An African feminist analysis of Fela’s “Lady”

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felaqq An African feminist analysis of Fela’s “Lady”

This post is in remembrance of the legendary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, deceased on this day in 1997. May his soul continue to rest in peace. 

Extract from “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 / I wan tell you about “lady” / She go say im equal to man / She go say im get power like man / She go say anything man do, imself fit do / I never tell you finish / She go wan take cigar before anybody / She go wan make you open door for am / She go wan make e man wash plate for am kitchen / She wan salute man, she go sit down for chair

TRANSLATION: If you call her a woman an African woman will not listen / She will tell you she is a lady / CHORUS: She will tell you she is a lady / Let me tell you about this “lady” / She believes she is equal to men / She believes she is as powerful as men / She will tell you that she can do anything men can do / Let me tell you / She is not ashamed of smoking in front of anyone / She demands that you open doors for her / She expects her man to do the dishes in her kitchen / She will sit down on a chair before saluting a man

 

It’s my birthday tomorrow and through some admittedly self-indulgent birthday-related search on Google I stumbled upon a site where you can order the soundtrack of your life.
Their song suggestions were not apt for me but it made me consider which songs I would put on the soundtrack of my life. One song that would headline such an album would be Lady by Fela as it’s a song that has accompanied both my childhood and adulthood.

I’m not alone. Lady has been the cause of joy, dance and debate for many. Although there isn’t as much analysis of the song as I think it deserves, writers like Mercy Oduyoye and Michael Veal have tackled it. Last year OkayAfrica reported that Tuneyards, Angelique Kidjo, Akua Naru and Questlove  set out “reclaiming “Lady” for modern African women” in this remix. Most discussions have pondered whether Lady was misogynist or feminist without reaching a consensus.

Here’s what I think.

First, we need to understand the kind of society that Lady was released to.
Lady came out in 1972 on the Shakara LP, twelve years after Nigeria had gained independence from the British and two years after the end of the Nigerian civil war. 1972 was also the year that revenue from oil sales boosted Nigeria’s economy to such an extent that people’s salaries were in many cases doubled. The “Udoji Award”, as the unprecedented wage increase event was dubbed, was not without complications but I mention it here to demonstrate the celebratory mood that Nigeria found itself in.
It seems fair to assume from the lyrics that during this time of change, a parallel discussion about African women becoming westernised was taking place. When Fela sings, “African woman go dance she go dance the fire dance – She know im man na Master – She go cook for am – She go do anything he say – But Lady no be so”, he is implying that westernised African women are disrupting gender harmony in contrast to the “pre-lady” African woman who knows her place in society.
In  this sense the song is a condemnation of women’s liberation from patriarchal, servile roles.

On the other hand, despite its display of male-dominant attitudes, it is also a song that demonstrates African women’s power to self-define. There is even a sense of affection and pride towards the lady’s display of power when Fela says “I wan tell you bout lady [..] Hmm, I neva tell you finish”. It may or may not have been Fela’s intention to demonstrate the no-nonsense attitude many Nigerian women flaunt upon a man who tries to subjugate her, but in the very line “She go say I be lady o”, this matter-of-fact self-determination is represented. Furthermore, by rejecting the idea of the emancipated, liberated lady, Fela was inadvertently opposing Western cultural dominance.

There are nevertheless three problems here.

Firstly, the song contradicts Fela’s own life and the women in it. After all, Fela was the son of Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, an unapologetically modern and traditional women’s right’s activist. Also Sandra Izsadore, progressive and modern, whom I interviewed last year, was one of the most important women in Fela’s life.

The second problem is that both the African woman and the lady in the song are mere symbols of essentialist cultural wars between western and African men. In actuality, they are one and the same as implied by the line, “If you call am woman, African woman no go gree, she go say I be lady o“.

Third, and most importantly, the depiction of the traditional African woman in Lady is biased. Many so called traditional African women are just as prone to claim, “anything man do, imself fit do”. In fact, some of the most important African feminist icons, including Fela’s mother, were traditional African women too.

Fela of course knew this. In one interview he said,

In the spirit world, women are Aje [normally interpreted as "witch"]. The Aje whose physical manifestation could be womanhood is a spirit being with potentially positive and/or negative energies. As in the drama of life, the conflict that propels this force is both negative and positive…. The Aje rules us, rules the world, even when men assume that they have the edge. My mother is Aje, and so are all our sisters and wives.

Yet in another, he said,

To call me a sexist . . . for me it’s still not a negative name. If I’m a sexist, it’s a gift. Not everybody can fuck two women every day. So if I can fuck two women every day and they don’t like it, I’m sorry for them. I just like it.

Well..

