Although I grew up hearing Highlife, Soukous, and Zouk music blare almost daily from my Daddy’s speakers (home and car), I admittedly didn’t get ‘put on’ to Fela Kuti and the Afrobeat sound until my early 20s. I remember one of the first tunes I heard was “Zombie.” After listening intently to those intoxicating horn riffs (my goodness those horns) and unconsciously pulsing to that infectious beat, finally, after a full five minutes, I heard his voice. And his message. And I was hooked. Instantly. Later I would learn that it was this very song that provoked Nigerian soldiers’ attack on his home, the incident during which his mother, fierce and fearless activist, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, was thrown from a window. She later died from her injuries.

Knowing this one bit of what I imagined to be a powerful life story, I wanted to know more; but more than anything, I wanted to know Fela’s music. On my sojourn into his discography, I came across his album “Yellow Fever/Na Poi” and was immediately entranced by the album cover.  What was I looking at? Or rather, what was looking at me? Two parts of a naked woman. Waistbead-adorned full bottom darker than her body. A tube of “Oyoyo Cream | Skin Bleacher | Oyinbo Pepper” discharged the letters that would form the title – “Yellow Fever.”  I had heard enough Nigerians say ‘oyinbo’ in the same way Ghanaians say ‘oburoni’ to know that it means ‘White person’ in Yoruba. Not knowing what ‘oyoyo’ meant, I surveyed my Nigerian massive to discover that it loosely means ‘good times’ in West African Pidgin. Okay, Fela, what say you?

All fever na sickness – original sickness
Hay fever na sickness – original sickness
Malaria na sickness – original sickness
Jaundice na sickness – original sickness
Influenza na sickness – original sickness
Inflation na sickness – original sickness
Freedom na sickness – original sickness
Yellow fever nko?
Original and artificial he dey!

Original catch you
Your eye go yellow
Your yansh go yellow
Your face go yellow
Your body go weak
I say but later if you no die inside
The yellow go fade away

Artificial catch you
You be man or woman
Na you go catch am yourself
Na your money go do am for you
You go yellow pass yellow
You go catch moustache for face
You go get your double color
Your yansh go black like coal
You self go think say you dey fine
Who say you fine?

Na lie, you no fine at all!
At all, na lie!

My sister, who say you fine?

Na lie, you no fine at all!
At all, na lie!

Every form of fever is a sickness – a serious sickness
Hay fever is a sickness  – a serious form of sickness
Malaria is a sickness  – a serious form of sickness
Jaundice is a sickness  – a serious form of sickness
Influenza is a sickness  – a serious form of sickness
Inflation is a sickness  – a serious form of sickness
Freedom is a sickness  – a serious form of sickness

But what about Yellow Fever?
There is the real one as well as the artificial type

Should you catch the natural type
Your eyes will turn yellow
Your ass will turn yellow
Your face will turn yellow
Your body becomes weak
If the sickness does not kill you
The yellow color will fade away

Should you catch the artificial type
Whether you are a man or a woman
You will cause the sickness all by yourself
You will buy the sickness with your own money
You will turn yellower than yellow
You will look like you have a moustache
You will look like you have two colors
Your ass will be as black as coal
And you will fool yourself thinking that you are beautiful
But are you really beautiful?

No, you are not at all beautiful
You only deceive yourself

My sister, do you really think you are beautiful?

No, you are not at all beautiful
You only deceive yourself

A critique of skin bleaching? In 1976? In Nigeria? Yet again, Fela was sending me on a fact-finding mission. Two trips to Ghana, 600+ surveys, 40 interviews, and 532 pages later, mission (read: dissertation) accomplished.

Although I trace the origins of skin bleaching as a cosmetic and commercial practice to the Elizabethan era of powder and paint, the historical moment in which Fela’s “Yellow Fever” emerges is an interesting one – (fairly) newly independent Africa. Since I focused on Ghana specifically, it’s important to remember that Ghana was the first African country south of the Sahara to regain independence from European colonial powers on March 6, 1957 under the leadership of Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah. (#BLACKSTARS). Within four years of Ghana’s independence, 18 additional African countries won their own independence. Nkrumah, who was greatly influenced by the nationalist and Pan-African movements in the United States, was determined to “forge in Africa a Ghanaian nation that [would] stand out as a shining example before the rest of the world of the African’s ability to manage his own affairs” (Nkrumah, 1963, xvi). With his now memorialized words “Onwards Ever – Backwards Never,” Nkrumah’s vision was that Ghana would become the master of its own fate, free from European influence.

