Fela Kuti's wives open up on his lifestyle, death and more secrets
Last weekend, all roads led to Terra Culture, Victoria Island, Lagos, for the screening of a new musical on late afro beat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, entitled ‘Fela and The Kalakuta Queens’, a musical written, produced and directed by Bolanle Austen-Peters of Terra Culture. Indeed it was a gathering of the crème de la crème of the industry as captains of industry, politicians, high networking individuals and thespians graced the red carpet.
And of course, also in the house were two of Fela’s wives, Bolanle Babayale and Omolara. The pair opened up to Entertainer on life with the late afro beat maestro, narrating their lives and times with him.
Fela did not die of HIV –Laide Babayale
What would you say was your happiest moment with Fela?
Every time with him was exciting. Fela was a nice person to be with. You just loved him. Fela is from a wealthy background and I am also from a wealthy background but I fell in love with him because Fela was fighting for others, yet today, people are still suffering. See what is happening to our people; there is so much poverty. A lot of people cannot afford three square meals. Our children are running away from the country everyday to go and meet their untimely deaths. It is so sad.
Twenty years after, are we doing enough to honour the man, Fela and the women who stood by him?
It is only Bolanle Austin Peters that is doing anything to honour him and his wives. Apart from her, there is no other person doing that. It is only the children that are doing Felabration and they are just doing it for their own pocket; it is not for us. Bolanle is honouring Fela today because she knows and appreciates what Fela stood for. I don’t know how old she was when Fela was alive, but she is still celebrating Fela after 20 years, a time when everybody has forgotten about us. When Bolanle called me and said she wanted to celebrate us, I was like ‘why, who are we?’ May God bless her soul for remembering the women that stood and fought with Fela? Since Fela died we have been completely forgotten. Bolanle really gave us honour.
How did you feel when Fela died in 1997?
I was at work that day and the news was a big shock to me. Because too many people were coming to Kalakuta then, the place became overcrowded so I had to go back to my parents’ house. It was from there that I started working as a working class woman. When he was sick I went to see him with the late Olikoye Ransome Kuti, Aunty Dolu and late Sola was also there. It was about two weeks after that he died. He always advised us to work hard. He never tolerated docile people and he always paid us well. When I saw him I knew he was going to die. I cried as I left his room that day. I cried because I never expected to see him in the condition that I saw him.
How did you meet Fela and how did you end up one of his Queens?
That was while I was in secondary school. My house was opposite the Shrine at Surulere Night Club. That was how I met him and became his dancer. I started with Fela as a girlfriend before he eventually married me.
You mean Fela asked you out?
No, he just saw me and said he liked me and I also liked him; it was a mutual feeling.
Here was the big artiste, Fela, and there you were a young girl in school. Were you not intimidated by his status?
I felt that way, but that was what I wanted; that was what I was looking for. I am a music lover. I was in love with Fela. It was the music that attracted me to him.
How did your parents take it that their daughter was in love with Fela?
They did not take it lightly at all. What we saw on stage today is exactly what happened, because I was taken out of Fela’s house more than 10 times and I always went back. There was no time I stayed away (laughter).
Did they ever come to terms with the fact that their daughter was head over heels for Fela?
They did not. Up till today they have not accepted it.
In 1977 he married 27 of you. What could have led to that?
Fela loved us and was not happy with the way people were treating his women. He married us because he wanted to make us proud; he did not want us to be disgraced. They used to call us prostitutes and Ashewo, Igbo (Indian hemp) smokers and this made us very unhappy. He knew how we had fought with him and suffered for him. We left everything, sacrificed everything just to be with him. We never abandoned him to surfer alone; anywhere they were taking him to we went with him. By marrying us he gave us honour and showed us appreciation. He wanted us to be respected as responsible and hard working wives.
Could you recount 1977 when Kalakuta Republic was burnt down?
I was with Mama. It was both of us that first saw the soldiers. I was so close to Fela, I was the one taking care of her. I took care of Mama till she died. I started taking care of her in 1974.
What kind of a woman was she?
Oh, it is thumbs up to her. Everybody knew who Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was. She was the woman that fought for Universal Adult Suffrage, she was the woman that sent an Alake away from the throne, and she was the first woman that drove a car in Nigeria. She was a pioneer and an inspiration to millions of Nigerian women.
Fela in a song said that she was thrown out of the window and that was what led to her death…
Of course, I was beside her when they came for her.
Can you recount that moment?
My brother, it is so long ago and painful. I don’t want to relive it again. I never had any premonition that anything untoward was going to happen that morning. I was in Mama’s room and I had just made food for her which she ate and we sat down and were chatting, while Fela was sleeping in his room. Suddenly, all hell broke loose; I was lucky to have escaped with my life.
You were her nurse. What were the last words she told you?
We were in the hospital together at LUTH and from there to General Hospital Lagos. Her condition was so bad she could not speak for a while because of her injuries. I was the one feeding her alongside her first daughter.
You were so many queens under one roof with Fela, how were you all able to live in peace under one roof?
There is no secret. We all had our own space. In a room we had like 16 of us and you must not violate your neighbour’s space.
A lot of times Fela was beaten up and arrested. Wasn’t there a time you felt he might not survive the beatings?
Lai lai! I always knew he was coming back to us and we waited for him. We knew that they could never kill Fela, because he never killed anybody. The only weapon he had was his music.
What was the greatest advice Fela gave you?