Apart from being a phenomenal song, and despite – or perhaps because of – its problematic stance, ultimately I find Lady is an African feminist anthem thanks to its depiction of African women’s self determination. As a commentary on gender and the intersections of ethnicity, modernity, class and tradition, Lady tackles some of the key issues in African feminist thought and is a valuable contribution to gender politics in post-colonial Africa. Most of all, Fela’s lyrics, if unintentionally, reveal the narrow space between pan-Africanism and feminism in which African women determinedly find our revolution. To quote the Black president, “Lady na master”!

What do you think? Leave a comment with your thoughts.

——

Photo from www.afrobeatmusic.net

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  • Tee tee

    Love this! Thank you

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks! My pleasure

  • Ibimina LeggJack

    This is the first time I’m coming across this blog and I’m glad it was this lovely piece that got me here. Really nice! Copied the link and literally shoved it in the faces of all my ‘ladies’. ☺

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thank you and welcome! Hope to see you here again.

  • JSON

    It’s an ok article, I like the commentary but I expected a bit more depth in the analysis, and though I appreciate its poignant points and the pre-existing bias of this site/blog it jumps too quickly to the feminism anthem conclusion before mentioning a few contrasting points. Firstly Fela was a great social commentator without sometimes holding any position over the point he was stressing. Musicians, artists, poets, often do not reflect the lives they comment on (Fela’s mother’s strong womanhood).

    Secondly Fela uses the ‘African Woman’ moniker interchangeably sometimes it seems parody, paradox or sarcasm? One African woman dances and serves her man, another to distinguish herself calls the market woman a woman and herself a lady. Emphasising her right to equality often in the less noble things. Openly smoking, the first to sit, the first at the table, the first to stick two fingers up to protocol, bad habits or attributes or emblems of emancipation depending on your persuasion.

    Yes this is indeed a sign of the times, the lady vs the African woman, and somewhere in between a man in protest and a man observing that the two might well be the same, the African woman is indeed the Lady, but no maybe not in the way you think. Lady na master…

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hey JSON, thanks for reading. I mentioned quite a few contrasting points actually or did you not agree with the three issues that I raised?
      I think artists can change their minds and be contradictory, and should be, as this is human nature, but I think in this instance and in most instances in fact, Fela was opinionated about the issues he raised, although of course he was also often being a provocateur.

      You said, “…somewhere in between a man in protest and a man observing that the two might well be the same, the African woman is indeed the Lady, but no maybe not in the way you think.”
      In what way do you think?

      • JSON

        The African Woman considers herself the Lady, the Lady is the African Woman…not just in the ‘seemingly’ pro-feminist stances but in both instances. The two intrinsically linked. Yet there is contained within this perhaps a protest or at best a cautionary note, not all attributes are ‘lady’like.

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  • http://www.ligali.org Toyin Agbetu

    Hmmm….

    I think Ms Afropolitan you are caught in the same ideological minefield I was when I became older and politically aware enough to decipher the meaning of the words Fela sang in Lady.

    Like you I grew up listening to Fela, his confidence, bravado, spiritual determination and political outspokenness instantly made him one of my role models. Knowing his mother was also awesome only helped cement the Kuti brand in my psyche. However it was when my own children were singing the lyrics of Lady one day, in particular my daughter I had to stop and think.

    I do agree that in lady Fela is admitting a love of the traditional African woman, from her fire dance to her confidence to self define. Yet if I am being honest he is admitting to a sadness that means she is/was becoming unwilling to accept traditional roles which placed her at odds with male authority.

    Some parts I agree with, other I do not. But likewise I feel the quotes you shared offer a perfect exploration of contradiction brilliant artists have on their journey of learning.

    Fela’s views of women as spiritual Aje matches many African men including myself. But this does not automatically relegate men into a position that is therefore physically inferior. Fela’s views on sexual intimacy (cough cough) were as you suggest a product of his time and perhaps celebrity lifestyle.

    Where Fela and I may disagree (it feels sacrilege even suggesting this) is that I believe we are both designed to be totally complimentary in the spirit AND the physical world. Thus a man can have a ‘female’ spirit and a woman a ‘male’ spirit. The completed picture only happens when both opposites combine together.

    Perhaps I’m stretching this to provide justification for why I still love ‘Lady’, but then I equally love Fela’s ‘Gentleman’ song. My wife uses it as her ring tone for when I call and when those words ‘I be African man original ‘ sing from her phone I always smile. Its not a denigration.

    There we go, perhaps we should never analyse Lady without Gentleman in tow and recognise despite the ‘civilising’ associations that are suggested by the labels, Fela is revealing that both man and woman are still capable of being civil and traditionally African at the same time.

    • MsAfropolitan

      @Toyin, thank you for this eloquent note. Your suggestion of listening to ‘Gentleman’ and ‘Lady’ together is great. To my sensibilities, ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ are adjectives rather than biological descriptions as male and female are and I don’t think one *necessarily* must have to do with the other.