Women that danced the fire dance : Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat Queens, performance and the dialectics of postcolonial identity




Ayobade, Oladotun Babatope

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On February 20, 1978, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti married twenty-seven dancers and singers in his Africa 70 Organization, in what would become one of Nigeria’s most dramatic events of the decade. The Afrobeat Queens, as the young women were famously known, grew into indispensable actors in the making of Afrobeat music and subculture in the 1970s, as well as in Fela’s rise to prominence as a musician and activist. As dancers, singers and makeup artists, the young women elevated Afrobeat music to the level of a global phenomenon. However, their collaboration with Fela’s anti-government, anti-colonial ideologies made them special targets of State-organized violence. Their often-eroticized stage performances equally earned them the contempt of the larger Nigerian public. Despite the Queens’ critical roles in shaping Afrobeat’s character and ideology, they have failed to materialize as fully formed subjects of Afrobeat history. This is due in part because they have been imagined as indecent, underclass women undeserving of Afrobeat’s collective memorializing; or as collateral damage of Fela’s personal and political excesses. This research offers a framework for understanding the complexities of the Queens’ onstage and everyday life performances in Afrobeat, in relation to the postcolonial context that inspired those performances. I employ the concept of dialectics to explore the complexities and contradictions inhered in the Queens’ performances, as well as the shifting, sometimes contradictory, subject positions that their performances sanctioned. I also engage dialectics to highlight the implications of their performances for notions of individual and collective selfhood. Finally, I situate the women’s performances within a postcolonial framework to highlight the sociocultural, political and material conditions within and around which they collaborated with Fela Kuti. This research employs a combination of interviews of some of these women performers and Fela’s male collaborators, with archival research and a close reading existing and emergent cultural texts circulating within the Afrobeat subculture. This dissertation furthers the dialogue around gender in Afrobeat history, performance as embodied strategy by postcolonial, underclass Nigerian women, and the complexities of African feminist discourses vis-à-vis African patriarchies.


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