Seun Kuti first performed in Minneapolis as an 8-year-old
By Rachel Lee Joyce
On August 5, 1991, I was crammed in butts-to-nuts with 1199 fans in the First Avenue Mainroom to see the Nigerian Afrobeat legend himself, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Years of underage fandom had passed, and I was finally old enough to catch one of his notorious live shows -- if it ever began.
The start of his set was already delayed for over an hour. Eventually, his 18-piece band, Egypt 80, ambled in from the 7th St. Entry, which was converted into a dressing room for the night. They casually made their way through the packed floor, meandered into position behind the screen covering the stage, and after a prolonged "sound check" broke into an instrumental set of Afrobeat' s funk-drenched grooves as the screen was raised.
The music was mesmerizing -- all pulsating percussion and blistering horns. But where was Fela? When the main dressing room door on the side of the stage finally opened and a figure made its way center stage, it seemed a night with "The Black President" had begun at last. When the lights were focused, I realized it was not Fela on the stage, but an eight-year-old, and I was pissed. He was announced as Fela's son, Seun Kuti. Progeny or not, I've never been one for child entertainers.
Behind this kid, Egypt 80 tore into Fela's mid-'70s hit "Sorrow Tears and Blood," a scathing attack on the Soweto uprising that killed hundreds of students and mirrored the Nigerian government's own use of brute force against its people. What the hell did this prepubescent boy know about sorrow? Tears? Blood? Turns out, at that age, he knew more about all of it than I could ever hope to.
Seun greedily grabbed the mic that was handed him and started pacing the stage-swaggering side to side, corner to corner. Jaw set and eyes squinted, he eyed us up before snarling into the mic:
"Everybody run run run
Everybody scatter scatter
Some people lost some bread
Someone nearly die
Someone just die
Police dey come, army dey come
I don't speak fluent pidgin (the English/Yoruba hybrid Fela used in his lyrics) but I could understand enough to know that this was serious business. The rest of the audience, most of whom were equally agitated just a few minutes ago, fixated on Seun as he continued stalking the stage like a boxing ring and screeched/growled:
"So policeman go slap your face
You no go talk
Army man go whip your yansh
You go dey look like donkey
Rhodesia dey do them own
Our leaders dey yab for nothing
South Africa dey do them own
Them leave Sorrow, Tears, and Blood"
What I reluctantly witnessed that night wasn't mimicry, it was testimony. From the main floor to the balconies we danced our empathy and cheered for this child.
After the show, I caught the attention of one of Fela's sax players, Show Boy, as he made his way back to the Entry. Several drink tickets later, I agreed to take him and some band members to the Village Wok -- one of the only places that was open late in those days. After we ate, he rummaged through his pockets for cash and pulled out a cassette tape. It was the soundboard recording of the First Ave. show and he wanted me to have it.
As the tape was only 120 minutes, it didn't have much of Fela on it -- except a long diatribe about the difference between American and African, um, "dating rituals." But is does have every single minute of Seun Kuti's ferocious Minneapolis debut.
Now, all these years later, I'm working as a publicist for the Walker Art Center, and get to help promote the now 29-year-old Seun Kuti's upcoming show at the Cedar on April 14. He's the leader of his father's Egypt 80 band now and his live shows are some of the most anticipated in world music. We're promoting this as his first concert in Minneapolis. But I know the truth, and I have dusty cassette to prove it.
Seun Kuti & Egypt 80. 7 p.m. Saturday, April 14 at Cedar Cultural Center. Click here.
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