A tale of two Kalakuta queens

The Guardian (Nigeria) - - FRONT PAGE - By Ay­o­deji Rot­inwa

From to­day, The­guardian will run a three-part series of true sto­ries of two liv­ing Kalakuta Queens. This mem­oir-es­say tells the his­tory of these women, how they came to be with Fela, their life with him, and their con­tri­bu­tions to the Afrobeat mu­sic.

Fela Aniku­lapo-kuti - Africa’s most prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dent and mu­si­cian - up­set Pres­i­dents, chal­lenged Nige­ria’s armed forces, was ar­rested and jailed 200 times, cre­ated a mu­sic genre cel­e­brated till to­day but no one talks about how he could not have done these with­out the 27 women (and more) who were his wives, girl­friends, disc jock­eys, back up singers, dancers, sup­port­ers, coun­selors. Not even in Fela! a mu­si­cal that opened off Broad­way, New York in 2008 and will cel­e­brate its tenth an­niver­sary come Oc­to­ber 2018. Fela used his mu­sic to fight against op­pres­sion for the com­mon Nige­rian and or African man catch­ing the at­ten­tion of the world. He did not do all these alone. A group of dar­ing, un­con­ven­tional, he­do­nis­tic women played a part. They were known as the Kalakuta queens, an homage to the ur­ban com­mune where they lived, cre­ated and for a time, thrived with Fela. These women took protests to po­lice sta­tions and air­ports, places where Fela him­self might not have dared. They in­spired and con­trib­uted to the mak­ing of his mu­sic. They were rou­tinely at­tacked, as­saulted and ar­rested by the au­thor­i­ties. They stood with Fela through it all. Con­tro­ver­sially, they flocked to his res­i­dence as teenagers. They openly smoked mar­i­juana. They were branded as Fela’s sex ob­jects and yet they were so much more. Us­ing the true sto­ries of two liv­ing Kalakuta queens, I have writ­ten a long read mem­oir-es­say that tells the his­tory of these women, how they came to be with Fela, their life with him, their con­tri­bu­tions to the Afrobeat mu­sic genre, to the im­age Fela built, which widened his ap­peal and brought him suc­cess, the costs they bore by be­ing with him and where they are now, more than twenty years af­ter a decade of protest­ing, lov­ing, grow­ing in Fela’s Kalakuta Repub­lic.

ON Fe­bru­ary 18, 1977, a black Range

Rover sped through the open gates into Kalakuta Repub­lic, No 14. Agege Mo­tor Road, Idi-oro, Mushin - the home of Afrobeat le­gend, and one of the most suc­cess­ful African mu­si­cians of the 20th cen­tury, Fela Aniku­lapo-kuti .

One of Fela’s as­sis­tants, Roy Smith, who had been driv­ing the Range Rover, am­bled out, badly in­jured. He had left Kalakuta Repub­lic ear­lier that morn­ing to run some er­rands. The gates closed, fol­low­ing Smith’s sud­den en­try into the house, and a group of sol­diers pulled up at the gate.

The sol­diers – eight of them - banged on the gate with their fists and what­ever else they could find. They wanted Smith to come out.

Laide Babay­ale, one of the Kalakuta Queens - Fela’s posse of dancers, singers, DJS, and later, wives - was roused from her nap by the noise from the gate-bang­ing. She was in an up­per room of the build­ing and in com­pany of Fela’s mother, Fun­mi­layo Ran­some-kuti.

Babay­ale was tired and needed to sleep. For weeks prior to Fe­bru­ary 18th, she and other Queens had been busy with ap­pear­ances in an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal film on Fela’s life and mu­sic ti­tled, ‘The Black Pres­i­dent’. They had been shoot­ing on lo­ca­tion all over La­gos, and the 18th was a day off. They had been si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­hears­ing and pre­par­ing for a per­for­mance in Ghana. Ran­some-kuti and Babay­ale stepped out to the bal­cony. Ran­some-kuti asked the sol­diers what the fuss was about and why they wanted Smith. They claimed Smith had vi­o­lated a re­cent traf­fic pol­icy - ‘Op­er­a­tion Ease the Traf­fic’ by the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment - which was de­clared to ease traf­fic jams in La­gos. Mo­torists were as­signed days they would move along La­gos roads based on the odd or even num­ber (ar­range­ment) of their reg­is­tered plate num­bers. If odd-num­bered cars were al­lowed pas­sage on Mon­day, even-num­bered cars were not.

