Lov­ing Fela: A Tale Of Two Kalakuta Queens (2)

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In this sec­ond and con­clud­ing part of the true sto­ries of two liv­ing Kalakuta queens, AY­O­DEJI ROTINWA writes how they came to be with Fela, their life with him, their con­tri­bu­tions to the Afrobeat mu­sic genre.

ICAME to en­joy,” says Lara Shosanya, a for­mer Kalakuta queen, dancer and wife of the late Fela Aniku­lapo-kuti of why she ended up in Fela’s house, at 16.

Babay­ale, sit­ting be­side her, agrees. She con­firms liv­ing with Fela pro­vided the kind of en­joy­ment and free­dom - from re­spon­si­bil­ity, parental con­trol - they could not have pos­si­bly found any­where else.

We are, at present, dis­cussing the past in one of La­gos’ fore­most cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions, Terra Kul­ture.

Both women took up res­i­dence in Fela’s house at six­teen years old.

Ac­cord­ing to a Car­los Moore in­ter­view with Shosanya, in his bi­og­ra­phy of Fela, ti­tled, Fela: This Bitch of a Life, she suf­fered a sim­i­lar fate to Babay­ale dur­ing the raid.

The sol­diers beat her, dragged her out­side, took off her clothes and raped her with a beer bot­tle.

The other wives and dancers were not spared ei­ther.

The Kalakuta raid was just one of the many in­stances where Fela’s many wives were at­tacked.

Af­ter Fela, they were the main at­trac­tion. The women gave Kalakuta “coun­ter­cul­ture sta­tus”, ac­cord­ing to a Do­tun Ay­obade, 2017 es­say, ‘ We Were On Top of the World’: Fela Kuti’s Queens and the Poet­ics of Space in the Jour­nal of

African Cul­tural Stud­ies. Te­ju­mola Olaniyan in his book, “Ar­rest the Mu­sic! Fela and His Rebel Pol­i­tics” as­serts that it was only af­ter th­ese women ap­peared on the Afrobeat scene did it be­come the cul­tural phe­nom­e­non it is to­day.

They were provo­ca­teurs of their time. They flocked to Kalakuta as teenagers, smoked mar­i­juana openly. They used efun (white or­ganic paint) and osun (red paint culled from tree sap) as make up, cre­at­ing com­plex pat­terns and dots on their faces that made them stand out, while they per­formed. They set the trend and stan­dard for adorn­ment in mu­sic cul­ture and be­yond (which has lasted till present day) and danced “go-go style in cylin­dri­cal cages.”

They blended Fela’s bit­ing po­lit­i­cal mes­sage about so­cial in­jus­tices and op­pres­sion of the masses with erotic per­for­mances, mak­ing it more “tan­ta­liz­ing for pop­u­lar tastes,” Ay­obade wrote.

“The cir­cu­lar swivels and the per­cus­sive thrust of their hips” ex­cited an over­whelm­ing male au­di­ence.

They were the face and spirit of Afrobeat, and nat­u­rally, they be­came ma­jor tar­gets in the sights of those who wanted to shoot it down: the po­lice and the mil­i­tary.

“They (the au­thor­i­ties) beat us more than they beat Fela,” Babay­ale told me.

Yet, Babay­ale and her fel­low Queens were de­nied the agency they clearly pos­sessed. They were seen as vic­tims en­chanted by the wiles of a fa­mous mu­si­cian and only did his bid­ding. They were de­hu­man­ized by the larger so­ci­ety, with jour­nal­ists brand­ing them as way­ward, sex­ual ob­jects, pros­ti­tutes. Some of them were os­tra­cized by the fam­i­lies they left for Fela’s home.

Till date, when ar­ti­cles are writ­ten about them or when they are in­ter­viewed, there is nearly al­ways, only a cu­rios­ity that does not trou­ble it­self be­yond their sex­ual his­to­ries with Fela. There is hardly ever in­ter­est in who they are as hu­man be­ings, the kind of life they led be­fore him, choices they made with him, and their role in giv­ing power to a mu­sic genre, the world now knows.

