Seun Kuti is known for his revolutionary style of music in Nigeria and beyond its borders. His songs and personal life reflect an ideological conviction that people must be free and treated right. More importantly, he understands that achieving this is crucial but does not necessarily mean it can only be done through music. In the Nigeria of the contemporary time, his voice has taken shape, and his messages of freedom penetrate the wall of the political class…
Nationhood is a political end reached through a series of mixed experiences that include sacrifices, dedication, determination, toils, and relentless efforts by those who envision it, and they pass this to the succeeding generations until they attain a respected level of community identity. All these are the basic requirements necessary to be satisfied in the evolutionary process of every political entity, so that their identity, attitudes, and behaviour would be guided by the various experiences they have accrued in their process of becoming. People are expected to reflect the central ideology of the country, with which they are associated or identified; therefore, a country is meant to construct institutions that would represent their ideological positions and enlighten people about what they stand for. This way, one can tell straight away what a country prioritises as its values by interfacing or interacting with any of its institutions. This means that what the people usually stand for is reflected in the institutions they build to deal with their sociopolitical and cultural affairs. Those institutions are the products of their lived experiences, which have been alluded to previously.
People subjected to racial discrimination and prejudices are more likely to create institutions that would discourage such racial attitudes in the future. This would mean that they are guided by the history of pains that they have absorbed. For instance, when it is apparent that there is an institutional deficit in managing a country’s legal affairs or a group of people, one can immediately predict who or what priorities leaders in such an environment have. People concerned about orderliness and peace would not resent a functional judicial system or institution because the absence of this would inevitably invite anarchy, the surrogate father of chaos, in all human society.
Meanwhile, institutions function like chains as they are connected, and one is affected by the condition of the others. This implies that when an institution malfunctions, it is highly likely to spread that weakness to other chains, and the overall results would be that the country would face numerous challenges that can submerge it or make a mockery of its very existence. Essentially, a weak justice system or institution would not have a functional policing system as its institutional partner. It would penetrate all other institutions because the people would have been exposed to social and political predations that would exploit their natural vulnerability. As a result, they would eventually seek whatever opportunity available to survive. A man who is wrongly treated by the police, for example, would fight for his rights and liberation.
The Nigerian case is very special, and its exceptionality is characterised by the series of uncoordinated actions by the people who run the government, which is clear evidence of the disinterest in an orderly environment. Everything that happens in the country, especially from the recent experiences, affirms an existential hypothesis that the country is not wired to be transformed. The awareness informs the fact that every generation of Nigerian leaders consciously struggles to outdo the previous ones in irresponsible leadership and aimless representation. By so doing, they sabotage either the efforts of the founding fathers, who toiled and suffered that the country would become outstanding, or their conscience, which gets trapped in the ring of moral rectitude whenever they see others doing more with fewer resources than they can do, even with the excess resources at their disposal.
Nigeria’s case is so different because there is a wide gap between the government and the people, created by the institutions they have deliberately established, so that their dubious intentions would be achieved accordingly. Nigeria is one of the few countries whose leaders would publicly decry the declined interest in people’s affection for indigenous products, while they seek healthcare in the costliest hospitals in other countries, where the wildest dream of the average citizen cannot even come close. Despite their class suicide, political sabotage, and identity assassination, Nigerian politicians are part of the people who want the citizens’ maximum adherence to laws and regulations, making one wonder if this is not an irony itself. The irony, however, is always lost on them.
Sadly, they do not have the intellectual capacity to connect the fact that a citizen who contravenes the traffic law by not stopping his/her vehicle when the red traffic signal is on, and the politician who travels to Canada to tend to his/her wounds have committed similar moral errors. It is always not comparable; their brains assumably tell them. Or maybe they do not care. After all, in the Nigerian big man’s dictionary, laws exist only for the poor people. So, when you ask Seun Kuti about his position against the police invaders who came to forcefully occupy his space without an arrest warrant from a court of law, his response is understandable within the context of protest against the Nigerian government and leaders who have refused to perform their side of the contract in this social togetherness. Political immobilisation begins anytime the government does not demonstrate any form of respect to the institutions it created for the management of the social affairs and control of the people’s behaviour, including theirs. However, the government is always big, bigger than an individual. An individual protest could be seen as an attack, and it is understandable – no government wants competition.
During the just-concluded Toyin Falola Interviews with Seun Kuti as a guest, I started by asking why he refused the Lagos State government’s invitation for the Walk for Peace, given the fact that the foundation for his struggles, like others in that historical trajectory, including his late father, the famed Afrobeat pioneer, Fela Kuti, is peace as the end product they look forward to. Seun’s response gave me a clue that his firebrand activism was about to be revealed. There is something to reflect on in his response: The Nigerian government’s breach of its statutory responsibilities. The government that denies the report of a judicial panel, which it constituted itself and committed the taxpayers’ funds for its organisation and running, is not particularly sincere about peace because peace is not the absence of war but the presence of justice. When there is justice for all, regardless of political position or affiliation, there would be no reason for people to instigate violence that would disrupt the peace of the society.
