FELA ANIKULAPO KUTI is a legit icon. An abrasive visionary, very much deliberate with his truth. His music is sonically enchanting, with the political astuteness to match his swagger. Rightfully celebrated in Africa, and throughout the world, his legacy will stand for a very long time.
But the Kalakuta Queens, or the 27 women that Fela married as they are shabbily known, are not acknowledged for the role they played in the life of Fela Kuti.
In today’s language you could say Fela was woke, but it was a woman that woke him up. Before meeting his American girlfriend Sandra Izsadore, Fela usually laughed at proud black Americans’ insistence on drawing inspiration from the African continent. “She was telling me about Africa, she says ‘don’t I know that Africans taught the Europeans everything they know today’ I say you talking shit. She said ‘there are books’ I say show me a book, she gave me Malcom X to read,” said Fela in an interview talking about how Izsadore put him on knowledge that would give his music meaning.
That is only just one aspect of the impact women have had on Fela. Critically acclaimed Nigerian musical play, Fela and The Kalakuta Queens goes deeper into the life-long bonds Fela had with these women who are unknown to the world, who left their homes to build a life with the off-kilter artist.
“History has not been fair to the Kalakuta Queens because they were his pillar and backbone during his struggle. They stood for him against all odds and they were never remembered. It becomes important to tell their story because a story about Fela is incomplete with his women. History will never forget the Queens with the musical we have which shows the role they play in the struggles with Fela,” says the play’s director, Bolanle Austen-Peters.
Fela and The Kalakuta Queens has been at the South African State Theatre just over a week now, until this coming Sunday. It premiered in Lagos two years ago and has been a global hit since. It is choreographed by Paolo Sisiano and Justin Ezirim, with renowned composer, Kehinde Oretimehin on the production. The character of Fela is projected by both OLaitan “Heavywind” Adeniji and Patrick Diabuah who lead the thirty-six members cast, backed by a fifteen-piece band in the ensemble.
Auten-Peters is an award winning writer and entrepreneur who has established different businesses, including Terra Kulture, a combination of museum, an art gallery and a restaurant all rolled into one in Nigeria, and the Bolanle Austen-Peters Productions (BAP).
Stories of phenomenal black women who found themselves sharing life with great men, are limited to their roles as wives, with society shunning their individuality and unique contribution.
“Well, overtime I have seen different plays written and stories told about Fela. However, there has been little or no emphasis about his women. I have come to realize that it is time for us to tell our own stories so I decided to tell Fela’s story from a different angle. I took a critical look at the life of Fela and I saw that there is a gap that needs to be filled, an uncharted territory that needs to be covered and an amazing story to tell.”
The musical hasn’t only been appreciated by fans of Fela, but also the real life Kalakuta Queens. “Most of the Queens are alive, in fact some of them came on stage to give testimonials when we first staged the musical. They have been very helpful in the course of this production and I must say without them we would not have been able to put this together accurately,” says Austen-Peters. “They gave us real accounts of what transpired in the house and details of how they lived together with Fela.”
“People leave the arena crying because many never understood the things the Queens went through with Fela. The Musical is not only educative but also very informative as the audience gets to be informed about the ordeal between Fela, the Police and his women.”
IT was Hugh Masekela’s time with Fela Kuti that this album came to be. The latter wasn’t part of Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz, but was the one who introduced Masekela to Ghanaian ensemble Hedzoleh Soundz.
Spending a number of years in America and parts of Europe, Masekela missed home but couldn’t come back to South Africa because he’d be arrested by the apartheid government for his politically-charged music and his work as an activist. But before coming down south in Botswana where he was just a border away from Mzansi, he spent some time in West and Central Africa. Like Miriam Makeba, he was warmly received in a number of African states one of those being Nigeria, where he spent a lot of time with King Fela whose career and nights at the iconic Afrika Shrine were at its peak.
Along the stupendous strands of marijuana the two shared at Kalakuta Republic, Masekela and Fela shared anecdotes, experiences and music-which resulted in Masekela working with the indigenous band from Accra. “I found a certain vitality in Afrobeat. Playing with Hedzoleh Soundz was like being on a big fat cloud. You couldn’t fall of,” said Masekela.
The eight track album was released in 1973 and it was largely written by the Hedzoleh Soundz, bar Languta. This album stands as one of my favourite works of all time. It is unequivocally traditional thanks to the organic African drums, merged with the melodies of the Akan and Ewe people. Yet very jazzy with a punch of funk. It was universal music, too sick to be categorized by a mere genre.
The track Rekpete will have you feeling like you’re in the Congo doing a Kwassa Kwassa. On Adade, Masekela’s trumpet is like a jet-ski, gliding at open sea which is the combination of indigenous instruments, harmonies and melodies. I don’t know why African filmmakers haven’t used Patience in any of our African stories. It’s a song that would accommodate some of the best scenes.
Nye Tamo Ame reminds me of migrate workers, African soccer players or young men at initiation school. It’s the harmony and spirited voices of men singing together. It’s inspiringly beautiful.
It’s said in isiZulu that Uk’hamba Uk’bona and Masekela’s travels to the West of the continent opened his eye to gems in Ghana, which has opened our eyes to Africa’s vast richness.