I MEET Babay­ale, 60 and Shosanya, 57, on a muggy Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon. They ar­rive to­gether to the Terra Kul­ture restau­rant and take a ta­ble in the cen­tre of it. They have re­mained friends since their days as co-wives of Fela. At first, they chat with each other, while I watch from an­other ta­ble, within earshot.

Babay­ale said hello to strangers on nearby ta­bles, pay­ing com­pli­ments to some Terra Kul­ture staff who come up to greet her. They knew her, it seemed.

Shosanya was more muted, more cir­cum­spect. She tapped at her phone and looked around im­pa­tiently.

I even­tu­ally walk up to meet them and in­tro­duce my­self as the per­son in­ter­view­ing them. Both women eye me with sus­pi­cion. They then tell me they need to con­firm from some­one first be­fore they speak to me.

Babay­ale asks where I am from and my last name. I tell her and she lights up im­me­di­ately. Ap­par­ently she knows my late step-mother.

As we talk, Fela’s song, ‘Gen­tle­man’ comes on the restau­rant’s over­head speak­ers. Babay­ale sings along. So do a few other guests of the res­tau­rants on other ta­bles. It briefly oc­curs to me that no one - asides Terra Kul­ture staff - is aware of who Babay­ale and Shosanya are and their close con­nec­tion to the cre­ation of the mu­sic that was cur­rently play­ing.

If only they knew.

Soon, we need to find a quiet place to do the in­ter­view. I sug­gest the Terra Kul­ture gallery up­stairs. Babay­ale tells me she can­not walk up the stairs. Ap­par­ently, she can­not stand up straight ei­ther. I had not no­ticed when we walked in.

She tells me she has a cer­vi­cal / spinal con­di­tion.

“It’s as a re­sult of the beat­ings and in­juries I en­dured while in Fela’s house,” she said. “The doc­tors con­firmed it.”

Babay­ale and Shosanya are some of the last sur­viv­ing mem­bers of Fela Aniku­lapo-kuti’s band of 27 wives who he in­fa­mously mar­ried in a con­tro­ver­sial cer­e­mony in Fe­bru­ary 1978. They did not start out as his wives.

Fela be­gan life in pub­lic con­scious­ness with one wife, Remilekun Tay­lor, mother of his first four chil­dren.

Babay­ale, Shosanya and the other Kalakuta queens showed up to his door seek­ing a life in the per­form­ing arts for the most part. Some were just drawn to the mys­tique and sound of a mu­si­cian who sang about the av­er­age man’s pain and suf­fer­ing, while dar­ing the might and power of op­pres­sive mil­i­tary gov­ern­ments. Fela was known to not turn any­one away from his door; he was bound­lessly he­do­nis­tic; he smoked, drank, and had count­less sex part­ners. Fela shared what he had with those around him: his fame, money, free ac­com­mo­da­tion and op­por­tu­ni­ties to earn.

The Kalakuta queens started out as dancers, DJS, or back up singers. They were also in­vited to his bed, in line with Fela’s tra­di­tion of mul­ti­ple sex part­ners. They soon be­came part of his al­lure, what at­tracted peo­ple to him and his mu­sic.

At any given time, there were up to 30 women liv­ing in, com­ing and go­ing from his house, ac­cord­ing to Babay­ale.

When some of the wives left af­ter the gov­ern­ment-sanc­tioned at­tacks, many more women re­sumed their va­cated places in Fela’s house.

At 16, Babay­ale wanted to be an air host­ess.

Grow­ing up, she trav­elled of­ten with her close-knit fam­ily, which in­spired her de­ci­sion.

Her early ed­u­ca­tion took place in re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions. She was raised by her un­cle in Ibadan, South-west Nige­ria. He was a civil ser­vant, and his wife, a trader. She vis­ited her par­ents and fam­ily in La­gos, of­ten or as they de­manded. They were strict dis­ci­plinar­i­ans. They set cur­fews. There was mem­o­rable pun­ish­ment for dis­obe­di­ence.

