UNDERGROUND SPIRITUAL GAMES: AN EFFORT TO ADDRESS FELA’S PERCEIVED MISOGYNY.
written by Ayekooto
Fela is known as the originator of Afrobeats (Even though in some circles Orlando Julius claims he started it) and beyond his music he was one of the greatest activists and personalities in modern African history. Fela Anikulapo Kuti is a man famed for the peculiarity of his thoughts modeled along lines of the great pan Africanist leaders and traditionalists. Though, Africa is yet to have an authentic African philosophy, Fela was able to pick up what he felt was relevant in the traditionalist approach and also did the same thing with the modernist school of thought. Fela was a difficult man to understand, he was eccentric and most times, people had a problem with his perspectives to life, as such, he made many enemies.
Fela was also a man whose history was intertwined with that of the women in his life, prominent amongst them is his mother and also the fact that he married twenty seven women in one day. Fela’s mother was perceived as a feminist and as such people’s expectations of his perception of the female gender was high. Fela was seen as a man who came from a family that had been influenced by western education and as such his perceptions would be against the patriarchy most times exhibited in some local Nigerian traditions. Fela who initially was married to a British woman and school in the UK later turned around and married 27 women in one day and his sudden support for some aspects of local tradition which seemed patriarchal wasn’t smiled upon by people who already had high hopes that he would be amongst the new breed of Africans who would support western feminism.
First, One issue in which most people fail to address when issues of feminism are being discussed is that there is no universally accepted definition of feminism and the fact that western feminism isn’t the best form of women empowerment. Feminism has different definitions and applications to different people and this is because people’s experiences differ. Fela’s mother was a feminist, yes, but one can argue that Fela’s mother wasn’t a woman influenced by western ideas or thoughts. Fela’s mother wasn’t a firm believer in the ideas and thought pattern of the colonial masters or the western nations. She believed in women empowerment yet she never subscribed to the superiority of western beliefs; one aspect that clearly points this out was the fact that Funmilayo Ransome Kuti was a supporter of communist and socialist ideals; she had ties and leanings to different communist countries, organizations and groups. In many instances she was penalized for her associations with communists and socialists but that never changed her perception as regards her leanings.
Secondly, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti was more of a womanist and not a western influenced feminist. Funmilayo, was a woman who was very aware of her experience as a black woman, she wasn’t one to just key into theories and causes for the sake of it, for her, her experience shaped her beliefs. Let me try to explain the concept of Womanism, womanism is a social theory based on the history and everyday experiences of women of color, especially black women. It is a theory meant to restore balance between people and their environment/ nature and reconcile human life with the spiritual dimension. It therefore holds that both feminism and culture are equally important. Now, let’s look at Funmilayo Ransome Kuti’s approach to feminism, though educated, she was a firm believer in culture and never for once gave up her traditional heritage for western ones. Funmilayo was most times dressed in traditional outfits and never gave up her position as a wife to her husband neither did she neglect the duties expected of a wife to a husband as demanded by the African and Yoruba tradition. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti asserted herself and stood for what she believed is right but she never opposed the sanctity and relevance of traditions and culture of the society from which she came, so Funmilayo Ransome Kuti can be said to be more of a womanist than a person influenced by western feminism.
The concept of western feminism itself is flawed because the same western nations that advocate for women empowerment did not make any distinction between African/Black male and female when transatlantic slavery was pervasive, they never thought of the equality when racial segregation and Jim Crowe’s law was a norm in some of their countries. Africans, whether male and females were treated as inferior beings without a recourse to gender and so it seems hypocritical that suddenly, the same enablers of racial prejudice now find succor in preaching equality amongst genders in Africa. This is where womanism differs from western feminism; womanism takes into account the racial profiling of black/colored people as inferior by racial bigots and also realizes that when push comes to shove, there will be no distinction between genders. Womanism takes into cognizance the fact that the experience of the African/Black or colored person is different because of racial profiling, slave history and apartheid system of government, womanists live with the knowledge that such experiences cannot be wished away when advocating for the equality of their gender.