To en­force this, the gov­ern­ment dis­patched sol­diers to the streets with horse­whips. Any mo­torist with a plate num­ber not au­tho­rized to be on the road on a given day could be beaten on the spot.

The SUV Smith drove did not have the au­tho­rized plate num­bers for the day.

The sol­diers, who had al­ready as­saulted him, de­manded that Smith come out and take (more) pun­ish­ment. They tried to force the gate open, ig­nor­ing Ran­someKuti’s calls to stop. By this time Ran­some-kuti was a na­tional icon in Nige­ria and beyond: a revered po­lit­i­cal cam­paigner, women’s rights ac­tivist who fought for bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in pol­i­tics and against un­fair tax­a­tion and price con­trols that hurt mar­ket women. In 1949, she led a protest cam­paign against a sit­ting tra­di­tional king, Oba Ade­mola II, Alake of Eg­ba­land, ac­cus­ing him of abus­ing his au­thor­ity to col­lect taxes. As a re­sult, he ab­di­cated his throne. On this day, as the sol­diers stormed the com­pound of her equally rad­i­cal son, Fela, no one seemed to lis­ten to the revered elderly woman call­ing out from the bal­cony.

The sol­diers would not be de­terred. Nige­ria was at the time be­ing run by a re­volv­ing door of high-rank­ing sol­diers who over­threw each other in coups. Pun­ish­ment (for Smith) with­out trial was a way of life for ev­ery­one else.

The gov­ern­ment of the day that had de­clared this traf­fic pol­icy - that Smith vi­o­lated - and its at­ten­dant en­force­ment was led by Gen. Oluse­gun Obasanjo, to­day widely re­garded as an el­der states­man in Africa and the world at large.

Fela pub­licly de­nounced the traf­fic pol­icy (and those be­hind it) to the press and in be­tween per­for­mances at African Shrine, his club and mu­sic al­tar. He con­tin­ued with his con­dem­na­tion while Nige­ria hosted the world at Fes­tac ‘77, an in­ter­na­tional fes­ti­val of African mu­sic, dance, film, lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture at­tended by 60, 000 vis­i­tors. Fela was al­ready hugely pop­u­lar at the time. The vis­i­tors paid at­ten­tion, and so did the mil­i­tary.

On that day, Fela, alerted to the noise from the gate, re­fused to give Smith up.

“You want who? He’s wounded. You can’t have him. Even if he weren’t in­jured, I wouldn’t give him to any­body, to any po­lice or soldier. You can come with bazookas rides and bombs if you want…”

The sol­diers ac­cepted his in­vi­ta­tion. They left the gate and went back to the nearby Abati bar­racks, re­turn­ing with gal­lons of petrol, lighters, ma­chetes, clubs, bro­ken bot­tles and hun­dreds of their col­leagues.

Be­fore they left, Fela de­liv­ered a lit­eral shock.

Be­cause of prior raids, he had wired the fence sur­round­ing Kalakuta with live elec­tric­ity. When the sol­diers adamantly tried to gain en­trance, he or­dered the power to the fences be switched on. A few sol­diers were jolted by the power.

Shortly af­ter, Babay­ale no­ticed that elec­tric­ity sup­ply in the neigh­bour­hood went off. The Nige­rian Elec­tric­ity Power Au­thor­ity had struck.

Soon, an armed sea of sol­diers in red caps – as if go­ing to war, Babay­ale thought – marched up to the gate. Re­port­edly, there were a thou­sand of them. Nige­ria was in a war just seven years be­fore with its se­ces­sion­ist Eastern re­gion Bi­afra. Then such a show of force was ‘nor­mal’. In that war, over one mil­lion Ig­bos died.

Babay­ale did not un­der­stand what the fuss was about. She re­called that Smith had gone out very early in the morn­ing, be­fore the sol­diers re­sumed duty for the day. He should have es­caped them. She sur­mised that he must have been tar­geted.

