Commentary: The lessons learned from an 8-year-old singer
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Many can remember when they first woke up to the suffering and brutality in the world. For commentator Rache Joyce, it happened more than 20 years ago in a sweaty Minneapolis nightclub, when she went to see a Nigerian music legend perform.
By Rache Joyce
The first time I heard Seun Kuti sing, he made me feel ridiculous. I had been waiting years to see his father, the Nigerian singer Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Finally, in the summer of 1991, I was old enough to get into First Avenue to see him perform. I made sure to get there early enough to get a spot close to the stage. The show was sold out and the club was at capacity, so I was wedged between a monitor on the stage and the crowd up front.
As a student at the University of Minnesota, I knew a little about Fela's music and his confrontations with government oppression in Nigeria. But my African friends also told me about his amazing live performances — shows that would stretch for hours with a full horn section, rows of drums, and 20 or so dancers.
"If you're lucky", they said, "he'll really tell you all what's going down back in Africa." That's what I was waiting for on that sticky August night. The show was delayed more than an hour, but I never gave up my position in front.
Finally, from behind a screen covering the stage, Fela's band roared into one of his hits from the 70s, called "Sorrow, Tears and Blood." But when the screen was raised, it wasn't Fela on stage, but a kid — a boy who looked about 7 or 8.
He was Seun Kuti, Fela's son. He sternly grabbed a mic, set his tiny jaw and squinted to check us out. I couldn't believe it — this child had the nerve to sing to us about "Sorrow, Tears and Blood"? What did he know about the Soweto student uprisings and government brutality? I didn't even buy Michael Jackson singing "shake it baby" when he was a kid. This was ridiculous. But then he started.
His voice hadn't changed yet, so when he screamed into the mic it sort of cracked. And he went on to sing about the streets in the aftermath of a raid by soldiers and police. As he stalked the stage and carefully articulated every gruesome detail, I realized that Seun was not the one who deserved ridicule.
When I was his age I was living a safe life in suburbia. So safe and calm, I didn't even know things could be different. I had an Uncle Sam. When police came to my grade school it was to hand out awards, and later to protect me when I was demonstrating against apartheid.
Now I've had decades of watching the news. I've seen the incomprehensible suffering leaders can cause their own people, most recently in Syria. But it was an eight-year-old who first showed me how good I had it, and how truly terrifying life can be.
- Morning Edition, 04/13/2012, 8:25 a.m.