‘The narrative of music shouldn’t be about how much the musician is making’
Between November and December last year, Afrobeat prince, Seun Kuti, was touring the United States of America, alongside the Egypt 80 Band. Aside opening for Lauren Hill, who was also on tour of the USA at the time, the band also played private concerts that witnessed massive turnout of Afrobeat fans. Back from the tour, Seun is now focusing on his latest album, Struggle Sounds, which will be released on Sony Music label. In this interview with CHUKS NWANNE, the son of late music Legend Fela spoke on the tour, his new album and the prospects of working with Sony Music.
How long was the tour and what’s the experience like?
I came back January 7; we left Nigeria beginning of November. The band came back in December, but I went to United Kingdom from there to see my family. We were in the United States; we opened for Lauren Hill throughout the States. But we had two of our shows there two; one was in Mexico. We were just around the Americas playing different gigs.
How did you get into Lauren Hill’s tour?
I met her here when she came to Lagos; we met at the Shrine and she told me about her tour. She actually offered me 48 dates, but it was difficult for me because I had to record my album and I had some of my own engagements. In the end, we could only do the last 19 dates with her. For me, it was really just a publicity tour to open my music to a new audience, people that have never heard my music or me before. So, it was a success in that aspect; I think we gained a lot of new following, a lot of new people got into our music.
Aside from you personal compositions, did you get to play Fela’s tunes during the tour?
Well, Fela’s songs are evergreen; a lot of bands play Fela’s tunes anyway. I mean, Lauren Hill has Fela on her set list; she plays Zombie at every show. Not because I was there, she’s been doing that for years. Mos Def plays Fela at his shows. A lot of big musicians play Fela at their shows; they cover him. I always play one Fela tune to start my show as well, but if I’m playing at the Shrine, I play more because we play longer show. Of course, Fela is a musician that people revere; many bands want to play some of Fela’s original songs. Some of them want to cover it their own way just as a sign of respect to the genre and the man.
Let’s talk about the Sony Music deal. Can you give details of the agreement?
Well, I think they optioned me for four records or three; I can’t remember now, but we have a long-term contract. You know with the music industry, everything changes. My last record contract was for three albums; I made only two with them and I’ve left now for Sony. Who knows, maybe I will only make one album with Sony and I will leave again. At this point in my career as a musician, this is the best step for me; this is the best company for me to work with. But who know the kind of musician and the kind of person I’m going to be in two years and what I might want to do? Sony might not want to do that. So, things change, but right now, it’s a great relationship and it’s a mutually beneficial one.
What actually attracted you to the offer?
For me, it’s the worldwide distribution. I’ve always had an international distribution but never a worldwide company like Sony; it has always been difficult to get my albums released in those extreme areas. Places like Brazil… though I get my albums released there, it takes a lot of work to get different companies in those regions. My album, maybe it’s released in Europe and America in 2008, I have it released in Brazil and Australia in 2009, Japan late 2009… that’s kind of difficult having to work out all these deals constantly. But with Sony, it’s a global thing; once your album comes out, it’s everywhere. You don’t have to stress yourself looking for distribution in all other places. For me, that was the main thing.
How lucrative is the deal?
Ah, it’s very lucrative; I don’t like to talk about music. The narrative of music, like I always say, shouldn’t be about how much the musician is making; it should be how good he is basically.
But money keeps the music playing?
No, not really; there are many musicians that never got really big, but they kept playing.
Seun Kuti moves big band, so he needs the money?
Yea, I’m not complaining; nobody can say Seun owes him or her money. Yes, definitely we make money, but what I’m saying is that the money you make cannot be the yardstick to the kind of musician that you are; I don’t see music in that aspect at all. The narrative changed in the 80s when the corporations bought into the music industry. You see, real artistes cannot be controlled; real artistes cannot be dictated to. So, in other to control music and art and dictate what it should do and what it should say, they had to actually promote second grade entertainers as artistes and musicians, people that they could control and dictate to. That’s how the narrative changed from how good you are to how many records you have sold. Who is in control of selling records, it’s the corporations. If they don’t want you to sell records, trust me you won’t sell because, they control the media.
The same company that owns the luxury items that the musicians tell you to buy that owns the radio that plays the music that tells you to buy it; they own the TV that you see all these people wearing it on. So, you find young Africans caught up in this narrative, poor people especially, who are made to feel as if they are nothing if they don’t have this brand and status symbol. Everybody has to wear expensive Whiteman’s things, drink expensive Whiteman’s drink… or else, you are a looser. That’s the narrative of music today; I don’t really want to feed into that. I believe that, as long as young people are seeing me living my dream, being positive, being able to achieve what I have to achieve, I think that’s enough for them. The fact that I’m doing what I’m doing and I made it to Sony Music and I’m still keeping my band going, I still have a message… I think that’s what should inspire people not what I’m making from Sony. And which is dumb too, how do I lie to the taxman?
So, it’s about your freedom of expression as an artiste?
There are some understandings and systems that you feed into and you have the understanding that you are only there because you do what they say; that’s why you need incompetent people in positions of power. If you are working as a bank manager and all you learnt in the university was Mass Comm, you don’t want to rock the boat because, all they have to do is to reopen your file and say, ‘ha, you are a mass comm graduate, what are you doing as bank manager?’ They will fire you based on incompetence. You too, you know you don’t know the job; you just had good people working under you that you’ve been riding; they are doing all the work for you. You are just there based on ‘uncommon favour’ as they say now.
Is there anything wrong with uncommon favour?
Nigerians are the most religious people asking for ‘uncommon favour,’ for a favour you don’t deserve? Unmerited mercy… you don’t deserve mercy, God has to promote you with your wicked ways. See, me I understand why bad people have more in common with God and He promotes them. Now, we are 7000 years into his rule of the heavens; 7000 no election, no nothing, just him, that’s tyrannical, definitely, he must have those traits. So, when he sees people acting like that he will say, ‘yes, these are my people.’ It’s just the way the world is; that’s how people’s minds are made to work.
So, what’s the ideal world for you?
You have to realize that the world before now, I mean the African world, was the world that really took humanity serious; the world that took nature serious. That’s why we did not have prisons; it was the integrity system. You understood that you are part of something bigger than yourself. But the white men came and taught us their individualistic way of looking at life; me first. If I can make it, then forget anybody else. And they’ve used their media and education to make us look like we were savages for respecting nature, for being one with our environment.
Tell us about your new album?
I’m finishing my album; what came out earlier was a three track EP, The Struggle Sounds. So, the Struggle Sounds Album will be out, hopefully end of March-beginning of April. I’m almost done, we just want to mix and master. Maybe I have some lyrics to drop somewhere, but the songs are all done; we’ve laid them down. So, it’s just that final touches, then Sony has to do their logistics and promotions.
How has it been moving a big band?
It’s planning; we just plan everything ahead. Like now, we have our tour coming up in March and we are going to Europe. Already, we are deep into the planning; we are working on the visas. It’s all about planning; doing everything in advance, nothing can be last minute. In my crew, we are all 18; the band is 14 but I have four crewmembers.
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