Somehow or another, Nkrumah’s signature statement was turned on its head and used exactly opposite the way he intended. “Onwards Ever – Backwards Never” devolved into a statement suggestive of ‘development’ and the movement away from our ‘backwards ways.’ While skin bleaching surfaced as a seemingly blatant paradox to Nkrumah’s vision, in the minds of many, it helped to transform the ‘traditional’ African self into one arguably more commensurate with ‘modern’ society. So while Nkrumah was successful in evicting the British colonial regime from Ghanaian soil, their colonial (White) ideals remained.

It is no wonder then, that as I researched old issues of The Sunday Mirror (1955-1970), a popular weekly newspaper with one of the largest circulations in the history of Ghanaian journalism, I found many images that seemingly support a White aesthetic ideal, especially for Ghanaian women.

Like this smile from Miss Ghana 1959

The Sunday Mirror, 1959, no. 292

But then again, if the “Queen of Ghana” doesn’t look Ghanaian (or isn’t even Ghanaian for that matter), I should probably check my expectations.

The Sunday Mirror, 1959, no. 296

But here’s where it gets good. One of my mentors, a Ghanaian man who came of age during Nkrumah’s Ghana, told me that Nkrumah choice to marry Fathia, an Egyptian woman, was a political one; one demonstrative of his true commitment to Pan-Africanism, rather than his taste in women. You should know that the reason he even shared this piece of information with me is because I argued (rather vehemently so) that in marrying a light-skinned Egyptian woman, and having her set on the pedestal reserved for the Prime Minister’s wife, that Nkrumah inadvertently sent a potent message to Ghanaians, both women and men, about “ideals” of feminine beauty — for men, Fathia, with her extremely light skin and comparatively European features, symbolized the type of beauty “successful” men could attract; and for women, Fathia was emblematic of the beauty to which they should aspire, the type of beauty that could attract the likes of the Prime Minister; and not just any Prime Minister, but Ghana’s first Prime Minister, the one who had enough vision to lead us towards freedom. Having reached the status of national icon, Fathia, “Our No. 1 Lady,” was featured in The Sunday Mirror on multiple occasions.

The Sunday Mirror, 1965, no. 607

After ten years of promoting countless products that relied upon the presumed power “inherent” to whiteness as a way to entice consumers (i.e. commodity racism), primarily via soap, laundry detergent, powder, and cosmetics all promising miraculous transformations (from dirty to clean), on September 3, 1967, in running its first skin bleaching advertisement, The Sunday Mirror now encouraged a more explicit mode of self-transformation – from dark to light.

One of, if not the first ad for skin bleaching cream in Ghana. The Sunday Mirror, 196, no. 734

Between the years 1967 and 1971, ads for nine different types of bleaching/toning creams were displayed on the newspaper’s pages. Early ads described the products as cleansers that had the ability to unclog pores, reduce and prevent bumps while also “removing discolorations.”

The Sunday Mirror, 1968, no. 754

As time went on, and bleaching/toning creams gained popularity, we see no association with cleansing or acne prevention/reduction as the ads blatantly boast “smoother,” “lighter,” “softer,” and “lovelier” skin.

The Mirror, 1971, no. 915

The Mirror, 1971, no. 931

Although bleaching agents gained great popularity during this time, women’s efforts to achieve a lighter complexion did not go without notice, if not outrage, from the broader public. Alongside the advertisements, The Mirror (the publication changed its name in 1970) also featured numerous articles, op-eds, and letters to the Editor in which readers condemned women for “slavishly” adopting Western ideals of beauty. The subject of bleaching was of intense debate on the pages of The Mirror, one reader going as far as to blame the newspaper itself for promoting the practice in its feature of advertisements for skin lightening agents.  That same year, on December 5, 1975, The Mirror featured a two-page spread entitled “Bleaching Can Cause Death.”

The Sunday Mirror, 1975, no. 1165

It should be noted that this was the first time in the previous twenty years that The Mirror portrayed a dark-skinned “beauty” on its front page – next to an article on skin bleaching. Also worthy of mention is the fact that after this particular story ran, The Mirror no longer featured advertisements for skin lightening agents.

