critic Sara Holdren says "Art is hard and most of it fails—either in small ways or catastrophic ones." In South Africa, the process of making art is hard, sure, but more than that, the conditions and the context in which we make work fails us in catastrophic ways that will require more than a debate and amended legislation. It will need, for starters, a minister who cares about the arts and understands its soul and mechanisms. This pause has brought about more questions and concerns for me than inspiration to reinvent or think outside the box. I have questions about the box itself and why I feel asphyxiated and trapped by its design.

I would rather breathe than think outside of the box

This pandemic has made me question what my career, livelihood and stability have been built on; what has been propping them up all this time, and what has been allowing me to appear valued and valuable in this economy? What does and will the spectrum of value look like in a normal that has been disrupted and now sits in a near distant future that may or may not be near?

Then I find myself vacillating between hope and concern. My hope is that when the pandemic is no longer with us, artists can have a come-to-jesus conversation about what has contributed and exacerbated this attitude and disrespect toward our practice and industry, I hope we can challenge the legislations that we have been dared to challenge, I hope we can be productive in ways that serve us and make sense for our well-being, that we will be paid our worth and that our society will realize that without the artist producing, there will be no art, or music, or films, or books and things that have kept people entertained and creatively nourished during this time.

My concern is that the "free"content artists are currently creating and the free access to art or performances, will not make this realisation possible, and that this kind of access, that was already undervalued and exploited, will be irreversible. The exploitation dialogue is tiring. Being treated as non-essential is tiring and terrifying too, and while most of the world can slowly start going back to work, most artists will probably have to hang tight until 2021, maybe even 2022.

While artists deal with a hoax of an arts and culture department that is dead to us and a minister who tweets more than he does his job, in an ideal world, I wish that artists could afford to indulge uncertainty, and fear, and pause, in ways that allow them to heed the call made by Nicholas Berger in his piece The Forgotten Art of Assembly [Or, Why Theatre Makers Should Stop Making] "We must lean into this pain. We must feel the grief. We must mourn. Mourn the loss of work, the loss of jobs, the loss of money, the loss of life. Mourn the temporary loss of an art form that demands assembly. Lean into the grief. Lean in. Lean in. Lean in. We must remind ourselves that mourning is a human act, not a digital one."

Koleka Putuma is an award-winning poet, playwright and theatre director. Her bestselling debut collection of poems Collective Amnesia is in its 10th print run and her play No Easter Sunday for Queers Sunday for Queers won several awards.

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