What Is A Gentleman?

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.

I’ve just lost forty minutes in the photo gallery of the Martin & Osa Johnson Safari Museum. The Johnsons were a Kansas couple who adventured their way through the 1920s and 30s, making some of the first wildlife documentaries on film and photographing both people and animals. Their book was called “I Married Adventure.” Wonderful.

I’ll admit it: I do love a good safari outfit.

Here’s something of interest to folks in Baltimore: the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture (they should look into lengthening that name) has a pair of exhibits on the black dandy. Dandy Lion: Articulating a Re(de)fined Black Masculine Identity looks at African-American dandies both contemporary and historical through photography. Global Dandy: Selected Photographs From the Global Africa Project looks at dandies throughout the African diaspora.
In both cases, the goal is an interesting and admirable one: to challenge the notion that black male culture (and particularly aesthetic culture) is monolithic, and to present the ways that it has represented a reinterpreted the dandy tradition.
Urbanite Baltimore has more.
(Photo, from the exhibition, by Hanif Abdur-Rahim)
thanks, Lindsey!

Here’s something of interest to folks in Baltimore: the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture (they should look into lengthening that name) has a pair of exhibits on the black dandy. Dandy Lion: Articulating a Re(de)fined Black Masculine Identity looks at African-American dandies both contemporary and historical through photography. Global Dandy: Selected Photographs From the Global Africa Project looks at dandies throughout the African diaspora.

In both cases, the goal is an interesting and admirable one: to challenge the notion that black male culture (and particularly aesthetic culture) is monolithic, and to present the ways that it has represented a reinterpreted the dandy tradition.

Urbanite Baltimore has more.

(Photo, from the exhibition, by Hanif Abdur-Rahim)

thanks, Lindsey!

Some great tropical looks from our man Adabraka Sartorialist. After all, you’ve gotta dress right if you’re gonna go to Ghana.

Some great tropical looks from our man Adabraka Sartorialist. After all, you’ve gotta dress right if you’re gonna go to Ghana.

We continue our look at real men in real nice clothes with this photo of Barima, who lives in Accra, Ghana, taken by his friend Jamie Archer.
Barima’s in quite the dandy outfit here.  He’s got a loud pocket square, a flower in his lapel that looks as though it may be porcelain, a Mont Blanc pen, a loudly striped shirt and a patterned bow tie.  That’s a lot of elements to juggle, but he’s doing it admirably.  The color pallette is actually relatively modest - mostly blue and white, with accents of pink and gold.  He’s also balancing his very traditional shirt and tie with a coat of very contemporary proportion - narrow lapels, a high gorge and a slim fit.
I also think that Barima’s race gives him a little more leeway to play with the conventions of traditional dress.  One’s picture of a man in traditional British business dress tends more towards the father in Mary Poppins than towards a young, good-looking black guy like Barima, and it makes the traditionalism of his outfit feel a little subversive without losing any of its elegance.

We continue our look at real men in real nice clothes with this photo of Barima, who lives in Accra, Ghana, taken by his friend Jamie Archer.

Barima’s in quite the dandy outfit here.  He’s got a loud pocket square, a flower in his lapel that looks as though it may be porcelain, a Mont Blanc pen, a loudly striped shirt and a patterned bow tie.  That’s a lot of elements to juggle, but he’s doing it admirably.  The color pallette is actually relatively modest - mostly blue and white, with accents of pink and gold.  He’s also balancing his very traditional shirt and tie with a coat of very contemporary proportion - narrow lapels, a high gorge and a slim fit.

I also think that Barima’s race gives him a little more leeway to play with the conventions of traditional dress.  One’s picture of a man in traditional British business dress tends more towards the father in Mary Poppins than towards a young, good-looking black guy like Barima, and it makes the traditionalism of his outfit feel a little subversive without losing any of its elegance.

Dandies in the Congo - part of a dandy subculture called sapeurs, detailed in the photo book “Gentlemen of Bacongo.”  More photos at Jezebel.
(thanks Ryan)

Dandies in the Congo - part of a dandy subculture called sapeurs, detailed in the photo book “Gentlemen of Bacongo.”  More photos at Jezebel.

(thanks Ryan)