Babay­ale’s par­ents were fans of Fela. They played his mu­sic on the vinyl or over the ra­dio of­ten in the house when she vis­ited. Some­times the mu­sic came to them through other ways. Their fam­ily house was right op­po­site Su­rulere Night­club, where Fela played his set of­ten, in the early 70s.

Babay­ale heard his mu­sic from across the road.

“Fela’s mu­sic was in­spi­ra­tional. He didn’t sing peo­ple’s praises like other mu­si­cians. He sung about what was go­ing in the world. I had a spir­i­tual re­ac­tion to it,” Babay­ale said.

Babay­ale found a way to see Fela for her­self in Su­rulere Night­club, watch him per­form live. She re­turned to school in Ibadan with the mem­o­ries.

Then a mid-term break from school came up. Babay­ale did not want to go home, be­cause her par­ents were who they were.

“I de­cided to go and see what was hap­pen­ing in Fela’s house. I planned to spend maybe two days. I got there and did not re­mem­ber I was sup­posed to go back to school.

From that day, Babay­ale would even­tu­ally stay with Fela for al­most 20 years. Her par­ents stopped lis­ten­ing to Fela’s mu­sic.

Shosanya came from a polyg­a­mous fam­ily of two wives and six chil­dren. She ad­mits she didn’t have a head for academia. She went to school in Sagamu, Ogun State, South­west Nige­ria. In her sec­ond year of se­condary school, she dropped out, of her own choos­ing and moved to La­gos, to live with her sis­ter and brother-in-law. She lived with

them for three years.

She wanted to be­come a fash­ion de­signer; also, she had grown to love danc­ing.

Her brother-in-law was a big fan of the Nige­rian mu­sic of the day. He played songs from Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, Or­lando Owoh.

He also played Fela’s mu­sic. And Shosanya danced.

“The first time I heard his mu­sic, I was touched be­cause it had a mes­sage. I wanted to know this man. I wanted to meet him. I wanted to know who was mak­ing this sound over the ra­dio,” Shosanya said.

At the time an un­cle of Shosanya’s was Fela’s road man­ager. She asked for an in­tro­duc­tion. She also wanted to be­come one of Fela’s dancers.

On a day her sis­ter was away at work, she left the house. For about a year, Shosanya’s fam­ily did not know where she was.

“I did not tell any­one where I was go­ing. I just left,” She said. Her voice, tone, body lan­guage did not be­tray any re­morse.

“No­body would imag­ine or think that that’s where I would have ended up. Fela’s house was seen as a house of drug ad­dicts and pros­ti­tutes. Peo­ple were afraid of his house. Even­tu­ally, some­one who knew me saw me and told my fam­ily. My el­der sis­ter came to look for me and asked why I left our house and why I was at Fela’s. I told them I en­joyed be­ing at Fela’s and that I danced for him.”

“Omo jaiye jaiye l’emi. I came to this life to en­joy,” she added.

As re­gards her ca­reer, she be­lieved she was right where she was sup­posed to be.

“I love en­ter­tain­ing peo­ple.”

For Babay­ale too, the ‘en­joy­ment’ was the draw.

I ask Babay­ale if she feels she gave up on her dream of be­ing an air host­ess by be­ing with Fela.

My dream changed,” she replied.

Along­side work­ing for Fela, Lara Shosanya, Laide Babay­ale and the other women in his life, were sources of in­spi­ra­tion for his mu­sic.

His 1972 hit, ‘Lady’ off the ‘Shakara’ al­bum, was in­spired by one of his girl­friends, nick­named ‘Lady’. Ac­cord­ing to his own lyrics and Babay­ale’s ac­count, Lady was an ‘un­usual’, seem­ingly ‘head­strong’ fem­i­nist. “She go say she equal to man...she go say she get power like

man. She go say any­thing man do, she fit do,” the lyrics read. Fela’s in­tent was irony; to satirise this woman’s na­ture, teach her her place.

He had other songs in his cache that were equally sex­ist or misog­y­nis­tic, like ‘Mat­tress’ in which Fela crooned that the sole pur­pose of a woman was for a man to lie on top of her… like a mat­tress.

I ask Babay­ale and Shosanya if they agree with th­ese lyrics, Fela’s thoughts. Both women laughed and shook their heads.

