When Nigerian singer and saxophone player Seun Kuti released his sixth studio album “Black Times” on March 2, he did much more than share an hour of Afrobeat music.
Son of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, Kuti blended bold drumming, upbeat saxophone and introspective lyrics with his backup band, Egypt 80, to touch on a number of cultural, political and spiritual themes.
In the album’s first song, “Last Revolutionary,” Kuti pays homage to the African leaders he is inspired by. Throughout the song, Kuti mentions Thomas Sankara, the marxist revolutionary and founding president of Burkina Faso, and Patrice Lumumba, an African nationalist and first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The title track, “Black Times,” featuring Latin-American guitarist Carlos Santana, is a call to action for minorities around the world. In the song, Kuti repeats the phrase, “Let the black light shine on your path, let it guide your foot.” Here, as in many of the album’s songs, Kuti calls subjugated peoples to embrace their cultural identities and share them with the world. With harmonizing backup singers, jazz horns and minutes of guitar riffing from Santana, the song has an upbeat sound and an uplifting message.
Kuti dives into issues of political corruption in his songs “Corporate Public Control Department” and “Theory of Goat and Yam.”
In “Corporate Public Control Department” Kuti talks about politicians in general, calling out their divisive rhetoric and false promises. He sings, “They come with their politics of war. They come to divide us. They come to divide us with war.” Kuti’s use of first person, plural narration makes this song universal and accessible to listeners from a variety of backgrounds.
In the album’s closer, “Theory of Goat and Yam,” Kuti satirizes former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan for embezzling money while in office. The title relates to a metaphor that Jonathan made about corruption relating to goats and their uncontrollable appetites.
While many of the album’s songs dive deep into heavy issues, the songs “Kuku Kee Me” and “Bad Man Lighter” are more focused on the the instrumentals than the lyrics. With a zesty, two-minute saxophone solo at the beginning of “Kuke Kee Me” and smooth bass lines in “Bad Man Lighter,” Kuti shows that he is just as focused on musical technicality as he is on a social change.
In “Struggle Sounds” Kuti blends his humanist lyrics with Motown rhythms. Throughout the song, Kuti yells “get down” over 20 times, showing a strong James Brown influence. Singing about justice for all people in the modern world, he voices his concerns about the rat-race, modern-day media and oppressive corporations. In “African Dreams” Kuti returns to the Afrocentric themes seen in “Last Revolutionary” singing about western stereotypes of Africa and his hope for better schooling and healthcare in Africa.
While many of the songs in this album focus on blackness or the African continent, Kuti said on his Bandcamp profile that this album was made for people around the world.
“It is an album for anybody who believes in change and understands the duty we have to rise up and come together,” Kuti said. “The elites always try to divide the working class and the poor people of the world. The same oppression felt by workers in Flint, Michigan, is felt by workers in Lagos and Johannesburg.”
As I listened to this album, I was blown away by the depth of the lyrics. While the interesting, Afrobeat instrumentals were outstanding, each song’s profound message is what made me hit repeat. There were many times where I had to stop songs to research the topics Kuti was referencing.
Seun Kuti’s “Black Times” is much more than an album. It’s a history lesson, a correction to false stereotypes and a universal call to action. It proves that music is not just organized notes, but a mode of making the world a better place.