Now let’s get back to Fela’s perceived misogyny. Fela wasn’t a misogynist, if anything; Fela was a man who came before his time, many have not asked what transpired and made Fela marry 27 women in a day. The Nigerian government was a culprit in the circumstances that led Fela into marrying multiple wives. Fela’s house was invaded by military men in 1977 and his dancers and female band workers were raped. Anyone who lived in the 70’s and 80’s in Nigeria will know that it was a time when hypocrisy and patriarchal judgment that never favored the female gender was rife and pervasive. A woman raped publicly was perceived as a prostitute and there was little sympathy for the victim, let me remind the reader that as at 2014, Nigeria only had 15 legal convictions for rape cases, so imagine the trauma the ladies raped by soldiers in a military dictatorship faced. Fela had two options, either to let the ladies face the hypocrisy and wickedness that the Nigerian society dished out to rape victims or to cover their shame and marry them. The reader would ask, how does marrying a woman help her status in society, let me help by explaining that in present day Nigeria, single women are denied tenancy in certain places and women cannot gain entry into certain places without the presence of her husband, so there is a form of respect that comes with marriage. So, Fela actually did what he did to help the rape victims save face in a society that is hypocritical and at the same time patriarchal. Let’s not forget that he later divorced the same women and stated that ‘No man had the right to believe he owned a woman’, this shows that Fela wasn’t a misogynist as claimed in certain circles.
The other aspect is that of his songs. One of his popular hit, ‘Lady’ is said to be a direct punch in the advocacy of the feminist cause but that may not be the case. Fela’s song ‘Lady’ was simply a song meant to mirror the difference between African women and a woman heavily influenced by western ways and values. Fela tried to show that a female could be powerful and yet still respect the traditional ways and culture of the society. In a write-up by MS. Afropolitan. com titled ‘An African Feminist Analysis of Lady’, the writer clearly pointed out that the track ‘Lady’ was released at a period of oil boom in which Nigerians had so much to spend based on salary increase and even the government complained about the increase in foreign taste and consumption of foreign goods, she also stated that ‘…a parallel discussion about African women becoming westernized was taking place’, which gives credence to my submission that at the time, it is possible that an increase in foreign taste and goods was on the rise and Fela felt it was right to point out that African women being westernized wasn’t the same as being an African woman that believed in equality and equity. Fela was trying to define a balance between western ways, pan Africanism and feminism, he was trying to point out that you don’t have to subscribe to western world views before you can be seen as an equal gender advocate. Many people may disagree with my opinion but the truth is Fela was right, he was right because there were many women before him who had stood for gender equality without changing their views and subscribing to every western thought, prominent amongst such women was his mum. So, in all, Fela wasn’t a misogynist, he was just an eccentric who was misunderstood. Fela was a man who didn’t subscribe to western philosophy and formed his own pattern of thoughts the best way he could. Some will call his thought pattern Felasophy and some will call it pan Africanism, but above all, we all know that Fela gave us joy with his music and his belief in freedom and justice; he didn’t just sing about it, he suffered for it and lived for it.
In all, let’s all accept that western Feminism isn’t the same as feminism in its true term. Let us accept that womanism is also a concept that takes the black/ African/colored women’s experience into cognizance when advocating for the feminist cause and that womanism cannot be wished away. Let us not forget the struggles of the likes of Funmilayo Ransome Kuti who were respecters of the African traditions and culture but were still assertive about female rights and inclusion. Let us also not forget that Fela was an African hero who was largely misunderstood and his thought pattern was most times misconstrued to fit the propaganda of the oppressors of African people. Let us also learn that we cannot throw away our past experiences and present realities and embrace ways foreign to us without an analytic discourse and questions being asked. Let us also know that this write up does not support the patriarchy that exists in most African societies but all we are trying to propose is that Africans need to find African solutions to African problems.