PRO KID was only 37. Ben Sharpa just 41. Ol’ Dirty Bastard was a mere 34. Mizcheif was 38. Sean Price was 43 .
All these are names of great rappers who’ve inspired generations of emcees. But the other miserable common thread among these names, is that they all died at a young age because of the lifestyles they lived. The gallons of alcohol drank, unhealthy food consumed, smoke that fills the lungs and countless blunts that are puffed and passed, plus shit sniffed up the nose are huge factors in most rappers’ early deaths.
Pro Kid who died just last week is said to have demised from a serve seizure following a night out with friends. Since his passing, a lot has been said about what actually happened to the genius rapper whose real name was Linda Mkhize. In an interview with Drum magazine, Pro’s cousin said the rapper had no history of seizures. There are suggestions that the rapper had begun taking drugs lately, to help him deal with career and life frustrations.
In my interview with the SABC’s Media Monitor this past Sunday, I mentioned that the only thing we can do now is speculate to what really happened because no one went to Pro to ask how he was. There was a requiring theme on social media in the past week from celebrities, saying they failed Pro. Failed him in what exactly?
This indicates something wrong had been happening in his life recently, but people turned a blind eye.
I last saw the rapper in June at Basha Uhuru where he delivered a good performance. But what was startling was how young he looked- before that, I had seen him around Tembisa where he visited often years ago. Then, he looked his age. But at Basha the kat didn’t necessarily look bad, but he suspiciously looked like a 22 year-old.
As much as people might think, talking about what really happened to him is tarnishing his legacy, I believe the family has a responsibility to share the post-mortem results so that it can also help the next generation of artists. It’s their prerogative I know, but being open about such helps guide artists who are already in the game and those who have ambitions of gracing stages with their talent.
Imagine what a post-mortem would do for a person like Emtee, who a just a few weeks ago fell on stage high on codeine. It would really be a reality check for the young kat and others like him.
Sharpa had been living with diabetes for a long while, but died due to complications with the disease. I can’t help ask myself if ‘the complications’ could’ve been avoided had he lived a better lifestyle.
Till this day, I laud Kwaito artist Zombo who went on live television to tell the nation that he was living with HIV AIDS. He died in 2008 at the age of 27. But that bone-chilling frankness has helped so many young men to think twice about dipping in the forbidden fruit without protection. Yea, he was ridiculed but at least now people know what not to do. If you can flaunt your success, then allow us to be privy to your downfall too. After all, you’re also a human being.
Wu Tang Clan animated rapper ODB died just two days before turning 35. His cause of death was due to an overdose on coke. An autopsy found a lethal mixture of cocaine and the prescription drug tramadol. The overdose was ruled accidental and witnesses say Ol’ Dirty Bastard complained of chest pain on the day he died- watching documentaries about the Wu, you get a perfect sense from those close to him that it wasn’t accidental. It’s this ‘sweeping things under the carpet’ mentality that causes the problem to escalate in the entertainment industry.
In an interview on Metro FM with DJ Fresh on his breakfast show last year, comedian John Vlismas spoke about this epidemic problem in the media and creative space. “We have been hardwired to think that we are working hard in media, we don’t really. Going down a mine is working hard. Being a domestic and working for people who are ungrateful is very hard. We think we work hard, therefore we should play hard and we have been raised in a society where this is permissive.” Vlismas himself, had issues with drug addiction before changing his lifestyle because of near-death experiences.
A member of hip-hop groups Boot Camp Clik and Random Axe, he was half of the duo Heltah Skeltah, performing under the name Ruckus, Sean Price’s death also shocked the world in 2015. A statement from his team, just said he died in his sleep-not giving anything else. He was 43 and still had so much to offer.
The last time I saw Sharpa perform was the last time I saw Mizchief, they were in Tembisa for the 21Mic Salute Hip Hop event in 2013- although Mizchief never performed. I vividly remember how Mizchief resurfaced from a hiatus, months before his passing. The Fashionable hit-maker was reported to have died of illness in 2014. The more ambiguous the reasons for an artists’ passing from those close to them, the more the legacy is tarnished by rumours.
Fela Kuti’s brother, Professor Olikoye (Ransome) Kuti, a prominent AIDS activist and former Minister of Health in Nigeria, admitted in a press conference that Fela died of AIDS in 1997. Great as the musician was, his lifestyle choices weren’t the best. People ought to know who their heroes really are, because no one is perfect. If anything, people can now relate more to Fela.
Canadian rapper Bender who came to South Africa in 2016 to rip apart Stogie T (Tumi, of The Volume) in a rap battle, also died in March this year from a disease linked to his lifestyle. He died from sleep apnoea- a sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during one’s sleep. There are various causes for this, one of them being excessive weight or obesity.
The lifestyles we live will be our downfall. It’s very important for artists to surround themselves with people who genuinely care about their well-being because as much fun and cool excessive drinking and drug intake may be, one has to always think about their health. Added to that, is that most of these artists are survived by young families who are left stranded and in debt. That people have to donate stuff to the Mkhize family is sad and quite condescending for an artist of Pro’s calibre, because we’ve seen too many artists die as paupers. How long will this go on?
*Names not mentioned include: Brenda Fassie, Whitney Houston, TK, Jimi Hendrix, Brown Dash and plenty more!