Fela Kuti: The King of Afrobeat, Part Two

Part Two of the interview with one of my musical heroes led down a much darker, and more misogynistic, route and left me disagreeing with his neanderthal views on women and homosexuals.
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Part Two of the interview with one of my musical heroes led down a much darker, and more misogynistic, route and left me disagreeing with his neanderthal views on women and homosexuals.

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HAIR OF THE GOD

IN STUDIO Davout near Montreuil, in the middle of the night, Fela pushes the 22-piece Egypt 80 through 'O.A.U.' in one take; threatening to sack the next "motherfucker" who falters; laying down his own sax solo sublimely, almost lazily. Then it's his vocals: an attack on the red-taped incompetence of the Organisation for African Unity, answered by his queens with chants of "O.A.Eunuchs", "O.A.Useless".

In his blue-embroidered pink suit, he's a benevolent dictator, hard but fair, a Brian Clough of a bandleader. Although Wally Badrou's co-producing Just Like That, Fela's in charge. He's still bitter about ‘Army Arrangement’– an album released while he was in prison – being given the dance floor treatment by Bill Laswell, with Bernie Worrell on keyboards and Sly Dunbar on drums. "There was no permission, no asking. He didn't see the beauty of what I'd done."

Nevertheless he admits that, as the military's aim in imprisoning him was to stop his music, the album's release – with Egypt 80 led by Fela's son Femi and held together by Fela's younger brother Beko – was a triumph and drew attention to the injustice of his imprisonment.

And despite the polishing Laswell gave ‘Army Arrangement’ it marked a return to form, featuring the excellent title track and also 'Cross Examination', his strongest song since 'Colonial Mentality'. It may lack the raw, energetic, freshly recorded quality of his past, but ‘Army’ still ranks alongside his best, his most politically outspoken work: ‘Why Black Men They Suffer’ ('71), ‘No Bread’ ('76), ‘Sorrow Tears And Blood’ ('78), ‘Vagabonds In Power’ and ‘International Thief Third’ (both '79) and ‘Original Sufferhead’ ('81).Before he called his music Afrobeat; now it's classical African.

They're everywhere. Hanging around the studio, sleeping in the hallway, cluttering the room. It's like a medieval court; Fela's subjects, his women, some of his 27 queens, mistresses, lovers.

"I want to play music that is meaningful, that stands the test of time," he says with uncharacteristic modesty. "It's no longer commercial; it's deep African music, serious music, so I no longer want to give it that cheap name."

The truths he sings about, the political and spiritual statements he’s making, are often hidden in analogies.

"The tune I'm thinking of now is about African women who palm oil their hair. It's becoming so disgraceful that every African woman's hair is shining like white man's hair. It's a chemical from America, big business. I will ask these women one question. Why the hair on the head is shining, but not the hair down there? What happens to the hair at the cunt? I want to discourage women from doing this thing because it destroys their hair.  African women have not learnt that having hard hair is a gift, that every time you comb your hair, it creates much electricity, so you can communicate much more with the spirit world. That is the only reason your hair is hard. This chemical makes their hair soft and it destroys it. It's unnatural. In the same way that woman is treating her hair to make it look artificially nice, how many of our bureaucratic leaders are looking artificially nice?"

THEY'RE EVERYWHERE. Hanging around the studio, sleeping in the hallway, cluttering the room.  It's like a medieval court; Fela's subjects, his women, some of his 27 queens, mistresses, lovers. Of course, in the West he's taken some stick over the years for his "traditional" views of women.

Let's recall that he wrote 'Lady' ('72) and 'Mattress' ('75) attacking women's liberation, ridiculing demands for equality and, in the case of the latter, depicting women as mere procreation machines, vessels for man's desire. But, since his release from Kirikiri prison, Fela's technically divorced his 27 wives. Hasn't he?

"I've not divorced them. I don't believe in marriage so divorce does not arise. Marriage does not belong to my own environment, it's evil, and it doesn't go along with freedom. If I'm singing to marry then I'm telling a woman that she belongs to me, that her cunt belongs to me. But how can her cunt belong to me, it's not possible to institutionalize her cunt? She moves about with it, she can travel to America with it. If they put you in prison you cannot take her cunt with you to prison."

"Woman are mattress, but you must be nice to them, and make them happy. That is what they are and that is what life is about."

But what of his attitude towards women?  Has that changed? Cynics will say that Fela Kuti, while giving his wives freedom, has really just reduced his possessions and is back playing the field. Does he regret the sentiments of 'Lady' and 'Mattress'?

"You see, what I said in 'Mattress' then, I did not know I was going to arrive at this conclusion of marriage today. It was a different period of my life and I did not know how to say it. Man must not take woman matters seriously, he must not put woman matters in his head. If you do you will get sick. I've seen myself having pain in my stomach, shitting, going through this syndrome people call jealousy. I've seen myself sick to the bones. That cannot be a good thing. So you must see woman as something you sleep with, not something that you let go to your head. Woman are mattress, but you must be nice to them, and make them happy. That is what they are and that is what life is about. Use your money to make women happy, make them dress well, make them fine."

