Fela Kuti’s song, “ I No Be Gentleman At All” was the title track of the album Gentleman released in 1973. Fela at his radical best was challenging the colonial mentality that had seen Africans turn their backs on anything indigenous for European customs. Fela’s refrain to men who wore woolen suits and top hats in Lagos sweltering heat was “ I no be gentleman, like that. I be Africa man Original”. Fela was preaching against blinding aping Victorian romanticism but I guess not enough people were listening.
The immaculately dressed, ballroom dancing African gentleman of the 50s and 60s sired a new class of African gentlemen easily distinguished either by their American or English accents and impressive knowledge of American brand trivia. Gentlemen had a foreign connotation, sometimes used interchangeably with well-educated and associated with returning scholars from overseas. They returned home with academic honours and a weakness for fine scotch on the rocks.
If there was ever a phrase that got lost in translation, it has to be gentleman. Not enough was done to ground the ideal into the African reality and the confusion Fela criticized four decades ago is still in existence today.
There was a time a gentleman needed no introduction. He was a product of an upper class upbringing and breeding. He displayed cultured behaviour and a composed manner. Over the decades, that image was eroded and much of what is considered gentlemanly, is all drawn from the imitations gleaned from media. Men of high worth and influence festooned in elegant tailored suits seem to be the flavor of the moment. Our society associates gentlemen with wealth, sophistication and power but not good virtue.
Every time the phrase, “He is such a gentleman” is thrown about, it evokes scenarios filled of movie stars, handsome Spanish TV soap lotharios, Obama, Justin Trudeau (of great hair) royal princes (preferably European) and the occasional billionaire. Or a top notch romantic, typically a West African celebrity known for theatrics and grand gestures of love with more money than sense.
It is no longer possible to be a gentleman and broke? It is a pity when gentlemen are reduced to a small exclusive cast of men in expensive suits and shoes to match. The genius who conjured up the idea of gentlemen as the gate keepers of courtship rituals should shoulder the blame for the misery men endure to prove their worth to women these days.
The consequence of this illusion has spurned an industry for men publications that specialize in the lucrative quest of turning ordinary guys into gentlemen one magazine issue at a time. A well-tailored suit is a crucial prop for the aspiring heart throb, first brought to our attention by the GQ magazine.
The ideal is so far removed from the reality and ordinary men can be found everywhere, trying to keep up with a man on a billboard and reading up internet articles that say, “Does your man pass the perfect gentleman test”. The pressure is real.
All this can be confusing for a young Kenyan man trying to make an impression on a girl he fancies but who added “you ought to behave more like a gentlemen”. Where does one find the manual, I hear him ask?
Here is what I know about gentlemen. It is nothing more than a quest for good manners and civility which is not too much to ask. Keeping your word and showing up when you say you would is manlier than eating hot curries.
Courtesy is the mark of a well-mannered man and its rewards can be reaped in this lifetime. But these are only the basics, with a romantic end game as the motivator. The path to true manhood is difficult and not for the impatient. For it is the path of self-fulfillment. Confucius, the revered Chinese sage offers some insights, (not be confused with the fictitious Confucius parody who said, “Vitamins are good for what ails you. Viagra for what fails you.”)
The ideal gentleman in Confucian thought is sincere, respectful, willing to learn, not desperate for material things and always striving to be a better version of themselves. A gentleman practices self-control and self-cultivation to know himself better. To be a man is an accident of birth and a function of age. To be a gentleman is to make a choice. Beyond the suit, being a gentleman involves a lifelong commitment to a morally upright life in action and deed.