“It is some­thing that has been here be­fore time. God cre­ated it that woman must be on the floor and man must be on top. It is not Fela that started it. I agree with the lyrics,” Babay­ale said.

“If you were to marry me now, even though you are younger than me, you will be my mas­ter.”

I of­fer the ques­tion in an­other form. When you were with Fela, he could not have been the artist that he was with­out the women. In that sense, his work was in­com­plete with­out you.

“Yes. Fela alone could not do it. He had been with Koola Lo­bitos, there was no lady there, but what I mean is us­ing women in­creased the at­trac­tion and at­ten­tion,” Shosanya said.

Koola Lo­bitos was Fela’s first band when he still played in the genre of High­life and Jazz, be­fore ex­per­i­ment­ing and find­ing Afrobeat, be­com­ing hugely suc­cess­ful with it.

In leisurely con­ver­sa­tions, Fela also formed his mu­sic from what his wives said.

He wrote short­hand and al­ways had a pa­per and pen nearby.

One evening while blow­ing his trum­pet, ac­cord­ing to Shosanya, and talk­ing to his wives about sol­diers and their op­pres­sive ways, she of­fered, “It’s uni­form chance they use to bully peo­ple.”

Fela grabbed a pen and started writ­ing lyrics from the phrase.

“Na uni­form chance you dey use for me, if no be uni­form na

gun oh,” Shosanya hummed the lyrics.

The song was never re­leased.

“Some­times when you say some­thing, he re­peats what you said and makes it into a song,” Shosanya ex­plained.

“When we went to a lec­ture - some­times we went to lec­tures with Fela - at the Uni­ver­sity of La­gos, and jour­nal­ists asked him about sol­diers, he re­peated it, and was like that’s ‘uni­form chance’”

Given their con­tri­bu­tions to Fela’s legacy and ap­par­ent con­nec­tion to him still, I ask how they re­mem­ber him and if they are ben­e­fi­cia­ries of his es­tate.

“I go to the mu­seum of­ten. Es­pe­cially on Wed­nes­days when Seun is hav­ing re­hearsals,” Babay­ale said. Seun Aniku­lapo-kuti is a mu­si­cian af­ter his fa­ther’s po­lit­i­cal­ly­charged heart and Fela’s youngest son.

Babay­ale is re­fer­ring to the Kalakuta Mu­seum. It is Fela’s for­mer res­i­dence now con­verted to an al­tar of his mem­ory. He is buried on the ground floor of the build­ing. The rooms he used to in­habit now con­tain me­men­tos of his life: his shoes, mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, pho­tos, clips of his in­ter­views, his un­der­wear, amongst many oth­ers.

Shosanya tells me she has never been to the mu­seum and has no in­ter­est in go­ing.

“Be­cause they don’t recog­nise me. Af­ter Fela passed away, they did not look for me. No­body cares. I am not Fela’s wife. His fam­ily did not want us. They felt like we were the ones that cor­rupted Fela.”

Babay­ale in­ter­rupts her.

“But you mar­ried him!”

“No. Fela mar­ried his work. I was his dancer not his wife. Fela did not marry any­body. Fela can­not move with­out his ladies. He can­not sing, dance and blow his trum­pet all at the same time. It is not pos­si­ble. We were the stage at­trac­tion.”

I ask, so you do not think he mar­ried you out of love? “No.”

In Fela’s bi­og­ra­phy, the Afrobeat leg­end ex­plains that he mar­ried his Queens to pro­tect them. They were tar­geted and at­tacked by law en­force­ment agents, and the press. His mar­riage to the women was as a cover, a re­ward of sorts for the women’s trou­bles. T HE Queens also protested in places where Fela had “di­min­ished author­ity.” In Fela: Kalakuta Notes, a book by John Collins, the au­thor doc­u­ments a time when Babay­ale, protest­ing the un­avail­abil­ity of suf­fi­cient toi­lets at the in­ter­na­tional air­port, “dropped her pants and pissed right in front of onto the car­pet of im­mi­gra­tion con­trol.”

