What Is A Gentleman?

August 14, 2014

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.