Spinner MARCH 24, 2011 - by Steve Hochman


The beaches and cafes of Rio de Janeiro were lovely and inviting when Seun Kuti settled in there last year to record his new album. From Africa With Fury: Rise. Well, he assumes that was the case - members of his band, Egypt 80, told him so. He didn't experience any of that.

"I was in the studio the whole time," he tells Spinner, noting he spent sixty out of the seventy-two hours they were there recording. "But my band had a good time. They went out to town, went to the beach, Copacabana, having fun."

But him?

"No, no, no. I was busy in the studio."

The album may have been recorded in Rio and then finished in London under the guidance of co-producers Brian Eno and John Reynolds, but that's just incidental, Kuti says. There's no Rio on the record.

"Recorded anywhere else in the world, it would have sounded the same," he says, dryly.

Only one locale really mattered in the making of this music: Africa. The sharp, intense and funky set - due for April release in most of the world, June in the US - offers a state-of-the-continent address that builds on Kuti's legacy as the son of the late Nigerian Afrobeat king, and subject of the Tony-winning Broadway production, Fela Kuti with an approach at once time-tested and in-the-moment.

As he speaks by somewhat garbled phone line from his home in Lagos, Kuti is watching the events that have been unfolding in North Africa - Tunisia, Egypt and the bloody rebellion-turned-international-conflict in Libya - with a combination of hopefulness, apprehension and, yes, fury about how it relates to the circumstances of sub-Saharan Africa.

"Sub-Sahara Africa is very divided," he says. "We don't have unifying culture. In the north we have Islam and it's unified by that. I so want to see my brothers with the voice to speak together in every part of Africa."

The song Rise gets right to that, with the horns-spiked Egypt 80 (still mostly made up of musicians who were on board when Fela, who died in 1997, led the ensemble) burning hot alongside Kuti's simmering calls for action.

"On this album, I really had a vision of speaking my mind, where I am now, how I see things in Africa," he says, fulfilling the tone he firmly established on 2008's Many Things and concerts, including a particularly dynamic one in Los Angeles covered by Around the World. "Sometimes I strip myself of all that makes me Seun Kuti. I transcend to a higher place where I feel with the common man, people in Africa trying to make it."

"Everything is against the common man in Africa," he continues. "No one cares what happens to you. Everyone has to toe the line. Nothing is cheap in Africa, though we are the poorest. Everything is imported, costs too much, so this is about the young man in Africa, fury, being an African, a young man with everything against you. That's why I wrote the song Rise. People want to change things for themselves. Rise, for me, is the [center] of the album, where I'm speaking my mind the most: How I wanted to think about Africa, how our rulers treat us, how we should see ourselves, what we want for our children."

And for the heads of state, he has sharp words:

"What do African leaders have in common?" he asks. "They talk a lot of shit."

But he also sees himself as an uncommon man and, yes, a leader.

"Well, of course I see myself as a leader of the movement of change," he says. "Music is my field. I have to prove myself in the field of music."

And there again he is his father's son. Fela was a constant critic and antagonist of the Nigerian government, a passion that led to multiple imprisonments, harassment and an armed raid on his compound that led to the death of his mother. Fela was not by any means the first nor the only outspoken musician in Africa, but Seun sees the spirit he inspired having taken root in musicians in other parts of Africa, such as the numerous groups from the Tuareg culture of the west Sahara that have gained global notice in the wake of the success of Tinariwen.

"Yeah, a lot of people expressing themselves in Africa," he says. "A very healthy time, a breadth of music from Africa. More people want truth and want change."

The record is certainly helped by the involvement of Eno, who's brought a distinctive sonic philosophy to every project in his legendary career.

"I met him years ago, before a concert [in London]," Kuti says. "I didn't know he knew my music. I was surprised when he said he wanted me to come and play in a concert in Australia he put together. When I was preparing for this album we spoke."

They met up again in England before Kuti set off to record and Eno and Reynolds said they'd be happy to be involved.

"When I made the album, I did as much as possible, didn't leave room for improvement," Kuti says of the Rio sessions. "That's what I thought. Then I met Brian Eno, a musical genius, and he opened my eyes. [He] had the ideas of sound. That's what he told me. They didn't make it sound different - just evolved. You can tell in the production, very deep and diverse. I brought in many different songs and that's how I see it. They opened them up. He has a great musical mind - the most respectable motherfucker in the world!"

There might have been some other inspiration too. The album's closing track, he says, is also a personal - pun intended - highlight.

"The Good Leaf, really great song," he says. "Really cheeky song, because it was just the hypocrisy of the government - banned marijuana, no facts. They say it will kill you and give you cancer. Drug wars, the drug laws are hypocritical, saying it's bad for you."

Could his advocacy change this?

"I don't know what will happen," he says. "I made my own stand about it. It's important. Just talking my mind about it."

Before he recorded it, though, he did get to see it received enthusiastically by fans at the Rio festival. (Like that was a surprise.)

"In Brazil, good chemistry when I was playing that song," he says, his often-beaming smile evident, even over the trans-Atlantic phone line. "Yeah."