On my way home from work today, walking through Union Station in Los Angeles, I was listening to Fela Kuti’s classic “Gentleman,” and the lyrics struck me. If you don’t know about Kuti, he created Afrobeat, a pan-African sound that combined African pop with American jazz and funk and a bold anti-colonialist, anti-corruption message.
In “Gentleman,” Kuti asserts that he’s not a gentleman - that he won’t bow to the expectation that he follow the cultural rules of the colonialists. The final verse addresses clothing, in Nigerian Pidgin English:
I no be gentleman at all o! I be Africa man original I be Africa man original
Africa hot, I like am so I know what to wear but my friends don’t know Him put him socks, him put him shoe Him put him pant, him put him singlet Him put him trouser, him put him shirt Him put him tie, him put him coat Him come cover all with him hat Him be gentleman Him go sweat all over Him go faint right down Him go smell like shit Him go piss for body, him no go know Me I no be gentleman like that
Kuti highlights the great irony of the colonialist’s “gentlemanliness” - and that which they expect from those they’ve colonized. This outside value system, transported to another world, becomes crazy. The only thing that holds it in place is hubris - and the exercise of power.
It’s easy to assume that your values are universal. That you can impose them on those around you, and that others should be judged by your values. This is particularly true for those of us who are comfortably seated in a powerful dominant culture - we may never have been asked to question whether our values are universal.
I think it’s telling that Kuti chose clothing as his synecdoche. Clothing is powerful stuff - that’s one of the reasons we write this blog. And I think we can all learn from what Fela sings.
I’m not, of course, asking you to discard your necktie and hat. But the next time you’re getting dressed, think about what it really means to be a gentleman.
The clothes worn by the bride, the daughter of one of the most important chiefs in the oil rivers protectorate, now Southern Nigeria, is of native manufacture. Some of these cloths are very beautiful and exceedingly strong. The necklets, bracelets and hair ornaments are large pipes of real and valuable coral. The armlets are of ivory cut from elephants’ tusks’ Vintage Nigeria