In this light, our guest interviewer was asked by the foremost researcher on Anikulapo-Kuti Fela’s songs and protest, Mr Sola Olorunyomi, a professor of African Studies, if there was a change of strategy in his approach to freedom or peace when he instructed his friends to “shoot out”, after being invaded by the police officers in his residence. Seun provided two reasons that accounted for his aggressive approach to the issue of that invasion, and they will be explored here.
There are different categories of musicians, and Seun Kuti belongs to the revolutionary class. Thus, it became expedient for him to use that platform to air his views that are believed to be useful in the reconstruction of a greater Nigerian and African society. This way, there would be a demonstrable connection between what they sing and what happens in their society.
First, the Nigerian government has a history of deep-seated discontent with people who undertake the role of educating the masses. This is because not only does the power to instigate the mass’s reaction lies with them, they also have the potential to call international attention on them, which would be disastrous to their identity and unhealthy for their political aspirations. This attitude led to the historic invasion of Fela’s house, which led to the maltreatment of his mother and Seun Kuti’s grandmother, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti. There was no justice to compensate the family for the wrong done against them. Consequently, the psychological inheritance has formed the materials with which Seun, and probably anyone affected by that traumatogenic experience, analysed Nigeria.
Second, the recent assault on the innocent Nigerian citizens that culminated into the event of October 20, 2020, gave the citizens the impression that they were in for a long ride, as the government cared less about their welfare and safety. It will not be wrong to conclude when there is evidence that the Nigerian government deployed military forces to supervise the masses’ peaceful protests. So, one cannot confidently predict when the government would use its political power to intimidate the defenceless masses, and Seun said it was better to defend his household to avoid being made a victim.
To agree or disagree with his style is a question of where one sits on issues of public interest, although aggression is not the best solution to violence. And this is where the revolutionary ideas that have developed into traditions in Fela’s lineage begin to recoup for maximum manifestation. Seun’s resistance to the invaders who came to forcefully occupy his space expressed his dissatisfaction with anti-democratic governments which have no respect for human life and freedom. He has always expressed himself through music, which he inherited from his forebears. There is a strong chain of resistance to all forms of oppression in their genetic system and lineage. Music was the only instrument that Fela used effectively to challenge the government of Nigeria and many of the African countries of his age. He had the intention of using other platforms to promote his revolutionary messages, but the targets of his flagellating words would not just sit back and allow him to continue to use other mediums available to their disadvantages. Therefore, they must disallow him from accessing the platform to prevent the prospective negative consequences on them and their image. The platform was politics. Knowing how important it was to effectively enhance change through political power, Fela considered using the platform to deliver the said messages. However, he was prevented, and this was not unanticipated. Today, his son, Seun Kuti, has decided to continue in that trajectory.
There are different categories of musicians, and Seun Kuti belongs to the revolutionary class. Thus, it became expedient for him to use that platform to air his views that are believed to be useful in the reconstruction of a greater Nigerian and African society. This way, there would be a demonstrable connection between what they sing and what happens in their society. The wish of the revolutionary singers is not to attract the attention of the world because of the aesthetic brilliance of their productions, but they are genuinely concerned about how their music connects with the spirit of the people, so much that they are acting the messages laden there for the enhancement of a better environment.
Notably, music in the Kuti family is a generational engagement, and each generation has a different focus and varied thematic assignment. For example, Seun’s great-grandfather, Josiah Ransome-Kuti, was a musical icon, too, although his songs were elitist. He was specifically given to songs that appealed to that class he belonged to, and the reason for this was obvious. He belonged to the same elitist class in society, and it was only logical that he identified with the group he belonged to. Regardless of his class focus, he championed the idea of singing in his native tongue, instead of the imperialist language. However, Seun’s father, Fela, departed from such a trend, and that was in collaboration with a historical experience that changed the trajectory.
Fela’s mother, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, became the ideological point of departure from the previous arrangements. Seeing the unending political torture that the colonisers introduced, she became dissatisfied with the establishment and came to the frontline of protest to challenge the hegemony of the imperialists. Staying behind the defenceless masses became a turning point in their family history because it set the stage for Fela to penetrate the toga of imperialism, challenge their expansionist agenda and call into question the neocolonial stooges that took over from them. As a result, it was seen as a family responsibility, and it comes as no surprise that such blood runs in their veins.
For Seun, the inheritance of struggles that he got from the musical ancestry of his lineage has a date with season and generation. He could have probably been a gospel singer, perhaps to emulate the activities of his great-grandfather. However, his grandmother and father’s toils have not seen the desirable changes as a source of inspiration that motivated his deviation from that path. The timing was different, but the message was the same. The agitations and grievances of the past generations would continue to compete with the contemporary ones in their gravity.
