I’ve been listening to a lot of Fela Kuti‘s music recently. If you’re unfamiliar with the name, he was a Nigerian musician/activist, vehemently opposed to his country’s military rule, serving it up in a delicious musical soup known as Afrobeat. Think Miles Davis meets Sly Stone, served on a bed of West African Hi-Life at its most danceable. Usually, I have to wait a week or two for his albums to ship from the US or Germany, but when we visited Nottingham, I bought a few of his albums on vinyl from their branch of Rough Trade. It was good to be able to buy them and take them home straight away.
One of them was his early-70’s classic Gentleman – the title track being a 14-minute attack on the effects colonial attitudes were having on Nigerian men: etiquette in particular.
According to Kuti, when a gentleman is invited to eat, he eats only as much as is considered polite. When someone causes trouble, a gentleman does not react. End result: “you go suffer, you go quench”. Fela also has a go at the fashions imposed on said gentlemen, which is effectively the “full Sinatra”: jacket, shirt, tie, trousers, socks, shoes and hat. While that makes sense in the temperate climes of northern Europe, the city of Lagos is just north of the Equator: it gets HOT! These gentleman sweat, faint and “smell like shit”. Never one to mince his words was ol’ Fela!
Most of what I get from Kuti’s music is a first-hand account of life in 1970’s Nigeria, under the brutal military regime. Some of his rants against colonialism take a little getting used to, mostly because I am part of that British culture that sought to impose itself on Nigeria, but one can still gain a sense of empathy by listening to Fela’s point of view. Gentleman, on the other hand, conveys a message that extends its influence across time and across continents: it’s not always appropriate to impose one’s culture onto another, regardless of whether it’s perceived as more superior or “civilised”.
Even more than forty years after the album was released, in a country several thousands of miles away, the words ring particularly true to me. There’s still this prevalent thought that the suit is the epitome of style for men, ascribing such traits as smart, professional, capable, successful and trustworthy upon the wearer. I’ve even read a few comments on-line stating that wearing a suit indicates a man is showing respect to the company they’re in. Without diving back into the “me vs. the church” narrative I’ve written about recently, I do recall getting more than a couple of dirty looks when I led the music group one Remembrance Sunday dressed in jeans.
I absolutely detest wearing suits and I only have one in my wardrobe which has only ever been worn for my brother’s wedding over a year ago. I wear them so infrequently, paying fair whack for a tailored suit doesn’t make sense, but I’ve got such a funny shape, the cheaper off-the-rack suits either look too big or too snug. They’re bulky, stifling and, worst of all, I don’t feel right. Compare these two pictures, taken only a month or so apart:
In a suit, I don’t feel smart or professional or even all that respectful… there is not a single, formal bone in my body, and looking so formal just makes me feel fake! My past experience with other suit-wearing gentlemen also leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth: the pushy sales-people that won’t take no for an answer, the managers more concerned with their career than the welfare of their staff, the politicians who talk to their constituents like they’re common idiots (unless, of course, you voted for them – here’s looking at you, Christopher Pincher) – I guess I don’t want to be associated with that kind of crowd either.
If such behaviour is common of these so-called “gentlemen” then, as Fela says, “I no be gentleman at all“