Fela asked me if I still wanted to go to school and study but I said no. He wanted me to go back to school but I told him that life had ‘entered’ my body and I did not want to go back. And so he said I must work, which was what I did throughout our years together.
How much was he paying you per show?
No, he never paid us for shows. We took our salary every Monday; we were his workers.
Twenty years after his death, are you still missing Fela?
Very much! That was why after Fela died I could not remarry or stay with any man, because I was so in love with Fela. His standard was too high. He was too generous. He was every woman’s dream; he was a disciplinarian who knew how to handle his women.
What year did you leave Fela?
I never left Fela. I was with him till the very end even after I moved back to my parent’s house, I still kept seeing him.
So, what do you do now?
I am a retiree; a pensioner to be precise.
After your experience with Fela, would you advise your children to go into music?
My children are doing their own-o. I don’t interfere with their dreams and they are successful businessmen and women.
Do you have any regrets meeting Fela?
I have none. He was the greatest thing that happened to me.
There was this report after Fela’s death that he died due to HIV. As a woman who knew him very well, what is your take?
I don’t believe that. Fela did not die of AIDS. I still wonder what gave them that impression. What killed Fela was the beating he received from soldiers for many years. He was always in pain because of the beatings and that affected his health seriously. I totally disagree that Fela died of AIDS.
I will miss Fela till I die- Omolara
20 years after Fela died, are you still missing him?
Fela is one man you can never forget. He was my boss and I worked for him. He was a very nice man. He let me to know the truth about life; he opened my eyes. I travelled to a lot of countries with him, beginning from Ghana, Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy, to mention a few; we went all over the world.
How did you meet Fela?
I met Fela at Moshalashi. I had known him for long and I loved his music. So I wanted to stay in his house and be one of his dancers and he welcomed me; I was very young then.
What was your happiest moment with him?
Every time with him was happy. There were no dull moments. Fela was running an empire. We were all working and Kalakuta was like a country. Fela never tolerated docility; if you must be with him you must work and earn money.
Fela was a perfectionist. As a dancer, how many hours did you rehearse with him weekly?
We did not play every day. We had a teacher then, Ajayi Ogunde, one of late Pa Ogunde’s sons. He came on Thursdays and Saturdays and we exercised a lot. On Sunday we had Sunday’s Jump and on Tuesdays we had Ladies Night where ladies don’t pay. We had shows on Tuesdays, Fridays Saturdays and Sundays and after they burnt Fela’s house, we moved to Cross Roads Hotel at Jibowu, Lagos. Fela took me all over the world for shows.
The day Fela’s house was raided in 1977, where were you?
They had raided before and packed all of us, but what happened that day was evil. I was in Kalakuta and those soldiers had no mercy. I had just woken up and I was upstairs when suddenly we heard shouting and screaming and that was it. We were on the balcony discussing, so we all ran inside and they came for us with their clubs, petrol, whips and matches. I was hospitalised for two weeks. Later they charged us to court, but the judge discharged us because we had no case to answer. They beat the hell out of me. It was a very bad experience which I will never forget. They beat us mercilessly. It was a terrible day. They beat us and raped some of us. I was stabbed in a very delicate part of my body. It was a day of sorrow, tears and blood.
How did you take the news of Fela’s death?
I was shocked that he was gone. However I left his house in 1984.
Why did you leave?
I must leave. I had to leave. Would I stay in Fela’s house for life?
He married all of you as his Queens in 1977, how did you feel?
I felt happy. The experience was great. I was not really expecting it, but when it happened I was very happy. He gave us honour and respect with that move. I left his house in 1984.
Was it when he divorced all of you in 1984 that you left?
Divorce? Fela never divorced any of us; not at all. I left his place and returned to my family house and today I am a caterer. After that I gave myself to Jesus and became born again. It is not that I hated Fela’s lifestyle, but I needed to have a religion. I belong to Christ now.
Today, Fela is a global brand and people talk about him. How do you feel being one of Fela’s Queens?
I feel great and I am very proud of him. That was why I said Bolanle is doing so much after 20 years. When I went to Fela’s house I had a mission. We are not prostitutes. Some of us are Magistrates’ daughters. We were from good homes. Fela happened to me for a purpose. Fela is part of my life and I have no regrets. Life is all about taking one step after the other towards self discovery and actualization. Fela was one of those steps I had to pass through to reach my destiny.
What lessons did you learn from Fela?
I learnt a lot to be honest and hard working. I am not ashamed to be one of Fela’s girls. I worked for him, I am not a prostitute. And my family never rejected me. Whenever I went home, they welcomed me. Even my mother knew I was staying in Fela’s house and it was not a big deal. Fela was grossly misunderstood.
Are any of your kids taking after you as a dancer today?
I don’t discuss my private life.
How do you feel about the musical Fela and his queens
Wow! God used Bolanle Austin-Peters to promote us as Fela’s girls and not as prostitutes. Fela was a nice man. He hated cheating. I thank God for Bolanle, God used her to help us. When we were in Kalakuta, Fela gave us so much respect. Laide was my senior in Fela’s house. People used to call us Igbo smokers and prostitutes but we were actually workers. We were working for Fela. I was a dancer and I travelled a lot with Fela. He took me all over the world. He fought for the rights of the down trodden. I will miss him forever.
As Fela’s Queens, how did you all live in peace?
The secret is that we all loved each other and had each other’s back.