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The Feminist Fela

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I like what Merrill Garbus is doing with the classic Fela Kuti song, “Lady.” She’s teamed up with Questlove, Angélique Kidjo and Akua Naru to cover the song for a new compilation of Fela’s music. Merrill says she’s on a mission to reclaim the hidden feminist message in the song. But why hidden?

So Fela Kuti was a cultural critic extraordinaire. In his heydays, there was no African politician too big to suffer the sting of his witty Afrobeat lyrics. In pointing out the consequences of bad political leadership in Africa, Fela was way ahead of his time. But when it came to women, Fela’s politics was a bit weird. In the song, “Lady,” Fela condemned African women who were independent, defiant, outspoken, and westernized. In Fela’s mind, the true African woman pretty much does what her man tells her to do.

The Complication

Most of the women in Fela’s life were, however, powerful. His mother, Funmilayo Kuti was a card-carrying Communist. Her story was one of the many driving forces that inspired the wave of feminism that swept through Nigeria in the 80s. And it’s common knowledge that Fela adored his mother. Fela’s queens may not have been feminist champions but they were brave. There was a time when Fela and his Shrine were looked upon as the Sodom of Lagos. It had to have taken a whole lot of guts for a young woman to abandon the “good” life and live as a cultural deviant with Fela. Fela knew this and took every opportunity he had to praise the women of his legendary harem.

That’s why it seems to me that in attempting to rethink the song as sending a strong message about women-power, Merrill, Kidjo, and Akua are definitely on to something.

WATCH: Okay Africa’s Making of Lady

Lyrics to Lady :

If you call am woman
African woman no go ‘gree
She go say, she go say, “I be Lady o”[Chorus]
She go say, “I be Lady o”!She go say, “I be Lady”
She go say, “I no be woman”
She go say, “Market woman na woman”
She go say, “I be Lady”I wan tell you about Lady
I wan tell you about Lady
I wan tell you about LadyShe go say him equal to man
She go say him get power like man
She go say anything man do himself fit doI never tell you finish
I never tell you finish
I never tell you finish
I never tell you finish
I never tell you…

She go wan take cigar before anybody
She go wan make you open door for am
She go wan make man wash plate for am for kitchen

She wan salute man she go sit down for chair
She wan salute man she go sit down for chair
She wan sit down for table before anybody
She wan sit down for table before anybody
She wan a piece of meat before anybody
She wan a piece of meat before anybody

Call am for dance, she go dance Lady dance
Call am for dance, she go dance Lady dance
African woman go dance, she go dance the fire dance
African woman go dance, she go dance the fire dance

She know him man na master
She go cook for am
She go do anything he say

But Lady no be so
But Lady no be so
But Lady no be so
But Lady no be so

Lady na master
Lady na master
Lady na master

The lovely image in the post is courtesy 2snapsandatwirl

The Feature image is by the amazing Dexter R. Jones. Check out his work HERE

 

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Ainehi Edoro is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches African literature. She received her doctorate at Duke University. She is the founder and editor of Brittle Paper and series editor of Ohio University Press’s Modern African Writer’s imprint.

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