This bitch of a life
By Carlos Moore
Cassava Republic Press
The year 2010, the 13th anniversary of the death of ‘Abami Eda’, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, was undoubtedly an epiphany. It was a year like no other since his demise. Broadway, the home of theatre in the United States, staged a musical that took the world by storm in a manner the Abami Eda himself did. In the same year, as part of ‘Felabration’--the annual event set aside by his scions to mark his anniversary--the book ‘Fela: This Bitch of a Life’ by Carlos Moore was published in Nigeria, 28 years after it was published to world acclaim abroad.
A rebellious heritage
The release of this book, which marked the first time it was published in Africa, has added more value to the discourse of Fela the man, his music, life and philosophy. Written primarily in the first-person narrative, Fela tells his story candidly, starting from his long-awaited birth and the kind of child his parents expected. In his words, his parents expected “the meek, quiet type ... [a] well-mannered” child but gave birth to him instead. In Yoruba cosmology, it is believed that if a troublesome child is not allowed to breathe life, it will disturb its mother throughout hers. In other words, Fela was a child that had to be born in order for his parents, and especially his mother, to have peace.
The biography traces Fela’s lineage in a way that demonstrates he inherited his rebellious streak from the Kuti family. His father, a priest, once refused to remove his cap while passing by a military barracks where the colonial British flag was flying. He refused to back down when challenged by a military guard and the forceful removal of his cap with a bayonet led to serious uproar in the city. This eventually led to the relocation of the army barracks from within the city of Abeokuta to its outskirts. The book also captures the essence of the mother who was instrumental to the women’s protest against the Alake of Abeokuta for imposing a tax on women.
In writing ‘This Bitch of a Life’, Moore was able to have unrestricted access to Fela. This is perhaps what others who have written books about the legend never had. Fela was at once a man of the people and at the same time a very hard man to get in the kind of close interaction that would have resulted in writing a book as intimate as the one Moore eventually wrote.
Another strong point that Moore had over all other authorised biographers of the Abami Eda was that he was able to give voices to all 27 band girls whom he (the late Fela) affectionately referred to as queens. He married them in one day. In justifying this rather bizarre marriage to 27 girls all at once, he was trying to let the world know that the band girls, who were being rejected or scorned, were all worthy to be married.
For the first time readers are able to get a firsthand peep into the minds of the wives and what they think of their man. Leading the pack is the numero uno, Remi, mother of the clan. It must have been a tough task for Moore to get her to talk about the man she loved. Many journalists would attest to the fact that she was a most reserved woman, who hardly ever spoke to the press. She was content with living her life in the background. She was also a no-nonsense woman who was not bothered by her husband’s ways with women.
She says, “The only thing that bothered me was if any woman should come and try to act big over me. I wouldn’t take that. It really didn’t bother me because he had, you know, girlfriends outside. He never brought any woman to my house.” (p183) Answering a question about why she stuck to him for over two decades despite the tumult she says, “Most likely because I know he’s honest and he’s really doing what he believes.” (p185) Remi confesses that Fela taught her humanity and how to forgive. This is something very positive and revealing as many perhaps would have thought of him as a man who loves trouble. About the things that irked or rubbed her wrong way about her man she admits, “His generosity is the first. This was in the past and sometimes now. And I think sometimes his humanity is misguided. I can be pretty hard with people. You hurt me; I can’t accept anything else from you. He’s made me change a bit and I don’t like that change, ‘cause if somebody does something to me I don’t want to talk to them again. But through Fela I’ve learnt to subdue that feeling.” (p185)
Many great and hard men are known to calm down where their loved one is concerned. Could Fela, with his public persona, be afraid of anyone? A man who took on systems and one brutal military government after another? The woman who should know him more than us all reveals, “I sometimes feel Fela’s a little bit afraid of me. I really do. He may never show it or admit it, but I feel it.” (p187) But that demonstrates that he was human after all.
There are so many more revelations about the lives of the women in Kalakuta Republic and many reasons as to why they married him. One of such was Kikelemo, who was asked what her ambition in life was, to which she replied, “I don’t know.” When asked, “What do you want to do in life?” she said, “I just like to be Fela’s wife.” (p228) He was such a captivating phenomenon.
‘This Bitch of a Life’ is no doubt a well-written and researched documentation of the life of Fela. The long wait for its publication in Nigeria and Africa has been well worth it. The publishers, Cassava Republic, have really done well. If marketed well, this book will be one of their bestsellers. The publishers have turned out to be an outfit to look out for, as Cassava has become home to great books, such as Lola Shoneyin’s ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’, long listed for the prestigious Orange Prize, and Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s ‘I Do Not Come to You By Chance’, which won the Commonwealth regional prize.
However, there are some few typos that they need to correct in subsequent reprints. These include Calabaris instead of Kalabari (38), Buckner for Bucknor (p65), Zill Oniya for Zeal Onyia (p82), Urobho for Urhobo (p221), Ejor for Ijaw (p229), Beni for Bini (p234), and Shosanyu for Shosanyan (p237). Despite these little glitches, the book is a wonderful treasure trove that must be explored. Time spent reading through it is amply rewarded with a wealth of information and insights on one of Africa’s greatest exports and gifts to the world.
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