She was trav­el­ling with Fela to Zaire and her act of “civil pol­lu­tion” nearly caused the de­lay of the flight. Babay­ale main­tained it was not a ran­dom, crazy act. It was one ex­e­cuted de­lib­er­ately. Not fin­ished, she went on to ver­bally as­sault the im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cers, who raised hell in re­turn.

The Queens had protested like this be­fore; yab­bing po­lice men in their sites of power, the po­lice sta­tions, well aware of the po­ten­tial for ex­tra­ju­di­cial vi­o­lence.

Ac­cord­ing to Ay­obade’s es­say, “Olaide’s spec­ta­cle in the air­port lobby needs to be un­der­stood in terms of protest, but also as her re­claim­ing of the space as a site of Fela’s di­min­ished author­ity. In this way, Fela re­lied on the women’s au­ton­o­mous in­ter­ven­tions in spa­ces where his author­ity was most ten­ta­tive.”

He opines that Fela was rel­a­tively im­po­tent in places like po­lice sta­tions.

The Kalakuta Queens were not.

“We were be­hind him. We sup­ported him. He was us­ing us and he paid for it,” Babay­ale told me.

“He knew what he was do­ing. We were be­ing called pros­ti­tutes and to show that we were work­ing for him, he mar­ried us. I en­joyed it. I loved it. What I gained from Fela’s house was maybe the trav­els and I worked for it.”

Babay­ale fi­nally came round to Shosanya’s ar­gu­ment. “There were so many of us that got mar­ried or in­volved with white men while on trips abroad. But we stayed with him,” She said.

“When they burnt the house, no fam­ily mem­bers came to see us. It is be­cause we love him, that’s why we stayed with him and con­tin­ued work­ing.”

Babay­ale, Shosanya said they are not ben­e­fi­cia­ries to Fela’s es­tate.

To­day, Laide Babay­ale runs a honey re­tail busi­ness. Lara Shosanya is a caterer.

Af­ter leav­ing Fela’s house, Babay­ale took up a job in the ad­min­is­tra­tive depart­ment of the La­gos Uni­ver­sity Teach­ing Hos­pi­tal, with the help of Fela’s brother, Beko Ran­some-kuti.

Shosanya worked in a fish­ery. Babay­ale re­mar­ried. It did not last long.

“There’s no man that can be like Fela. I tried it to stay un­der an­other man’s roof, but it didn’t work, they are too jeal­ous. Fela was not a jeal­ous per­son. Fela gives you free­dom to do what­ever you want to do.”

Her ex-hus­band’s jeal­ousy man­i­fested through his fists. On one oc­ca­sion, at a party, Babay­ale struck up a con­ver­sa­tion with her friend’s hus­band. Her own hus­band did not know who he was and watched them con­verse from afar. On their way out of the event venue, he slapped her. He ripped her buba and tore off her jew­elry. He did not ask who the man was.

“I said: “To hell with men” Fela would never do that. I de­cided to be­come a sin­gle par­ent. I have two kids.”

Nei­ther Babay­ale nor Shosanya imag­ined Fela could ever die.

Babay­ale was at her desk at the hos­pi­tal when she re­ceived the news. The first thing she did af­ter­wards was head straight to the toi­let and take a shit. Then, the tears came. She was im­mo­bile for hours and couldn’t drive her­self home.

Shosanya did not be­lieve Fela was dead un­til she saw his body. At his ly­ing in state, at Tafawa Balewa Square, she joined thou­sands, queu­ing for hours un­til she saw his body.

Af­ter see­ing his body that day, she kept see­ing ap­pari­tions of him ev­ery­where she went. She tried ev­ery­thing to make it stop but it did not work.

“I asked a friend why I was see­ing him so much, for many years. She ex­plained that be­cause I lived with him for a long time, I cooked for him, we shared a life to­gether for 25 years, there is no way I would just for­get.”

“He was my friend. To­day though I don’t see him again. I wish he was still alive.”

For Babay­ale, the ap­pari­tions have not stopped.

“I still see him ev­ery­where till to­day.”

Laide Babay­ale

Lara Shosanya

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