Local Current Blog

Exploring African music in the Twin Cities as Seun Kuti prepares to Rock the Garden

Seun Kuti. Photo by Johann Sauty.

When Seun Kuti and his band Egypt 80 take the stage at Rock the Garden on June 21, Kuti will be continuing a legacy in Minnesota begun by his father, Fela Kuti, the principal creative force behind the genre of Afrobeat. Seun and his brother, musician Femi Kuti—who also has visited the Twin Cities in recent years—both continue the traditions initiated by their famous father, known for speaking truth to power with a fusion African/American sound.

Jim McGuinn, The Current’s program director, notes that cross-Atlantic influences have been integral to music history. “Music used to move and morph so slowly, but the pace has accelerated in recent decades. You look at the African influence on early rock and roll and R&B—the Bo Diddley beat is so African. Then you take that across to England in the ‘60s with the black American blues artists being worshiped by the likes of the Stones. Then you see the worldwide impact of the Beatles and psychedelic rock starting to infiltrate popular African music, and the parallel development between artists like James Brown and Fela Kuti—bringing these hard-edged rhythms and political lyrics to their own versions of funk—and you have this assimilation going back and forth.  We’re totally thrilled to acknowledge that reality and try to bring a little of that to Rock the Garden this year.”

Doug Benidt, associate curator of performing arts at the Walker Art Center, adds that “introducing new artists from around the world has been part of the Walker’s mission for many decades. Seun Kuti was one such artist when we presented his band with the Cedar Cultural Center back in 2012. It was clear to me,” continues Benidt, who also saw Fela Kuti perform at First Avenue in the ’90s, “that [Seun] needed a broader audience, as his sound and spirit really captured the Afrobeat aesthetic so precisely.”

Janice Lane-Ewart, who had a long-running jazz show on KFAI, well remembers seeing Fela Kuti at First Avenue. “Even though at that juncture he was super famous, you could still be right at the edge of the stage or teetering in the back,” Lane-Ewart remembers. “He would see and appreciate you were a fan.” She was drawn to “his beat and his passion for how he played the saxophone,” she says. She also loved the political edge to his music.

She even got to hang out with Kuti back in the dressing room. Lane-Ewart remembers seeing him passing a joint around, and she let him know how much she appreciated his music. He was always community-oriented, whether that be through the political nature of his songs, or the way he interacted with people.

George “Jojo” Ndege, a host of African Rhythms on KFAI, has lived in the Twin Cities for 20 years. He describes Afrobeat as a mix of African percussion and American funk. “What made it popular is that Fela used it as a political platform to speak against the evils of society and activist messages criticizing the Nigerian government,” he says. Fela Kuti’s rise in popularity came in the 1970s, and his political edge spoke to the consciousness that was in the air at the time, Ndege says.

These days, many of the younger African artists aren’t as political as their forerunners a generation ago. Today’s Afrobeat is “an electronic version of 1970s music,” says Ndege. Often the music is mixed with hip-hop. Seun Kuti’s music shows some hip-hop influence, but it’s not explicit. “He’s trying to keep the legacy,” Ndege says.

Uchechukwu Iroegbu, a photographer originally from Nigeria, says that early on, Seun Kuti was groomed to replace Fela. Seun’s older brother, Femi, was able to find his own musical voice earlier than Seun, but both will always be compared to their father. “[Fela’s] children—as good as they are—they are not him,” Iroegbu says, comparing Seun Kuti’s family legacy to that of Bob Marley and his children. “Fela was Fela and no one will ever be like him.”

On African Rhythms, Ndege has been promoting Seun Kuti’s upcoming appearance at Rock the Garden, but Ndege says that many members of the African diaspora community are more into hip-hop bands like the Nigerian group Peace Square; or Chameleone, a group from Uganda. If Peace Square came to the Twin Cities, “There would be a lot of Africans but not as many Americans,” Ndege says. Americans, he says, “want live bands.”

Recently, Uchechukwu Iroegbu went to see Nigerian musician Tony Allen at the Cedar, and was surprised that most of the crowd was white. “I didn’t see a lot of Nigerians as I would have expected,” Iroegbu says. “That’s part of the problem with African music. We Africans seldom truthfully see our own musicians live.” He attributes that perhaps to the cost of admission, in addition to a propensity for the community to listen to the music at home.

The Walker’s Benidt would like to see more African musicians performing in the Twin Cities, but he acknowledges the challenges of bringing international performers to Minnesota. “It does feel that there may have been a heyday for traveling international artists, especially Africans,” says Benidt, “a couple decades ago. With the Cedar’s deep involvement and the long-lived and very successful Global Beat series at First Avenue, it felt like a very rich time to see live music from just about anywhere. With the changing global economy coupled with increasingly difficult visa stipulations, some of the robust international touring of decades past is now just a dim memory. Now it’s more of a special occasion when artists—international stars, really—like Seun Kuti come through town.”

Rico Mendez, a DJ who often plays Afrobeat music as part of his set, says he doesn’t see much of an Afrobeat scene here in the Twin Cities at all. “I would say there are certain DJs and music enthusiasts who collect it here and appreciate it, but as far as a scene—there isn’t one. It’s sad. I’ve always longed for one.”

Ini Iyama usually prefers to listen to African music at home, rather than going out to concerts or DJ nights. Often, he says, YouTube is a great source for finding world musicians to listen to. Originally from Nigeria, Iyama moved to the United States in 1983, and has lived mostly in Minnesota. Growing up, Fela Kuti’s music was what his parents listened to. “It was played at every party.” Now, Iyama says, he continues to have interest in African artists, but he prefers to listen to music “in my own space,” he says.

“There’s two kinds of scenes,” Ndege says. “There’s the DJ scene and the live music scene.” The younger African immigrants sway more toward the DJ scene, flocking to a number of places downtown as well as in the northern suburbs. Ndege himself did a night at Blue Nile for 10 years, before they stopped presenting live music. Now he’s moved his show out to Robbinsdale, and also does a reggae night at the Red Sea on Minneapolis’s West Bank, where he typically attracts crowds of 150-200 people.

Besides places like the Cedar Cultural Center, the Dakota, and First Avenue, suburban venues like Club La Vee (Spring Lake Park) and Jamming Wings (Brooklyn Park) have helped to promote African music, in addition to festivals like Afrifest and “all the weddings and recitals and parties,” says Nathan White, Afrifest’s executive director.

White went to primary school in Nigeria, and saw the shrine there for Fela Kuti. He says Fela Kuti’s music laid the foundation for the Afrobeat movement in the Twin Cities. The newer Afrobeat movement has spread in part because of television, White says, as well as social media.

Benidt says that “when we present artists from Africa—like Tony Allen, Dobet Gnahoré, Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Bato, and even a recent pop-up concert with the legendary Somali group Dur-Dur Band—it’s been our way of trying to enrich the local scene and expose folks to new artists, traditions, and fusions that they simply might not ever have a chance to hear live. We also think of it as punctuating the existing efforts of great partners like the Cedar and Dakota.”

McGuinn is excited to hear Seun Kuti play “next to artists like JD McPherson, who has his own take on ‘50s R&B; and Modest Mouse, who bring their version of funk a la Talking Heads; or Sean Lennon, whose Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger represent a bit of the rock psychedelia and experimentation his father helped invent. While on paper it may look like a stretch, you can see a sonic overlap that connects all those artists together.”

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based writer. She writes frequently for the Twin Cities Daily Planet and City Pages, among other publications.