By Josephine Agbonkhese
Multi-instrumentalist, composer and pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre, late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, may have died 21 years ago, but like the northern star, he continues to shine even more and live more influentially in the minds of Nigerians, Africans and even the world.
His songs’ lyrics, politics and many brushes with the authorities as he stood against oppression, continues to inspire many as they, till date, continually infuse his quotes in everyday speech. Born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti on October 15 some 80 years ago, but popularly known as Fela, the self-proclaimed Abami Eda of Africa (mysterious or weird creature in Yoruba) who remains the continent’s most unapologetic, fearless political activist ever, stays true to that title even in death. Not even Felabration, a week-long activity held each year in his memory, usually starting on his birth date (October 15), has succeeded in totally demystifying the legend.
Fela, his women
As Felabration 2018 kicked-off last Monday with the theme ‘Overtaking, Overtake…’, coinciding with the 80th post-humous celebration of the life of Fela, one aspect of his life that many still find quite intriguing, is his women—the Kalakuta Republic Queens. Even his oldest son, Femi Kuti, still confesses he cannot explain why his father needed to marry 27 women in one day like he suddenly did in 1978.
Although his mother, Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was a die-hard feminist activist in the anti-colonial movement and his father, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, was an Anglican minister and school principal as well the first president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers, Fela was however not known to be a feminist who believes in gender equity. However, the respect and love between himself and the Queens of his famous Kalakuta Republic were they all communally lived and performed, were so perfectly mutual that he was willing to marry them all to save them from society’s perception of them and earn them some respect. This was years after his first and only legally-married wife whom he met and married while living in London, Remi Taylor-Kuti (died 2002); mother of Yeni, Femi and late Sola, had left him.
The forgotten Queens of Kalakuta Republic
Married in a single ceremony on 20th February, 1978; a year after Kalakuta Republic was set ablaze and his mother thrown down a window, these Queens were backup singers and dancers who had left their homes and families as underage girls, on their own accord, to live with the musical legend. Despite the public’s perception of them as harlots, marijuana smokers and even ostracisation by most of them by their families, they can in fact be regarded as the very soul of Fela’s music. They were his backbone physically (as he was said to always have at least 12 of them beside while seated), emotionally (as they stood solidly behind him through thick and thin including in all his arrests and even beatings by soldiers) and also mentally(as they gave soothed and gave him stability).
After Fela, they were the main attraction. The women took Kalakuta ten steps higher; in fact, the Afrobeat scene did not become the artistic trend it is today until their emergence. They were the provocateurs of their time, stormed Kalakuta as teenagers and even freely smoldered marijuana without minding who was watching.
For their facial makeup, these women used efun (white organic paint) and osun (red paint culled from tree sap). With these, they creatively made artistic patterns and dots on their faces. They set the trend and standard for adornment in music culture and danced sensually in African traditional attires and beads, making Fela’s music more alluring with their hips. They were the face and spirit of Afrobeat, and thus became major targets to those who wanted to silence Fela.
Hardly talked about
Though not so much is today heard of most of these women who stood with Fela throughout his life and who have also decried not being part of the annual Felabration held in memory of the legend, Bolanle Austen-Peters of Terra Kulture, had in December 2017, resurrected them in a stage play titled Fela and the Kalakuta Queens, which she produced; drawing out some of these women to limelight again after decades.
One of those drawn out recently was Laide Anikulapo-Kuti, nee Babayale. Relieving her experiences as a Queen at the Kalatuta Republic and wife to Fela, Laide,who emphasized that Fela did not die of HIV/AIDs as reported after his death, said: “I met Fela while I was in secondary school. My house was opposite the Shrine at Surulere Night Club. That was how I met him and became his dancer. I started with him as a girlfriend before he eventually married me in 1978. I am a music lover and naturally fell in love with Fela. It was the music that attracted me to him.”
Fela married us to make us proud- Laide
On her parents’ reaction to her choice of Fela as a man, Laide said, “They did not take it lightly at all. I was taken out of Fela’s house more than 10 times but I always went back.”
Laide who recounted Fela’s mass wedding to herself and 26 others including the following: Fehintola Kayode (Seun’s mum), Damiregba (Naijite, Motun’s mum), Kevwe Oghomienor (Kewe), Folake Oladeinde (Alake), Folake Oladejo, Ronke Edason, Laide, Emaruagheru Osawe, Ihase, Shade Shodeinde, Suru Eriomola, Tejumade Adebiyi, Omolola Osaeti, Tokunbo Akran, Ronke (another one), Adejonwo, Lamiley, Funmilayo, Adunni, Remilekun, Kikelomo, Lara and Bose, said the decision to marry them all was borne out of Fela’s love and respect for them.
“Fela loved us and was not happy with the way people were treating his women. He married us because he wanted to make us proud; he did not want us to be disgraced. They used to call us prostitutes and Ashewo, Igbo (Indian hemp) smokers and this made us very unhappy. He knew how we had fought with him and suffered for him. We left everything, sacrificed everything just to be with him. We never abandoned him to suffer alone; anywhere they were taking him to, we went with him. By marrying us, he gave us honour and showed us appreciation. He wanted us to be respected as responsible and hard working women. We still continued our dancing/singing work for him and received our income every Monday,” said Laide who also revealed she was very close to Fela and was the one who nursed his mother until her death.
I am not ashamed to be one of Fela’s girls- Omolara
Another, Omolara, who recounted lessons learned from her life with Fela, said: “I learned a lot; especially how to be honest and hard working. I am not ashamed to be one of Fela’s girls. I worked for him, I am not a prostitute and my family never rejected me. Whenever I went home, they welcomed me. Even my mother knew I was staying in Fela’s house and it was not a big deal. Fela was grossly misunderstood.”
Omolara whose testimony affirmed the loyalty of Fela’s women toward him, said: “After the attack on Kalakuta Republic in 1977 in which soldiers came for us with their clubs, petrol, whips and matches, I was hospitalised for two weeks. Later, they charged us to court, but the judge discharged us because we had no case to answer. They beat the hell out of me. It was a very bad experience which I will never forget but that did not stop us standing behind Fela. The soldiers beat and even raped some of us. I was stabbed in a very delicate part of my body.”
Contrary to claims that herself and the other 26 wives were divorced by Fela eight years after the mass wedding ceremony conducted by 12 Ifa priests however, Omolara swore that Fela never divorced any of them even until his death in 1997.
While Abami Eda continues to reign even in death, it won’t be out of place for the dozens of women who contributed heavily to his life and career, to also be remembered.