Laolu Senbanjo: Afrobeat Musician, Afromysterics Painter and Human Rights Lawyer

The unique role of music as a weapon of reformation, revolution, and social rejuvenation cannot be underestimated. In the past, music has been seen as a tool for the restoration of justice, dissemination of information, and confronting social ills in society. Over the years in Nigeria, several musicians have been inspired by ideas of revolution and have, through their work, sensitized the populace on the need to stand up for their rights. While some met with stiff resistance from the government, resulting sometimes in loss of property, freedom, and life, others have weathered the storm and won popular admiration, thereby making it extremely difficult for powers that be to cow them into submission. One such musician is Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938-1997) the creator of the Afrobeat. This genre has gained worldwide recognition as a unique popular music typology from the continent of Africa.

                                                            … Albert Oikelome

Laolu Senbanjo is unique among contemporary Afrobeat artists in that he has stroke a bold bas-relief of visual magic. These next two years he will solidify his multi-variant aspirations as he is prepared to encounter a major breakthrough in justice, freedom, music, and visual expressivity.

What has prepared Laolu for this journey through Brooklyn’s diverse, artistic communities? Why are his surreal and abstract paintings feeding a hunger that has long existed in Brooklyn, from the days of the Fulton Avenue art shows with Tom Feelings, through the sculpture workshop conducted by the renowned Selma Burke? Elton Fax, another Brooklyn artist, imagined — as did Tom Feelings — that one day, African artists from the continent would come to Brooklyn and drink deeply from its rivers of talents.

Alas, Laolu has arrived. It is his time to implement what Fela and Twin Seven Seven and the National Black Arts Theatre in Harlem have long awaited, a kind of weusi gallery that is capable of exhibiting Wifredo Lam and Barbara Chase-Riboud. Now the one thing that this artist possesses that is most unique is that he is prepared to utilize his skills as a lawyer to assure an infrastructure for all the arts throughout Brooklyn. These arts include Hip Hop, Jazz, Hip Life, Afrobeat, Reggae, Dancehall, and the ceremonial rites Candomble (Yoruba culture in the new world).

This Afrocipha interview is a dip into the world of a multi-faceted being whose experiences are a part of a global community of artists that stretches across many lands.

S = Spady

B = Bajulaiye

L = Laolu

S: What is the relationship between lawyering and performing Afrobeat music? Are you a litigator?

L: Yes, I am a litigator. I am a Civil Rights Lawyer. That is what I do. I was born in Nigeria, raised in Nigeria and schooled there. I was born in Lagos and grew up in Ilorin. My father is a lawyer, too.  I really loved music right from the beginning. Music and Art. For Nigerian parents there are three options for their children: either you are a lawyer, a doctor or you are a disgrace to the family. Being an artist is not an option. If you are an artist nobody thinks you are anything.

S: If you had told your parents that you wanted to be an artist while still in secondary school or in college what do you think they would have said to you?

L: They would think you are crazy! ‘What’s wrong? You already have your life set up for you. Go and make the money!! Why do you want to starve?’ Things are beginning to change now because they see a lot of musicians making something of their careers as musicians, making something of their lives. Now there is a new shift in how artists are seen in society. Now there is a growing perspective in Nigerian society that you can go ahead and make something out of your life as an artist.

B: What do you think it is that is changing perspectives and ushering in this new understanding about pursuing careers in the arts?

L: It is because people dare to change. People dare to leave their normal life. They begin to say, ‘I’ve got to live my life. I will do what I got to do. And I got to that point in my life where I knew I went to school to study law and practice civil rights law. I was thinking to myself that, you know, 10 years down the line, if I look back, is this what I want to achieve? Do I want to look back and regret not taking the chance, why didn’t I do my music, you know? So I just took the plunge and said I gotta do this, and I gotta do it now.

S: You knew already, before you even went to law school

L: Yeah before I even went to law school I knew what I wanted to do. So people asked me ‘oh, so why did you change from law to art?’ I’m like I went from art to law and then back to art. So that is what my life, my story has been. I’ve been on this journey so far, music has been good. I mean, the truth is, this journey is a calling.. meeting Tosinger…Afrodreamfest… I mean everything comes together for a reason and I’ve met a lot of fellow musicians here and I’m like wow, people have similar stories who are Nigerians who are like, you know, ‘I went through this.’ And I’m like ‘wow, I’m not alone.’

S: Uh huh

L: The truth is nothing is promised. The truth is the road is not rosy at all. Like, I been there, and you know you have to go forward. You’re like, ‘huh, so how am I gonna go?’ You have to start strategizing and think, ‘how do I move my music forward? How do I start something alone?’ So I’ve met with a lot of business people, and so with my art I’m doing a lot of marketing, I’m doing a lot of social media. I do get my stuff out there. Things are beginning to happen.

S: And you had an exhibition

L: Yeah I had an exhibition, yeah. And it was awesome

S: Tell me about it

L: People recommended me to all the galleries! And I’d be going to Germany to teach art!

S: Where?

L: Like West Hamburg. I think about it, and I’m like, the truth is I didn’t even study this. You know what I’m saying? And I think about it, all the time. I know that everything happens for a reason. And there’s somebody out there going through the same thing.

S: How were you impacted by Fela’s musical critique of society to become a human rights lawyer? I’m wondering about the connection?

L: The thing is that the law has opened my eyes a lot.

S: How so?

