Fela’s attempt to invalidate or mock Lady, an African woman transcending the rigid gender norm is anti-feminine, anti-feminist and anti-Nigerian. Women in many pre-colonial societies in what is now known as Nigeria were empowered in ways that Fela’s ‘Lady’ made fun of.
In Fela’s song, ‘Lady’ (1972, Shakara), the eponymous Lady is an African woman who challenges the behavioural expectations of women in post-colonial Nigerian society. Although the lyrics imply that Lady protested patriarchy through her actions, Lady is an object of ridicule for Fela. That Lady demonstrates all the nonchalance and aggression usually reserved for men is an aberration in Fela’s moral universe. Today, Lady, with her insistence on being equal to men, is likely to describe herself as a feminist. But for Fela, ‘African woman’, the antithesis of Lady, ‘know him man na master’.
Although Fela zealously challenged the government and neo-colonial oppression in Nigeria, he was not interested in dismantling patriarchal oppression despite how closely the oppression of Africans by government and neo-colonial actors mirrors the oppression of Nigerian women by Nigerian men. Like most Nigerians, Fela had internalized the rigid colonial gender system, which strictly masculinized and feminized men and women respectively.
For Fela, it was important that the African individual is actively seeking self-autonomy and independence of action and thought. He advocated actively for the freedom to be, to think and to live African. Fela’s legacy continues to inspire and motivate generations of Nigerians who are engaging in unlearning ideas rooted in western ideology and imperialism. Fela provides many Nigerians with a reference in language, lifestyle, and artistic expression of what it means to interrogate and engage with African identity in a post-colonial world.
Many years since gaining independence, Nigerian men and women still internalize and express colonial patriarchal ideas. Empowering women and the feminine, however, could offer tools for building a more authentic and liberated society.
FELA AND GENDER IN THE NIGERIAN CONSCIOUSNESS
From interviews to songs, Fela was vocally anti-feminist. While ‘Lady’ was a sly attempt at using ‘Africanness’ to drive a wedge into the global solidarity of women against patriarchal oppression, Fela did not mince words in Fela: This Bitch of a Life:
Men and women are on two different levels. You can say different wavelengths. Man, Woman. Two points that can never meet, Women have different feelings than men. It’s simple as that. You can’t compare them. Equality between male and female? No! Never! Impossible! Can never be! It seems that the man must dominate.
While this point of view is uniquely Fela’s, it is an accurate reflection of the contemporary, post-colonial Nigerian mindset. This dualistic perspective of maleness and femaleness emphasizes that men and women are different while also creating a hierarchal structure within which women are dominated by men.
The male domination of women is afforded to men through a patriarchal system that strictly masculinizes men and feminizes women, while valuing the masculine over the feminine. In a dualistic society that assigns gender roles based on sex, this domination of the woman by the man is essentially the oppression of the feminine by the masculine. While the homogenization of this system in Nigeria was a colonial institution, it was beneficial for men in post-colonial Nigeria to maintain this system because it favoured them.
Fela understood how the post-colonial Nigerian society was a proxy arrangement that was still actively perpetuating colonial violence, but he failed to see the intersection of colonialism and sexism. Nigerian society, at the time, had come to normalize and value Eurocentrism over being African. The embracing of Eurocentric ideals and consciousness was seen in multiple spheres of society including culture, religion, politics and the economy. This included the Eurocentric worldview of sexuality, gender and the relationship between both.
Fela’s definition of the African woman as a woman who is not allowed to embody masculinity and whose femininity renders her a victim of man’s domination is inaccurate. Fela was not referring to the African woman per se but a projection of the colonial ideal onto their Nigerian subjects. Nigerian feminism is thus in many ways part of the decolonization of the Nigerian identity. If we truly intend to transform our society, then we need to change our relationship with femininity.
FLUIDITY OF SEX AND GENDER IN AFRICAN TERMINOLOGY
While Fela was making ‘Lady’ in Lagos, Area Scatter was something of a phenomenon in eastern Nigeria. In the documentary, Beats of the Heart: Konkombe, Area Scatter, another music artist explained how, after the civil war, she had gone into the wilderness and reappeared transformed into a woman. Her voice was softer, she wore women’s clothes and jewellery, walked with more fluidity in her body, applied colourful makeup and made up her hair in a style quite similar to many of the Kalakuta queens. I observe Area Scatter’s transformation as a response to the toxic masculine energy of civil war violence.
