Imagine the burden placed on the shoulders of Seun Kuti. The 35-year-old singer, saxophonist, and bandleader is one of the sons of legendary Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. When Fela passed away in 1997, Seun – only 14 years old at the time – became the lead singer of his father’s band, Egypt 80. Now Seun leads that band, and – along with his older brother Femi – he’s essentially picked up where his father left off.
It’s an enormous responsibility. Fela Kuti was not only a trailblazing singer and musician, but he was also a political maverick and activist firebrand. His outspoken criticism of Nigeria’s corrupt government, the socioeconomic and political issues plaguing the country, and the colonialism at the very root of his country’s enormous problems were all filtered through his music.
Even a brief, cursory listen of Black Times, Seun Kuti and Egypt 80’s fourth and latest album, is proof that Fela’s impassioned protests have been successfully passed on to the next generation. Co-produced by acclaimed jazz pianist Robert Glasper, Black Times is not just a funky, musically dense excursion; it’s also chock-full of pointed statements opposing the corruption so prevalent in Seun’s homeland.
Black Times hits the ground running on the first track, “The Last Revolutionary”, which features guest spots by Yasiim Bey (the artist formerly known as Mos Def) and Nai Palm, vocalist for the future-soul quartet Hiatus Kaiyote. A dense, multilayered stew of horns and heavily syncopated percussion provides the musical muscle for a tribute to authentic leaders from the past and present. Most of the song’s lyrics are a roll call of African leaders and heroes: Kwame Nkrumah, Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba, Abder Nasser, Marcus Garvey, Shaka Zulu, and – naturally – Fela Kuti and his brother Beko Ransome-Kuti, a Nigerian freedom fighter and human rights activist.
While the appearance of high-profile guest stints can be the kiss of death for an album’s musical integrity, Kuti uses them wisely. Carlos Santana lends his considerable guitar skills to the title track, which – at a length of nine minutes and change – rolls along at a leisurely tempo that allows the legendary guitarist to ease into the song’s groove with plenty of room to lay down his typically expert soloing.
“Corporate Public Control Department (CPCD)” is one of the album’s most direct social statements, aided by a breakneck funk groove that includes some nice Miles-Davis-in-fusion-mode keyboards. “You promise jobs, and you close the factory,” Kuti sings. “But there’s always work in the penitentiary.” But even when the music slows down, as it does on the laid-back quasi-reggae of “African Dreams”, Kuti is still in activist orator mode. “Too many of the youths / Lost to television / Chasing the American dream,” he sings. “Too many of the youths / Reliving the hype / Living a stereotype.” The backup singers set his lyrical targets straight: “Dream for Africa,” they implore. As with the rest of Black Times, the song gives plenty of space for the music to groove. Even if you ignore the message of the lyrics – which you shouldn’t – there’s plenty of sumptuous music in which to get lost.
The urgent, saxophone-led funk of “Struggle Sounds” nicely encapsulates the type of protest anthem Kuti has perfected on Black Times. “I make that struggle music as the voice of the people,” he sings. “Struggle sound like the weapon of the future.” On the closing funk workout “Theory of Goat and Yam”, Kuti employs plenty of energetic horn solos for the first two minutes of the track before skewering former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, who justified corruption by likening politicians to goats tempted by yams. Kuti never seems to take Jonathan’s pathetic metaphor seriously, dismissing it as indefensible blather and letting the frenetic joy of Afrobeat wash it all away.
Consisting of eight tracks and a run time of just over an hour, Black Times stretches out its songs in an effective and intoxicating manner. Seun Kuti has inherited not only the lyrical heft of his father’s legacy but also – thankfully – the musical stylings. It’s a breathless, topical, danceable ride, and an important chapter in the annals of art as protest. Kuti is truly his father’s son.