Loving Fela: A tale of two Kalakuta queens – Part 2
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.
I came 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 politically-charged 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?
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.
The 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.”
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