Area Scatter, described as a ‘witch doctor’, most likely lived according to the principles of Odinani, the traditional religious practices and cultural traditions of the Igbo people. In Odinani, the world is created by Chineke, the supreme or high God understood as the unification of Chí, the initiating divine masculine and Ékè the creative divine feminine. The feminine and the masculine are fluid elemental energies that create the world as we are aware of it. This fluidity is the philosophical underpinning of Area Scatter’s transformation.
Understanding the masculine and the feminine as fluid energetic states allowed Igbo societies to hold space for men and women to embody these energies fluidly. This means that biological women can also embody masculine energy and take up typically male roles. For example, daughters are associated with male roles and status in relation to wives. Addressing daughters of a patrilineage as husbands points to fluidity of sex and gender in the Igbo culture.
In Igbo cosmology, what is important is balance. Balance between the feminine and masculine is essential for the smooth order of human affairs. Any disruption in this balance leads to lack. Long term dominance of the feminine by the masculine is an example of an imbalance.
Hence, Fela’s attempt to invalidate or mock Lady, an African woman transcending the rigid gender norm is anti-feminine, anti-feminist and anti-Nigerian. Women in many pre-colonial societies in what is now known as Nigeria were empowered in ways that Fela’s ‘Lady’ made fun of. Even in Fela’s time, many women, including Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, Fela’s own mother, gained renown for challenging oppressive systems. It appears that Fela consciously or subconsciously found it difficult to give credit to women, which is another tactic that men employ in using the masculine to dominate the feminine.
ATTEMPTED ERASURE OF THE FEMININE
Oh, this woman, she has helped me in America-o. She has fed me for five months. There are telephone bills I’ve run up; they’ve even cut one telephone line of their house…I’ve almost made her family bankrupt…I’ve spoiled their cars…This was what was going on in my head, you know. So, I said to myself, if I’m gonna sing about any one woman, I would sing about this one. At least to clear my conscience. That’s how low I was at the time, man. I hated to give women any fucking credit, man. Everybody was singing about women. How could I sing about a woman in my tune? I didn’t want to start singing about women.
Fela, This Bitch of a Life lays bare Fela’s relationship with the woman who turned his life around. Beyond being his landlord, lover and benefactor, Sandra Izsadore indoctrinated Fela, a continental African, into his Africanness. So profound was Sandra’s impact on Fela that even his music received a jolt. He paid homage to Sandra in ‘My Lady’s Frustration’ (1969, The ’69 Los Angeles Session, described by Fela himself as his ‘first African tune’.
Sandra was not the only woman who influenced Fela or contributed to his identity, art, activism and political ideology. His 27 wives, whom he referred to as his Kalakuta queens, were his confidants, teachers, co-creators and fellow activists. These women helped Fela with his compositions, worked as his performers, shared their spirituality and perspectives with him. For example, Fela would use phrases coined by these women in his music, and they would become popular as his.
But what does Fela think of these women? In Fela: This Bitch of a Life, he says: ‘Sex! [He] thought they were sexy and fuckable.’ Scarcely would he be found giving women credit for their brilliance, creativity and contribution to his evolution and transformation as a person, another way that the Nigerian post-colonial society perpetuates sexism.
Not much is said about the Kalakuta queens today, even though they too were artists and activists like Fela. Having arrived Kalakuta to escape the strictures of society, they worked for Fela—as singers, dancers, DJs, accountants, etc.—and did their job well. Some queens aspired to fame and riches. They also studied subjects as varied as astrology, traditional medicine politics, African history, philosophy and tradition. In the 1980s, when the Nigerian military raided Kalakuta in response to social activism, these women were also victims of egregious mental, emotional and physical abuse.
The lack of popular narrative around the intelligence, creativity and political activism of the Kalakuta Queens is evidence of not giving due credit to or celebrating the contributions of women and the feminine to society and culture. The disregard for the feminine can especially be seen in the space of political activism.
THE POWER OF PLEASURE
That violence has become the underlying energy of activism and revolution in Nigeria is problematic. Popular ideas of revolution centred around violence prevent us from imagining that change, creativity and peace can be pursued without pain, brutality and destruction.