There is a synthesis between Seun Kuti’s musical productions, philosophies, ideological convictions, and the continent’s educational system. To drive revolutionary actions, one needs to look within and make substantial excavation of fossilised ideas that can be used to enhance development in contemporary time. European-designed curricula are helpful to the extent that they would only re-colonise the continent for the erstwhile imperialists…
Music is made for the people under the bondage of political power; it is meant to be a solidarity step for them and something that would rekindle their spirit towards the demand for good leadership. Seun’s music is the eloquent evidence of a government ideology that ignores the imperatives of democracy. He believes that songs should be used as an instrument of reorientation, redirection, and rediscovery to hold the leaders responsible and accountable to the people and the position they have sworn to represent. His ideas are etched in his songs, and, undoubtedly, he has been very successful in this way.
Anywhere across the world, being a revolutionary comes with its attendant challenges, paid by the person involved, either in measurable currency or immeasurable results. Perhaps because the network of evil perpetrators is an expanding web, those who benefit from disorderliness are always found making frantic efforts to ensure that the system continues unabated. They are in every aspect of the human world. They occupy important positions and wield so much power that it sometimes becomes difficult to fight them. For example, in the musical world, it is not unusual to come across detractors whose intention is to challenge any individual who has revolutionary dreams. As a result of their uncensored dislike for it, they indirectly streamlined the forms of songs and artistic productions that come out of society to not be indicted in the public domain. Suppose a song is banned because it addresses some salient issues. In that case, it becomes a warning signal to those who want to thread a similar road in the future because they would not only be suspicious of their environment, they would make efforts to ensure that the people in control of power do not obstruct their source of livelihood. Therefore, the artistic aesthetics would have been circumvented along the line and would discourage talented revolutionaries in their way.
Essentially, the ones who control the media either become the tool of destruction for the people’s intellectual ideas stringed together into the musical culture or become the mastermind behind the censuring of their productions. Now, this is where a revolutionary is differentiated from the commercial artist. The revolutionaries are not bothered or discouraged because they experience such backlash or conspiracy. They are motivated by their dream of an equitable environment for all and want to use their music to achieve that ambition. However, the commercial artist who intends to make money out of their trade would consider ways to bend to fit into the system and make their ends meet in the long run. As such, they are most likely going to scavenge their cultural resources, which they would arrange together for commodification. There, they would make enough money to douse the tension of their economic wretchedness.
All these are intermingled with very many other things generally. From the politics that we play, the economy that we maintain, the social relations that we keep, our education, and many others. One cannot but spot the intimidating power of the controlling class which wants to ensure that anything that contradicts their targets and ambition would not be achieved. Therefore, the Nigerian society has found itself in the trap of this intergenerational problem, where one generation passes the baton to the succeeding ones, reflecting that tradition of bad governance and politics. In all ways possible, the educational system has to be rejuvenated with ideas and philosophies that would set the Nigerian people free from the shackles of imperialism. Without centring the African education model, the Africans would continue to breed generations of individuals whose mental ideas would forever contradict their spiritual makeup. For example, people who do not understand their history would have no interest in creating ideas that would liberate them from the bondage they are, which does not carry physical chains.
There is a synthesis between Seun Kuti’s musical productions, philosophies, ideological convictions, and the continent’s educational system. To drive revolutionary actions, one needs to look within and make substantial excavation of fossilised ideas that can be used to enhance development in contemporary time. European-designed curricula are helpful to the extent that they would only re-colonise the continent for the erstwhile imperialists, this time voluntarily rather than compulsorily. This means that the education of the Europeans inherited from the independence era has been towards the emancipation of the people because it is unconcerned about their transformation per se.
Instead, the system has helped extend the frontiers of imperial actions against Africans. Therefore, to break free from the shackles of mental inferiority and identity suicide that people commit in contemporary times, there is an urgent need for the rejuvenation of the African spirit through the implantation of the African ideas in their minds right from childhood. When the people are mentally empowered to understand their original identity and grasp what transpired in their historical trajectory, they would be encouraged to take up the responsibility of re-branding themselves in ways that would reflect what they need and where they are supposed to be.
Seun Kuti is known for his revolutionary style of music in Nigeria and beyond its borders. His songs and personal life reflect an ideological conviction that people must be free and treated right. More importantly, he understands that achieving this is crucial but does not necessarily mean it can only be done through music. In the Nigeria of the contemporary time, his voice has taken shape, and his messages of freedom penetrate the wall of the political class who are involved in the destabilisation of the peace and stability of the people.
Toyin Falola, a professor of History and University Distinguished Teaching Professor, is Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at The University of Texas at Austin.
(This is the report on the interview with Seun Kuti on December 5. With over seven million views on various platforms, apparently Seun’s opinions are taken serious by his fans and loyalists. For the transcript, see YouTube or Facebook.
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