Scottish-Jamaican rapper Akala is known for his rapid-fire flow of lyrics, and for pushing his belief that ‘Knowledge is Power’. His début single ‘Shakespeare’ in 2006 set a whole new level for up-and-coming conscious lyricists in Britain. Since then, his Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company has toured schools across the country and his ‘Book Check’ on YouTube channel Grime Daily, encourages hip-hop fans to read up on philosophy and history. Akala spoke to Nigerian musician Seun Kuti, one of the figures at the forefront of the Occupy movement in Nigeria. The youngest son of legendary Afrobeat pioneer and activist Fela Kuti, Seun now leads his father’s former band, Egypt 80.
Akala: Can you explain the title of your latest album, ‘From Africa With Fury’?
Seun Kuti: I coined it from ‘From Russia With Love’. I was thinking from the point of view of a youth in Africa, asking ‘What do we really carry in our heart?’ Hope is overrated! What really drives a man to freedom? You’ve got to have fury. I’m not really talking about anger: anger makes you senseless, so you don’t think. Fury, I believe, is more planned.
A: Do you think we are sold ‘hope’ as a way to pacify us? SK: Of course. Hope is used to keep the suffering man happy, and this is why religion is so big in Africa. Religion in Africa sells hope – take it today and you’ll be happy in heaven tomorrow.
A: How do see the role of foreign religions in Africa overall? SK: They continue to preach hope: ‘You don’t have to fight, God will fight your battles.’ In my country the religious leaders have the most followers – even the politicians are under them – and they do not use this power to free the people. If you look at America in the 1960s, Martin Luther King was a preacher, Malcolm X was a brother in the Nation Of Islam, but they used the power of their religion to empower the people, to enlighten them to what is really going on in their lives; while in Africa our problems are blamed on our own ancestral gods – not the politicians, who are given billions of naira every year but continue with their anti-people policies. We are told, pray to Jesus and give him your little [bit of] money and let him fight for you.
A: It’s well known that many of the slave rebellions in the Americas were led by traditional African spiritual leaders. Do you think the demonization of African religions [by Christianity] could be a legacy of that fear? SK: I would not say that, because Christianity is not necessarily the problem. It’s the people themselves that are polluted, that are willing to lead others astray for money. Today’s religious leaders in Africa are quite happy to dance with the politicians as long as they can build their big churches and fly in jets. The church has more jets in my country than the federal government. African religion is vilified because it’s a different thing entirely. Africans understanding their religion means understanding themselves and who they were in the past. That will empower you in your own identity and today’s leaders do not want that: they want us to believe that only Jesus Christ, only the West, can save Africa.
"I play shows and they don't even let me finish, in my own country, because I'm speaking politics."
A: How do you see the role of African spirituality and history (by which I mean accurate African history not the colonial, Western version of it) in any potential rejuvenation? SK: Well, I am not really a spiritual person. I do not believe in anything that I cannot see, touch or feel. What I see is nature. Nature is powerful, nature inspires me – I think spirituality is a kind of distraction. But through African history and identity, which they will not teach us in their schools, we can begin to understand ourselves. Western civilization is about being as far away from nature as possible; the further away from nature you are, the more civilized you are. The African idea of civilization, which is almost totally lost now, is that the more in tune you are with nature and the greater symbiosis you have with your environment, the more civilized you are. But no, we are taught today that the Western blueprint is the only way; yet that same West is telling us that we need to ‘go green’. In reality, going green simply means going natural.
A: How would you define your identity? SK: Well, I see myself as a Yoruba man. I am not a Nigerian; I carry a Nigerian passport because without it I cannot go anywhere, but the name Nigeria was coined by Lord Frederick Lugard and his mistress less than 100 years ago on the river Niger. It really shows the level of depravity of our so-called leaders that they would be happy for us to call ourselves things that have no meaning in Africa. Yoruba people span over four countries and that should be the country we live in, but the map in Africa was drawn by Europe in such a way that people who have been warring for thousands of years are now forced to live together and are expected to forget that history and unite. In the West, nothing is ever forgotten! How can we have unity without justice?
A: I have a similar issue with my family that come from Jamaica and only call themselves Jamaicans. The Chinese person born in Jamaica we call Chinese Jamaican, the German person born in Jamaica German Jamaican etc, but some of the Africans born in Jamaica want to just be Jamaican. To me it makes no sense. SK: I have no problem with people seeing themselves as Jamaicans as long as they don’t refuse to see what they were before that. I respect the blacks in Brazil so much, especially the Yoruba people in Brazil that still practise [the beliefs] of who they were before: even though they are fully proud Brazilians, they are also proud Africans.
A: You saw your family violently persecuted. Where do you get the strength to continue fighting, to continue speaking out? SK: From doing what is right. I am getting in trouble right now because some little boys with some blood money from the Nigerian central government are spending that money all over the world to play Afro-beat without a message, and I’m saying you cannot call this music Afro-beat. I play shows and they don’t even let me finish, in my own country, because I’m speaking politics. Sometimes it weighs you down but most of the time I see it as fuel. I look at my father or my grandmother, or I look at [Kwame] Nkrumah [20th-century champion of Pan-Africanism], [Che] Guevara or Marcus Garvey and I realize you cannot be positive and expect people to love you, because the world is not positive.
A: Do you think it is the role of the artist to promote change? SK: Yes, absolutely. If you look at the French revolution or the civil rights movement, you realize that the arts played a big role. But now you have this music they are calling Afro-beat, whereas until a year ago it would have been called Afro-pop! They are trying to use Fela’s name to do something he would never have approved of.
A: Is this pattern the same with all forms of black music? SK: Yes. All these music forms... hip-hop, reggae, blues, they start out to empower black people in a black way and then money comes from nowhere and all of a sudden there is this bubble-gum shit. You cannot make music that has nothing to do with Africans and say it is African music. What percentage of Africans can afford champagne?