Sitting in the energy of violent resistance disconnects us from healthy ways of finding peace within ourselves so that we cannot fathom finding peace in the collective without hurting ourselves in the process. Our freedom and our chains sing the same song: violence. When we meet the oppression we hate with resistance, it produces more violence. There is a collective need to move through the energy of resistance to transcendence. Love activates the magic of transcendence.
Just as his contemporaries in literature had done, Fela evolved a utilitarian theory of artistic creativity.
You see in England your society has reached a stage where music can be an instrument for enjoyment; you can sing about love; you can sing about who you are going to go to bed with next. But in my society, there is no music for enjoyment, there is only struggle for people to exist. Art has to be about what is happening at a particular time of people’s development, or underdevelopment, so far as Africa is concerned, music cannot be for enjoyment, it has to be for revolution.
The argument is sound for the most part, except for Fela’s inability to understand that love is the revolution that we seek. Revolution does not need to be painful, and activism can be pleasurable. While there is a limit to physical prowess, love and creativity are dynamic, limitless and abundant resources that we can call on for transformation and change both on the individual and collective level.
If Fela loved anything, then it was likely to be his music. Like most men, his relationship to the other gender was one of power. This lack of sensitivity to love as a tool for social change often blinds them to the power of love, which is the power of deep enjoyment; the power of pleasure and freedom to transform and change. When asked, the Kalakuta queens said that they loved Fela; and in many ways their love transformed him.
The sensual is a powerful tool for transformation and change. In patriarchal societies, the suppression of the pleasurable is an intentional process that is rooted in a fear of its revolutionary capabilities. The erotic, the feminine, is reduced to the sexual, making it easy to misunderstand the power of revolutionary love. Love is reduced to the satisfaction of bodily impulses while heart-centred expressions of love are ignored.
Our desires—the parts of ourselves that imagine and articulate our pleasures—are the sources of the creative intention and capacity to resist oppression, seek liberation and manifest empowered, pleasurable lives. In re-examining our relationship to pleasure, we can imagine possibilities of invoking love in all aspects of our lives including our activism. Seeking pleasure, an easier life, a more enjoyable life should not be seen as a sign of weakness but as a sign of strength.
We fight to feel good. We transcend oppression by choosing to feel good. By consciously making choices that lead us to more pleasurable, more comfortable experiences.
Maintaining the balance between the masculine and the feminine is emphasized in Igbo cosmology. Odinani practitioners understand human strife as evidence of a lack of equilibrium between these principles. Cosmological imbalance of the masculine and feminine causes drought or disease. Similar devastation result from parallel social and ethical imbalance. A strictly patriarchal society which perpetuates the subjugation of women and hence the feminine, creates a polarity which manifests itself as socio-eco-political issues.
Fela’s life and experiences offer a lens through which we can observe the subtle and apparent ways that this imbalance in energy is created in the Nigerian society both on an individual and collective level.
To offset this imbalance, there needs to be a conscious effort to empower women and the feminine. We can do this by allowing more fluidity in our gender expression. Instead of acting in particular ways because we are men or women, like Area Scatter, we should allow ourselves to embody the necessary energy needed to bring balance and harmony to a particular situation.
Even Fela, with his rigid patriarchal perspectives, was flexible in many ways. For example, he was open to redefining the role of a ‘wife’. His definition was more akin to an employee. He provided a space for these women to create, work and express themselves. Fela was open to being influenced by these women, through their art, knowledge and sensuality. He created a space where they felt free and empowered.
In a culture experiencing the long-term effect of masculine domination, we need to make more intentional efforts to embody and empower the feminine. Women empowerment through education, funding, ensuring the safety of women and providing more spaces for women’s voices and perspectives is needed. Also, as a collective, embodying more feminine characteristics such as love, creativity, spirituality, intuition and collective organization can lead to radical change and improvement of our society. We should actively amplify spaces where women hold power and increase our capacity to reward the feminine socially, economically and politically.
Pre-colonial Nigerian societies and systems offer a plethora of stories, systems, ideologies and practices that could open us up to new, radical and transformative ways of being in the world. With these tools, we can simultaneously unlearn and transcend colonial and gender oppression⎈
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