Loving Fela: A tale of two Kalakuta queens – Part 1

Laide Babayale


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 Ransome-Kuti’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. Rotinwa is a writer and journalist based in Lagos, Nigeria covering art, culture, development and often how these intersect. He has previously written for Anthony Bourdain’s Explore Parts Unknown, Mail & Guardian, Artsy. He has been published by the Financial Times, OZY, CNN, Forbes Africa and the Africa Report.

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