My current auditory obsession is this remake of Fela Kuti’s 1974 song Lady, by tUnE-yArDs, featuring ?uestlove, Angelique Kidjo and Akua Naru. It is the first single from the second Red Hot compilation, (RED) Hot + Fela, which will raise funds for HIV/AIDS research.
My love for this version is so strong it is almost sexual. Angelique Kidjo is a goddess as always, her lead vocals are full of grunts and gymnastics that call to mind Fela’s energetic stage presence. ?uestlove, the biggest proponent of Fela in mainstream Western music is as ever, the cool backbone of the track. tUnE-yArDs quirky harmonies are just left-of-centre enough to stand on top of the amazing things the brass section, represented by Rubblebucket, are doing. This version manages to inject even more energy into the song, which if you know anything about Fela Kuti and his long musical reign at The Shrine, is quite an achievement. The climax of the vocal harmonies and brass at the end, will make your arm hair stand up and take notice.
Fela’s music was always political, and Merrill Garbus’ (of tUnE-yArDs) choice to populate this song with female vocalists is a political one. The original song was a criticism of what Fela saw of African women’s embrace of Western values.
If you call am woman
African woman no go ‘gree
She go say, she go say, “I be Lady o”
He contrasts the westernized “lady”, who thinks she is man’s equal (how dare she!) against the African market woman who knows her place. Lady expects men to open doors for her and wash their own plates, she smokes cigars and wants the first, biggest piece of meat. She dances the “lady dance”. African woman on the other hand, dances the “fire dance” at which point during the live performance, one of Fela’s queens would take centre stage and shake and gyrate as only a “true” African woman can.
She know him man na master
She go cook for am
She go do anything he say
For a progressive African philosopher and constant thorn in the side of 6 corrupt Nigerian administrations, with a revolutionary communist mother who deserves her own article, Fela’s views on women could be described as backwards. He was a famed philanderer, polygamist and was known to physically discipline his wives and girlfriends.
Still you cannot call his views backward when they represent a debate that continues to rage on 30 years later, on Facebook walls, in the comment section of natural hair blogposts and in bars all over Africa and the Diaspora. African men are quick to buy Iphones and embrace English soccer teams and then call for cultural conservatism when they see a young women in a short dress.
So, when Kidjo sings “lady na master” and grunts like a superhero, or when Akua Naru raps
Want us to back it up, gyrate and yell freedom/
tell us have patience, we’re still waiting on the 40 acres.
they are turning an outdated lecture into a conversation.
With a woman singing the lead and with a big presence of, you know, women’s vocals in it, with joy and like some kind of reclaiming of it, makes me, you know, really happy”
– Merril Garbus
Fela is one of my heroes, a countercultural, creative, panafricanist, survivor of our very own. So it has always been difficult for me to swallow his regressive views about women. As Garbus puts it in this video:
“There’s so much of the music that I can give a hundred percent of myself to and then there’s this one part of it that I couldn’t wrap my head around”
So listen to this song for the sheer, eclectic, grand, joy of it (those harmonies! those horns!), and when you wonder if there is more to it, know that there is