Who Were Fela’s Women?
Fela! has been described as a provocative and unique hybrid of dance, theatre and music, which explores the extravagant, rebellious and controversial world of Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. However, little has been said of the women, who shaped his life. As the acclaimed production prepares to bring down the curtain down on its London run, I thought to take the time and find out, if they were objects, subject or voices?
In life Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was an enigmatic man and in death, he continues to be the focus of intrigue. From his achievements as the pioneer of Afrobeat, a fusion of traditional Yoruba rhythms, pop, American jazz and funk to his persistent defiance of the Nigerian government and work as an activist; who campaigned for human rights, against corruption and military brutality in the country to his political ambitions. However, one of the foremost reason many remain fascinated by Fela and the way he lived his life, was due to his penchant appetite for women. After all, he married 27 of them on the same day in 1978.
Melanie Marshall and Paulette Ivory are taking on two crucial female roles in the London run. Marshall plays the role of Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, Fela’s mother, who was both a feminist and an activist, and remembered as the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria. “She is certainly not someone that I would have wanted to cross if I had known her. She reminds me a lot of very strong opinionated black women that I know and I mean that in a very positive way. She had so many firsts and all her other achievements like going to China, Russia and Germany, meeting top leaders as herself, a strong feminist woman who knew what she wanted the world to know. I’m beginning to feel the sense of importance and strength she had,” says Marshall. She adds that Fela’s mother was a disciplinarian, as our conversation gets interesting. Marshall starts speaking in character, “Sometimes, I have found that I almost hated my son and he also felt that mum didn’t like him at all.” But that was not true. “I think she was that way, so that he could see exactly what it is that he had to do, to get on in the world and get further than anybody,” she says.
Ivory portrays Sandra Iszadore, the African American woman, Fela met when he visited the US in 1969. She is credited for introducing him to the work of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and the Black Panther Movement which awakened his black consciousness, ignited his political aspirations and revolutionised his music. Ivory describes Isadore as “A very strong woman, who is not afraid to take on anyone, including a leader and telling him that he is an arsehole. She was courageous, getting arrested on some occasions for speaking and standing up for herself. Fela was impressed by that.” Ivory explains that before Fela met Iszadore, he was just about the music, the women, the drugs and the good life but after she introduced him to the black power movement, she showed him, he could do something with the following he had. Ivory said “The fact that a woman was so fearless and on a mission, and no one was going to stop her as she was very much of the Malcolm X philosophy – by any means necessary. You fight for what you believe in even if it means jail or death – I think for a man to hear that from a woman, who knew what she was about and believed in it with every fibre of her being, especially as it is the kind of thing, he would have expected another man to tell him, changed everything for him.”
Confronted with the complexity of Fela, the activist, who fought for human rights, yet had the contradiction of being a polygamist, Ivory admits that Fela’s wives lived a completely different lifestyle to Iszadore’s. “He was very much set in his ways of having the women as his queens and sex objects. I have questions because it’s like why was Sandra was so influential on him, he embraced and loved what she had to say and stood for, yet his women had to be below him? They were not on equal terms, saying there is no such thing as women being equal to a man.” Marshall adds her voice to the conversation, saying his mother was “Married once, to one man and that was it. I suppose she would have looked at her son’s life and I’m sure, must have frowned upon it.”
The women who became Fela’s collective wives were his dancers and back-up singers. When he married all 27 on the same day, it is reported that he described it as a gesture of political solidarity and emotional support for his women after government soldiers raided Kalakutta, his Lagos compound in 1977 and brutalised some of the women. In the same incident, his 77-year-old mother was thrown out of a window, sustained severe injuries, from which she later died. In his lifetime, Fela did not hesitate to air his anti-colonial views, while promoting his authentic African culture. A stance which some say he used to justify his practice of polygamy because it was part of the African culture. However, some in the feminist quarters accused him of being a misogynist as some of his lyrics which were demeaning to women. For a man raised by a feminist woman and had Iszadore, with a strong sense of self in his life, it begets the question, were his queens merely the swaying, vibrating and gyrating women the world saw on stage or did they have a voice?
Ivory and Marshall in the course of our interview expressed having issues with the aspect of polygamy as women, though this is a job they have to take on as actresses. Scarlette Douglas plays the role of Ihase, Fela’s 11th wife and takes a different view. “It’s within Nigerian culture for men to have more than one wife. Fela’s wives came from all over Nigeria to join his entourage and be part of his way of thinking; which was to be open-minded and to never be influenced by other people’s beliefs. Each wife had their own personality and aspirations and they all loved Fela in their own way. I think for him to see how these 27 women stayed by his side through the good and the bad, made him realise that they all had characteristics he could draw from. When he married all of them, it wasn’t to show ownership but to elevate their statuses. They were no longer just a girl, they were somebody’s wife.”
It is her belief that their presence in his life molded him. “I think the loyalty of the Queens made him stronger, more confident and determined man. Each wife had a different up-bringing and this diversity of cultures; though still Nigerian, helped shape him and his way of thinking. You can see it in this production that the queens are a big part of his life and music. I could never imagine his existence without them.” Asked why people did not hear so much about women that were in Fela’s life, Douglas said, “I think people only saw them as his 27 wives or as his dancers, you know, background decoration. But they weren’t there for show. They were there because they too had the same beliefs as Fela.”
If they had the same beliefs as Fela, why didn’t people hear them verbalise it? Ivory says they were two strong female voices in his life but as for the queens, she thinks it was “More of a quiet inner strength which you see in the way they move and carry themselves. They stand there proud and regal and though they are below him and it’s kind of weird, he let’s them have a strength about them.” Douglas adds their voice was the power of their choice. “I think the women had a voice, they all came to Fela. He didn’t go to them. If they wanted to leave, they could go and that was the understanding they had and lived by.” It is her belief that they accepted the state of polygamy as normal because they too were products of polygamous homes.”
Fela left a legacy, Afrobeat, which continues to evolve. His wives on the other hand are only remembered for being in polygamous set-up not their individual achievements. In Fela: This Bitch Of A Life, a biography by Carlos Moore, an ethnologist and political scientist, it is documented that when he asked some of the wives if they were fulfilled? They responded, yes, “I have everything I want.” However said, “When you see some of the documentary footage, you see emptiness in their eyes. You feel like something is missing. I personally cannot think of how they can be fulfilled in that kind of situation and environment where you risk so much but for them to have stayed, they have to be fulfilled to some degree.” It stands to be said that as theatre lovers flock to see the show, they each will walk away with a piece of the man but what they make of his women, misguided or powerful, is anyone’s guess.
This article first appeared in the New African Woman magazine, Issue 7
Paulette Ivory by actress
Melanie Marshall by actress
Paulette Ivory as Sandra Iszadore: Tristam Kenton