The following year, 1976, Fela Kuti released “Yellow Fever.” Now, nearly 40 years later, approximately 30% of Ghanaian women and 5% of Ghanaian men are “currently actively bleaching”  according to the Ghana Health Service; and Nigeria now holds the title of “Number 1 for Skin Bleaching Products” by the World Health Organization. Skin bleaching has reached pandemic proportions, not only in Ghana and Nigeria, but all over the world.

Though I don’t know everything there is to know about skin bleaching  – it’s a complex, ever-changing process which manifests differently in different locales – what I do know is that skin bleaching is but one consequence of global White supremacy. It bothers me (to my core) when people ‘point the finger’ at skin bleachers, particularly women, berating them and ‘diagnosing’ them with self-hate. Backyard psychologists have so much to say, but without talking directly to people who bleach, their lived experiences are rendered invisible and their voices go unheard. THIS is why I do the work I do.

Though I give thanks for Fela gifting us with “Yellow Fever,” I am very careful not to assume his tone of torment and individual blame.

Who say you fine?

Global White Supremacy. Capitalism. Patriarchy. That’s who.

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  1. Kamal Sanusi #
    March 17, 2013

    really good read

  2. January 20, 2014

    Thank you for a great article, it prompt me to listen to yet another great Fela tune. My fist encounter was “Black President”. I could not believe how great it was, I played it over and over, just setting my cassette on loop, yes I’m that old.
    I celebrate you, you write about a topic that goes to the core of our self-esteem. I believe the ills we feel towards our features will change because of people like you who celebrate and take pride in your self. The more we celebrate you and others like you the better we will feel in our own skin.

  3. Velle #
    June 25, 2014

    I found your article very interesting, especially since the Miss Ghana you refer to is my mum!

    • Katharina #
      July 17, 2014

      dear prof blay,
      i would love to get in touch re: my current research on fashion, beauty and revolution. your article is wonderful, iD like to go deeper into some topics together!
      also, to dear ‘velle’ – could we get in touch?
      many greetings from summer in bayreuth,

    • Yaba #
      July 22, 2014

      How interesting! Small world :-)

  4. Bmblbzzz #
    June 19, 2017

    Thank you for an interesting article. I found this by listening to Fela Kuti and wondering whether the lyrics to Yellow Fever were indeed about skin bleaching or something else, but my first encounter with skin bleaching creams was in India, where I worked for a few years. The leading product there is called Fair & Lovely (with a Fair & Handsome version for men). I should probably say here that I myself am a white European. Fair & Lovely is perhaps not strictly a bleacher, it works by blocking melanin rather than bleaching; this probably makes it less dangerous but clearly the social implications are the same.

    There’s one thing you wrote that I disagree with to some extent though. You say, “While Nkrumah was successful in evicting the British colonial regime from Ghanaian soil, their colonial (White) ideals remained.” I think it is not a white ideal but a sort of idealisation of white people or whiteness. That is, white people even at the high tide of Victorian colonialism did not wish to turn their African and Asian subjects into white people; they might have wanted to foster/force European cultures on them (this too is variable) but not European skins. The idealisation of white skins is I think something that grew up within those colonised cultures. It would be interesting to explore why and how this happened, but most Europeans when they learn of the existence of such creams are appalled.

    Another point I’d like to make is that certainly in India the aim is not to look European but to achieve a paler skin, still with Indian features and other Indian cultural beauty aspects (such as long, black hair and large gold jewellery, as well as Indian clothing). The situation in Ghana or Africa generally might be different of course; India has its own caste and racial divides pre-dating European colonisation by several centuries.

    Okay, now I’m going to look at more of your blog and listen to more Fela Kuti! I hope the rest is as interesting as this piece was.

  5. Jackson #
    November 12, 2017

    Wow! Thanks for the historical investigation here, listened to the song many times without understanding the context. Never noticed that little bottle spelling the name! Erykah Badu just curated a Fela Kuti box set and this is the first track, it made me happy because it’s the first single that introduced me to Fela.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Skin Bleaching, Self-Hatred, and “Colonial Mentality” | Dr. Yaba Blay
  2. Talking Her Out of Skin Bleaching Won’t Work | Afrocentric Confessions
  3. Talking Her Out of Skin Bleaching Won’t Work – root migration
  4. Talking Her Out of Skin Bleaching Won’t Work – root migration

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