L: I went to a Nigerian law school in Abuja, the University of Ilorin. The thing is, there are a lot of issues in Nigeria that if you come from a middle, upper middle class family, you don’t know about. But when you get out there, like when I started my work, they’d send us to police stations to go out to the outskirts to go talk to parents about the Childs Rights Act. But what are you going to tell them about the Childs Rights Act? They were like, ‘what the hell are you saying, is the government giving you money to send my kids to school? Are you giving me money? You want to give me money? If you don’t want to give me money get the hell out. You can’t tell me what to do with my kids.’ Because African parents they own their children, and so whatever they want to do with their children is their business. That’s the problem, it’s a paper tiger. Even as we speak it’s hard.

S: The things that Fela sang about years ago still has resonance today?

L: Yeah yeah, definitely

S: Some Nigerians say he was unique, and that the reason why he complained is because he was dissatisfied. But his critique is viable.

L: You know Fela Kuti, comes from one of the richest families in Nigeria?

S: Hmm yeah

L: He comes from wealth. He went to the UK for college. You know a lot of Nigerians go to the UK for college, but not anyone can just do that.

S: yeah not everyone can do that

L: You can’t just do that. His mom was a politician in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. She was very esteemed. Fela’s mom had pictures with the Queen of England.

S: His mom did!

L: So I’m sure he was with her all the time. When he made music, he did a lot of Jazz and then eventually he started Afrobeat. And one of the things that sparked it for him is coming to the states.

S: Yeah Los Angeles.

L: Oh yeah, Fela came to the U.S during the black power and civil rights movement; [when he returned to Nigeria] he held the government responsible. I mean people sang about corruption, but didn’t call out names. Fela would call out names. He would call out names of many people, and only now 30 years later do we understand why.

S: In the songs?

L: In the songs. Now tell me he isn’t a prophet

S: Ah he is a prophet

L: We call him {Laolu uses a Yoruba term}

S: What does that mean?

L: It means weird one

S: mmm

L: It’s hard to explain. His name is Fela. You know his surname before was Ransome Kuti. He removed the Ransome, and then put Fela, ANIKULAPO Kuti. When you say Anikulapo-Kuti…

S: What does it mean?

L: It means I’ve got death in my pouch. Nothing can kill me… Tell me he’s not a prophet. Did he die? He never died. He’s in our faces right now. In Nigeria, anyone who wants to talk, talk about Fela. I do a lot of tunes, Fela tunes. I talk about political mentality for example. How people in Nigeria, how much they copy the West. Like we went to South by Southwest.

S: Ohh okay

L: Out in Texas, Austin

S: This past year?

L: Yeah

S: But you’re from Nigeria

L: Yeah we’re from Nigeria, out of African showcase. But we’re based in NY. I went from NY. I do my music here {the interview is taking place in Harlem}, and then go back home. I have my own band, Laolu Senbanjo and the Afromysterics, and then there were other musicians from Nigeria and Africa [at SXSW].. who came to the showcase.. to rap.

S: What were the rap artists’ names?

L: I don’t know if I should mention them.

S: Yeah yeah, but they were there

L: And all I can say is there were rap artists there using the N word. Now the N word for us in Nigeria.. we don’t go around calling people the N word, it’s not our culture. But a lot of them don’t know how stupid they sound when talking about shooting this guy or that guy, but yet they want to rap like Chris Brown.  They want to behave like that. But it’s not real. I talk about it, I call them out. I say, ‘You’re using the N word, I have a problem with that. Why are you calling yourself the N word.’ The truth is, we all try so hard. Nobody wants to think rationally anymore. It’s all about imitating the West. Everybody is just imitating. Then I get to America, and see people who want to be African. Who are striving so hard to get to their culture.

B: What common things bring black Americans and Africans together, as opposed to putting them at variance? Are there possibilities of having Hip Hop and Afrobeat in conversation?

L: Yeah, yeah. That would be beautiful. That’s what we’re hoping for. That they’ll be in conversation.

S: Has it begun?

L: Quest Love, he’s doing a lot of with Afrobeat right now. Seal. Common. OkayAfrica. Jay-Z. Bringing Afrobeat to the fore. Telling people that yeah I’m African. People are buying it, pouring it in. So it moves the wave for us; the name Fela Kuti will come up and people will already know about it. You have to understand that Fela is a movement.

S: Fela is a movement?

L: Oh mann… Fela is a movement

S: A movement? How can an artist be a movement, tell me?

L: Fela is more than an artist. Fela is a consciousness. Fela is a way of thinking. Growing up listening to Fela Kuti…

S: What were you hearing as a kid growing up?

L: Army arrangements

S: How old were you, about 13 years old?

L: Yeah, how’d you know?

S: Were you turned onto it by somebody in your block, or neighborhood, or did you just seek it out?

L: They used to play some instrumentals on the radio growing up. And the instrumental was Fela’s music

S: So it came on with the news?

L: Yeah, Yeah.. they used to play it a lot.

S: Did you hear King Sunny Ade as well?

L: Ohhh mannn… I love king Sunny Ade. Back home, there was always a debate about who was better, King Sunny Ade, or Ebezener Obey.

S: It was like Tupac, and Biggie here

L: Exactly, hahah yeah yeah. King Sunny Ade’s son was actually here at the concert {the interview is taking place at an Afrofusion concert in Harlem}. He’s a real reflection of his dad.

Laolu, along with being a thriving musician, is also an innovative artist whose self-created style of art – Afromysterics — has impacted people all over the world. Afromysterics is an expression of intuitiveness. It’s spiritual, symbolic and full of meaning. Laolu often uses charcoal when producing his artwork, as it is one of the oldest art materials that were used to draw on cave walls in pre-historic times.

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For more on Laolu Senbanjo, follow him on Twitter @Afromysterics, or Instagram @laolusenbanjo

© James G. Spady and Akinyemi Bajulaiye 2015