It's pathetic coming from the son of Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, a pioneer of women's rights, who met Mao and Nkrumah (Fela's Pan-African hero), and set up the powerful Nigerian Women's Union in the 1940s. He says she makes him see what life is all about, that he communicates with her spirit, and he sees no contradiction. But Fela no longer gets angry when judged by ‘Western standards’: "Before it annoyed me, before I went to prison, but now I find that to be annoyed is something negative. Happiness is the most important thing."

Just as well. Maybe I envy Fela's ease with women, but I don't see woman as merely "something you sleep with". Okay, so it's a different world, a different culture, but if we resent the hot-crotched metal muthas and macho rappers for their negative views of women then surely we must resent Fela too. Cultural, social and economic excuses could no doubt be made for every category.

But what of Fela's wives? Back in '82, his wives expressed their contentment with life in the Kuti camp. They remain hooked on charisma, they want to be close to him. Let's not forget that they're mainly Nigerian women raised in the Yoruban climate of polygamy, and naturally there was a reluctance on their part to express any discontent with their lot.

The one exception is Kevwe – a Kuti queen for 20 years, who suffered terribly in the attack on Kalakuta and remains emotionally scarred by the experience. She feels rejected and is thinking of leaving Fela's court. "Do you think he's normal?" she later asked me. "Because I have no babies he doesn't want me anymore."

But back to Fela and the value of woman.

"Sex is life," says Fela, profoundly. "That's why I don't understand those spiritualists, those monks who say they don't fuck women. Women are the source of power in the kind of spiritualism I understand. You cannot have power without women's participation. Sex is the main source of power. When people say that sex makes you weak, sex makes you older, that's bullshit. Much more sex, much more energy, much more everything."

Nice work if you can get it, and keep it up. Trouble is, particularly in the West, promiscuity is regarded as evil, and sexual power is seen as dangerous to the establishment.

Okay, very soon people will not fuck. But I will fuck because I do not believe that I use my sex wrongfully, so I do not think I will be the victim of sexual disease.

"People who start all these moralistic trends and shit they could be impotent!” Fela laughs. “For me, I see with my eyes, I walk with my legs, I work with my hands, my stomach takes my food, and I need my prick. It's just as important as any other part of my body. For me, sex is everything clean."

Yeah, but what about sexually transmitted diseases?  How does AIDS fit into your spiritual scheme of things?

"It gets to the point now where they say that there's AIDS all over the world, so because there's AIDS I must not fuck? Okay, very soon people will not fuck. But I will fuck because I do not believe that I use my sex wrongfully, so I do not think I will be the victim of sexual disease.

"Sex disease is a spiritually influenced happening. When you die, everything that you do in this world, you are going to get your judgement for every evil. So when you are reincarnated and you have been using sex for evil purposes you'll be reincarnated as a homosexual."

Eh up, we're back at the witchpot.

"That pot breeds societies, it breeds behaviour in societies, secret societies, cults. The pot breeds the misuse of sex in the spirit world, so the punishment for stealing the pot, is centuries of homosexuality in Europe."

But not in Africa?

"Oh no, we don't have homosexuals, at least in Nigeria it's possibly only one per cent" (if true, one per cent of the current Nigerian population is approximately 767,000).

We've reached stalemate here. On women and homosexuality we're worlds apart. But the light is failing, the night's approaching, and it's time for Fela to get some 'rest'. He dismisses his entourage: only the chosen one remains. And me. "Make yourself comfortable," he says kindly, taking her into the bedroom off the lounge in his suite.

So I'm sitting there, listening to the telly, French telly, to drown the cries of passion. Fela's back on the job, and I feel a right gooseberry.

MORRISSEY FOR POPE

YOU MADE me judge him; I didn't want to do it. No, I didn't want to do it. He was kind to me; offered me his food, his grass, his hospitality in Nigeria. I could have chucked all this in, woken up in Lagos with a shaker and several wives. I was forced into making these value judgements about him, and I've no grounds to believe I'm right. Perhaps I haven't seen further than my colonial nose and, as a result, trivialized his religion, trivialized his personal beliefs. He let me get close to him, one of my musical heroes, and I can't be sure that I haven't betrayed his confidence. I totally disagree with his views on women and homosexuals, but I guess that doesn't mean I'm right and he's wrong.

Where will his political philosophy take him next? I totally respect his courage, his commitment in the face of adversity...so who knows what the future will bring for Fela Anikulapo Kuti? With a geriatric cracked actor leading the "Free World", surely you're not going to tell me that the man with the two-tone underpants and the red-and-gold horn can't be President of Nigeria?

Postscript: Fela Kuti died from an AIDS-related illness in 1997.  He was 58.

The musical Fela! is currently on at the National Theatre London.

Fela’s ‘Complete Recordings’ have been re-released by Wrasse.

© Len Brown, 1986.

Click here for Fela Kuti: The King of Afrobeat, Part One

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