“The youth have been idle for twenty years”, Sean Kuti reflects with both a hint of sadness and an emboldened resolve. The singer is referring to Nigeria’s abortive Third Republic of 1993, when former head of state General Babangida agreed to democratic elections, only for the results to be annulled once he lost. The debacle sparked off political turmoil and civil unrest across the country, suppressed eventually by another military coup.
Living through unrest is nothing new to Kuti. Back in 1977, his father, the legendary afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, infuriated the military junta with the release of Zombie, a damning indictment of the government’s policy of brute force and intimidation. Mimicking the soldier’s zombie-like submissiveness, Fela ironically commands, “Go and kill! (Joro, jaro, joro) / Go and die! (Joro, jaro, joro)”. In retaliation, a thousand troops descended upon the Kuti family commune, the Kalakuta Republic, and reduced it to ashes.
We live within fabricated borders, within countries that were named by Europeans
These days, Nigeria is transitioning from military dictatorship into a nascent democracy under President Goodluck Jonathan. But Kuti remains skeptical. “For me, we are basically going through the same thing dressed up in civilian clothing. Our government in Nigeria remains fundamentally autocratic.” He has good reason to doubt: in January 2012, Nigerians took to the streets over the announcement that the government would cease fuel subsidies, partly fuelled by suspicions that corrupt political servants had siphoned public funds into offshore accounts.
The first ever Occupy Nigeria was born. Bonfires blocked the highways while incensed activists chanted “President Badluck” and hoisted mock coffins to mourn the death of accountability. Organised labour unions joined the spontaneous waves of civil unrest, sparking a nationwide strike. But the participation of the unions ultimately proved to be a mixed blessing. When the unions opened dialogue with the government, they ultimately thwarted the vehemence and momentum of the movement. The strike was soon called off.
But with crucial elections scheduled for 2015, Goodluck Jonathan’s days may now be numbered. An insurrectionary spirit seems to prevail with the next generation. Sean Kuti’s debut, Many Things, rumbles with intensity and strength, featuring the rousing call-and-response chants characteristic of his Yoruba heritage, giving voice to deep-rooted discontents. His following LP, From Africa With Fury: Rise, would adopt a rather different tone, shaking off the despondency of its predecessor, truly capturing the late Fela’s undying battle cry.
Sizeable spliff in hand, Seun Kuti sat with Dazed to discuss Occupy, the multi-national companies preying on Nigeria, and the music of resistance.
Dazed Digital: Would you describe what you do as protest music?
Seun Kuti: It’s about having an ideology that is based on making progress, not money. Marvin Gaye used his voice to raise awareness, while James Brown gave his heart to the cause. Music can be a real powerful force, but there are fewer artists harnessing that potential today because they want to stay on the good side of the corporations who give out big contracts. What’s happening today, particularly in Africa, is that too many artists are focusing on “the good life”, “champagne” and “being the boss”, whereas such things concern only a slim margin of the population. The message it sends out is that if you are not making money you are not worthwhile. I believe that music should really be for our brothers. It should be a reflection of the majority, not of the minority.
DD: What was the premise behind the ‘Occupy Nigeria’ demonstrations?
Seun Kuti: In my country we don’t have any social benefits, since the International Motherfuckers [Kuti’s term for the International Monetary Fund] brought their policies to Africa. The government basically took away all social benefits of the people, calling it the Structural Adjustment Programme. They suck us dry before compensating us with a fuel subsidy.
We have the world in our hands; we are literate, we are informed, and we have aged
The “fuel subsidy” is a myth created by our government to destroy our oil refineries. Nigeria is the fifth largest oil producer globally, yet suddenly the largest oil producing country in Africa doesn’t have any refineries, so we have to import petroleum. The government pays a subsidy so we don't have to pay the cost of importation. Now the government wants to remove the subsidy so the people pay that cost [the rise in petrol prices has triggered unprecedented inflation] while they retain their huge personal allowances.
The Occupy Nigeria movement is a response to this corruption. We have the world in our hands; we are literate, we are informed, and we have aged. This generation is awake and now we are ready. We really truly want change; this is my only positive feeling on Africa.
DD: So aside from the reinstatement of the fuel subsidy, you're campaigning for fewer restrictions on oil production?
Seun Kuti: These rulers are ready to do anything for a buck. They have also agreed to restrictions set by OPEC [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] whereby whatever is produced beyond the production quota must be kept in reserve. Why should an African country that is hungry listen to OPEC? Why are we members of any international organisation? We want to sell our oil the way we want to sell it. African countries will be praised for accepting the policies of the West, but someone like Gaddafi will be hated for saying “I sell my oil how I want.” The intervention in Libya was not the liberation of the people of Libya. This war was not intended for the good of the people of Libya. It was a war to get Gaddafi out of the way.
DD: Broadly speaking, do you feel that there is a sense of pan-African solidarity?
Seun Kuti: Pan-Africanism is a difficult term, because there is no Africanism. We live within fabricated borders, within countries that were named by Europeans. Nigeria doesn't mean anything in my language. I’m Yoruban. We are not taught to have that pride in ourselves, in who we truly are… The Yoruba nation spans Benin, Ghana, Togo – this should be the nation. Our borders are all wrong.
As a Yoruban man, my history goes back four hundred years. Why are we not taught me about these times?
DD: How much are ancestral African belief systems explained or overlooked?
Seun Kuti: We are taught African religion is evil. It is the devil’s power – that’s what we are taught in school. Only Christianity or Islam is the way to god. They are not educating us about who we truly are. As a Yoruban man, my history goes back four hundred years. Why are we not taught me about these times? Why are we taught the story the white man has told you to tell us?
DD: Could disparate minorities feel represented by a single government within imaginary boundaries imposed by European colonizers?
Seun Kuti: Nigeria adheres to a federal system, but to become truly federal but the government must give autonomy to states, enabling them to determine their own identity and their own future. We have different cultures, different languages, and different things that are important to us. Regions should be given the power to say, “This is how we want to develop.”