Fela had been a thorn in the side of suc­ces­sive mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment for years. In long, pa­tient, sear­ing protest mu­sic, he

crit­i­cized the gov­ern­ment’s poli­cies - just like the traf­fic one - its mil­i­tary lead­ers, its treat­ment of the peo­ple. In 1976, he re­leased ‘Zom­bie’, us­ing the word as a metaphor to de­scribe (and at­tack) the mil­i­tary as a group of peo­ple who only fol­lowed or­ders and could not think for them­selves. In 1980, he re­leased ‘Au­thor­ity Steal­ing’ ex­plic­itly call­ing out the po­lit­i­cal class for cor­rup­tion steal­ing through un­der­hand deals and con­tracts. He com­pared the politi­cian’s steal­ing in tune of billions - through the pen - to that of the armed rob­bers - through guns - but in far less amounts. Fela stressed that the rob­ber was se­verely pun­ished, while the thiev­ing politi­cian got praised.

Be­fore Babay­ale could col­lect her thoughts, the sol­diers had set fire to the gate. The fire spread and burned with ur­gency. The sol­diers clubbed the gate down, gained en­trance, and sprayed petrol on the six­teen cars and buses parked in­side the com­pound, in­clud­ing Fela’s newly pur­chased Buick which he had bought just days be­fore. They smashed the win­dows and wind­screens and poured more petrol through the holes. The sol­diers ad­vanced on to the house. Pan­de­mo­nium en­sued, with ev­ery­one res­i­dent in the Repub­lic run­ning in all di­rec­tions at once. Kalakuta was an ur­ban com­mune of Fela’s in­stru­men­tal­ists, dancers, mis­tresses, girl­friends, as­sis­tants, road man­agers, chore­og­ra­phers, stage han­dlers, ac­tivists, sup­port­ers or any­one who needed a place to lay their head. It was a full house.

Babay­ale was mo­men­tar­ily par­a­lyzed by what she saw. She did not know where to run to or hide. She did not have much time to think ei­ther. She ran into a burn­ing liv­ing room, saw a deep freezer and with that an op­por­tu­nity to van­ish from sight.

She climbed in, clos­ing its door af­ter her. Se­cured in­side the freezer, Babay­ale heard screams, glass break­ing, house­hold ap­pli­ances crash­ing to the ground, sol­diers curs­ing, the crack­ling of fire, and the muted meet­ing of ba­tons against flesh.

Then there was a si­lence for a mo­ment, mak­ing Babay­ale freeze afresh. She did not want burn to death in­side the freezer, she thought, and that’s when the freezer’s door sud­denly swung open. The sol­diers were on a drunken mis­sion, look­ing for stashes of al­co­hol. They had found some in the liv­ing room, crates of White Horse. They wanted more.

When they saw Babay­ale, they set upon her im­me­di­ately.

One of the sol­diers grabbed a bot­tle of the bev­er­age and cracked it over her head. He re­peated the act again and again with more bot­tles. Blood drib­bled down her face. With more hits to her head, the lines of blood flowed more ur­gently, gath­er­ing into beads, fall­ing through the mist of the freezer and onto its icy floor.

The sol­diers seemed fired up.

They dragged Babay­ale up, while still in the freezer. An­other soldier hit her in the navel with the butt of his gun. He then grabbed a bro­ken bot­tle and stabbed her in the same area. They dragged her out of the freezer.

They stripped off her clothes. They hit her with ba­tons. They tore off her un­der­wear. Trin­kets, neck­laces and wads of cash hit the floor along­side the ripped panties.

Babay­ale and a cou­ple of the other Queens had taken to keep­ing money and gold ac­ces­sories in their un­der­wear - so they could have some­thing to sur­vive on in the likely event they were raided or at­tacked by the Po­lice wher­ever they went to per­form.

The sol­diers then dragged Babay­ale out of the room, through the fire. They marched her and other oc­cu­pants of the Repub­lic, to­wards Abati Bar­racks.

They were all naked.

They kept beat­ing ev­ery­one with guns and ba­tons as they stag­gered through the street. They threw Fela’s mother, the coura­geous and de­fi­ant Ran­some-kuti, from a third-floor bal­cony of Kalakuta.

She later died from her in­juries.

Babay­ale ended up – in­juries and all – in jail for 27 days.

As a re­sult of pre­vi­ous and sub­se­quent raids and as­saults, her head has been stitched 30 times.

Laide Babay­ale

Fela Aniku­lapo Kuti and his wives

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Nigeria

© PressReader. All rights reserved.