Dele Sosimi: Interview
In 1968, a young musician named Fela Kuti returned from studying in London and travelled to Ghana in an attempt to discover his ‘musical direction.’ After a short few months of self-discovery and soul-searching, he was back in his native Nigeria and there was a new buzz word on everybody’s lips: Afrobeat. The genre was a hybrid of complex funk grooves, traditional Nigerian music, African percussion, jazz horns and rhythmical singing. It took West Africa by storm, and thanks to its enigmatic creator, has reached audiences right across the globe. However, while its music is full of rhythmic euphoria, it is a genre that has struggle and protest at its core. The power of the music was such that during its birth in the 60s and 70s, it caused riots and mass violence in Nigeria. Influenced by the Black Panther movement in the States, Kuti heavily criticised the corrupt Nigerian government that was bleeding the life out of his beloved homeland. He was arrested and beaten on countless occasions, yet persevered in his stance against corruption and intolerance. Despite Kuti’s death in 1997, the legacy of the genre lives on. His son, Fema Kuti and former band member Dele Sosimi have become the flag bearers for Afrobeat; shining beacons who invite us into a world of rhythm and dance underlined by provocative history.
London-based Sosimi has been at the forefront of a happy renaissance, providing a new generation of listeners with upbeat, positive, yet socially conscious music that will move you to your core. His 2015 album, You No Fit Touch Am, is an incredible piece of work; light and nimble yet punchy in the right places, with a positive message that is a breath of fresh air. ‘E Go Betta’ mixes funky electric guitar with winding sax, while the track ‘Sanctuary,’ features gospel-like lyrics over the crescendo of a full Afrobeat orchestra. The overflowing optimism of the album is unescapable however, that doesn’t mean it has forgotten the traditional themes of Afrobeat: struggle and protest, something can be seen in the track ‘Na My Turn.’ We were lucky enough to catch up with him and talk about his new album, the genre as a whole and the legacy of the late, great Kuti.
CC: Dele, you started your musical journey as a16 year old, playing the keys in Kuti’s band Egypt 80. What was it like being in that band and touring with the mystic man?
Dele: Well, to be honest I was a very impressionable teenager then. I seriously believed I was a young man with a great destiny. I was touring around the world and performing in some of the biggest festivals in Europe with Fela and Egypt 80. It was many things to me. Eye opening, loads of fun and just a great experience. I was learning everything on the job. It was a treasured, rock solid foundation that continues to fuel what I do today and what I will do tomorrow.
CC: When you joined Fela’s troop as a youngster, did you know that you were part of an Afrobeat movement that has become what it is today?
Dele: Certainly not. I was living day by day and living it to the fullest. I was doing four or six hour live performances, five days a week, fifty weeks a year. When I wasn’t touring in Europe, I had rehearsals two days a week. I certainly wasn't thinking or looking that far ahead. But also maybe I did. Looking back, its possible I did know I was part of something special.
CC: Since moving back to London, you have infected the capital with your positive sound and energy. What has the music scene here done for you and your music?
Dele: London is a special city. It was where I was born and ironically where I have planted my feet firmly since 1995. I have tried to sow the seeds of Afrobeat via performances, Afrobeat workshops, even lectures at universities in London. London is now highly recognized and highly rated in the Afrobeat world. That has mainly provided a platform for me to be an ambassador for the genre. It allows me to mentor young Afrobeat or Afrobeat influenced bands who are evolving their sound. I try to give them self-belief and confidence.
CC: The album, Your No Fit Touch Am, is an album full of happiness and positivity. Do you think these messages have become even more important given the current social and political climate?
Dele: Yes. I believe anything and everything that is coming out in the arts should not ignore the current socio-political climate. There are massive trends of intolerance and anger worldwide. Positivism transmitted in a songs content is certainly an important contribution and I think every artist should endeavour to achieve it if possible. There is just too much chaos, hatred, intolerance, racism & bigotry out there today. ‘Bring your hand let’s dance together” is one of such lyrics from the album.
CC: The album also touches on the original messages of Afrobeat music - messages of struggle and protest. Is this an essential part of your music?
Dele: Yes, it does stay true to the original Afrobeat message as you described, however it is the honesty that is most essential for me. My songs are real and go through a refining process of repeated live performances, tweaking it all until it feels complete enough to immortalise by recording it. The visual angle is also important. Fela did this with many of his album covers by Ghariokwu Lemi or like the music video for my song, ‘Na My Turn.’
CC: Finally, Fela Kuti encouraged people to regain self-reliance and self-pride in the face of a tyrannical, military dictatorship in Nigeria. Is this something your music also promotes or do you have a different message?
Dele: It is true Fela did that, but he did more. He also shed illuminations on the various tactics of oppression, suppression and corruption all over the African continent. See this in songs like ‘Cross Examination,’ ‘No Agreement’ and ‘Authority Stealing.’ My music in general may or may not promote some of these ideas depending on the motivation/inspiration behind the particular composition, and it is these personal experiences which fuel my creative process. Mic Drop!
Catch Dele Sosimi live for the 9th year anniversary of the Afrobeat Orchestra at the Jazz Café on 15th December
Words by: Toby