One of the hardest things for a musician is to be a child following in your parent’s footsteps. That shadow can be long and unforgiving. For every Rufus Wainwright, there’s a Julian Lennon. (No disrespect, “No Late For Goodbyes” is still a bop.) One has to imagine that the pressure is even more intense when your parent is not only a popular musician, but also a worldwide cultural icon who also, by the way, invented a genre. Smart money would find most people going in the exact opposite direction. But it seems that for the children of Fela Kuti, there was no option other than to continue the legacy. While his half-brother Femi split and formed his own band early to establish a separate career, Seun took over his father’s band Egypt 80 in 1997, at age 14, after Fela died. Big shoes to fill hardly covers it, and it took almost a decade for Seun to release music under his own name, with most of the time before that spent performing Fela’s music. While far less prolific than his father, which to be fair, most musicians are, Seun has established a consistent release schedule, and now four years since his last full-length, Seun & Egypt 80 are back with Black Times (Strut Recordings).
Seun has been credited with bringing modern sounds to Afrobeat; his last record, A Long Way to the Beginning, featured guest turns by rappers and was co-produced by Robert Glasper. Glasper is back for this record, but Black Times takes a more tradition approach. With the exception of Carlos Santana on the title track and a keyboard cameo from Glasper, Seun keeps the focus on Egypt 80. But there are some distinct breaks from his father’s tradition. While Fela would typically break the 12-minute mark on his songs, Seun keeps things at a relatively brisk seven minutes on average. While things do get a bit of a workout, such as the aforementioned title track, which clocks in at nine and a half minutes, Seun keeps things focused. Everything you’d want from a Kuti Afrobeat record is present without seeming like it’s pandering. The loose polyrhythmic drums, the saxophone workouts, the group chant background vocals—it simultaneously sounds frozen in time but as modern as today. An argument could be made that there are just as many “new” sonic elements as his previous record, but Seun & Egypt 80 weave them in in a seamless manner.
Part of the current feel may have to do with so many sonic elements of Afrobeat having now bled into other facets of popular music. But it probably has more to do with the fact that the issues that Fela talked about in his day and which Seun addresses here are still relevant. Seun even acknowledges this continuing legacy when on “Last Revolutionary” he sings, “I be Marcus Garvey. I be Kwame Ture. I be Shaka Zulu. I be Fela Kuti!” It’s a winking shoutout, but also a clear declaration of what tradition he considers himself a part or at least what he’s striving towards. Is he in that same lofty status? Well, that’s for history to decide. But as a continuum in what his father started and what he and his brother are trying to continue, Black Times is a worthy link in the chain.