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World Music Features

Seun Kuti

By Tom Pryor
Published July 10, 2008

There’s something spooky about Seun Kuti’s live performances. When the youngest son of legendary Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo Kuti launched a brief North American debut tour in June and July 2007, you could hear jaws hitting the floor as he conjured the ghost of his late father.

One stop was S.O.B’s in New York City—a place his father alsoplayed. The sold-out audience was full of Afrobeat cognoscenti, many of whom had seen Fela in his prime. They had come to check out the latest member of the Kuti clan to make a stir, and when the young Seun (born in 1982) took the stage, all skepticism vanished. Backed by his father’s storied Egypt 80 band, Seun was the closest thing to seeing Fela in concert since the Afrobeat king’s untimely death in 1997. It wasn’t just the physical resemblance—diminutive and wiry, with the same receding hairline—or the encores of his father’s material. It was something in the way Seun moved.

 

Years of apprenticeship in his father’s band had given Seun the chance to study the master’s moves, and when he reproduced Fela’s signature snake-hipped wriggle and cocky bantam strut, it was downright scary. It was also clear that this kid had something, and now he’s poised to give North American audiences another chance to witness it this summer when he tours extensively behind his recently released solo debut, Many Things.

 

“I’m ready for America, but is America ready for me?” he quips as his voice crackles down the line from his home in Lagos. He’s been practicing his band nonstop—a tactic he learned from his father. “He was fuckin’ extra hard on me,” he says, laughing. “He was a fuckin’ slave driver! Fela wanted freedom for all Africans except the ones in his band, you know? But I owe him a tremendous debt. I learned so many things from him. I have the privilege and responsibility of being a son of Fela, and that gave me quite an advantage starting out—and not everyone can count [drummer] Tony Allen as their uncle. So I was watching my father all these years, and now I don’t have to pay a copyright!”

 

Born Olesegun Anikulapo Kuti, Seun was only eight years old when he began performing with Egypt 80—the second of Fela’s great Afrobeat ensembles, formed after Fela disbanded his

legendary Africa 70 band in 1979. Seun’s precocious career began as a vocalist when he started singing the volatile polemic “Sorrow, Tears And Blood”—not exactly kid’s stuff. Soon Seun was following in his half-brother Femi’s footsteps, learning the saxophone

and coming up as a sideman in his father’s band.

 

But tragedy struck in 1997, when his Fela died of AIDS-related complications. “I was only 14 when my father passed,” Seun recalls. “It was a tender age, and it hit me