I’m Going To Write About Prince And Men’s Fashion

 

The first Prince song I ever heard was “I Wanna Be Your Lover”. It was 1980. I lived in rural south east Nigeria. I was captivated. I voraciously read the album sleeve. The picture of the bare chested young man on the album sleeve looked vaguely like the only picture I had of my older brother.

I developed an obsession for this artiste that looked like my brother (and me I guess) and this single. Those carefree days when one had time to listen to a song over and over and over and over again. Till you knew every word, every crescendo, very note, every chord, every accent, every lead in.

It’s lyrics were just the right amount of risqué for prudish me. Compared to his later lyrics “I Wanna Be Your Lover” seems innocent and romantic now. Just like the album cover. Then one day I read in Ebony Magazine that Prince was a diminutive 5’2″. I don’t know why I felt betrayed and heart broken but I did. I took down his poster from my bedroom wall. Thereafter I always looked at him with side eye.

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(I must seriously explore my issues with diminutive men. I am not similarly dismissive of diminutive women.)

What I didn’t ignore, what I paid keen attention to were his fashion choices. I loved his glamorous subversive 80’s style. I remember thinking “If I were a male rock star I would totally rock high heels, makeup, purple, crop tops and frilly shirts like Prince” because men’s fashion (especially white male inspired fashion) is generally really really boring.

Rock stars, royalty and African men seem to be the only ones that can break male fashion rules with impunity. And few aristocratic men do anymore except at ceremonial occasions. Prince evoked the extravagance of men’s fashion in Louis XIV’s France and Tudor England. Men’s fashion has become decidedly plebeian and conservative in the last few centuries.

Was that the influence of the American Revolution or the Communist Revolution? Or both? I’m sure some intellectual somewhere has expounded a treatise on it. Fashion has always been a status symbol. Only royalty ‘dressed up’ everyday. Only royalty was permitted flamboyant sartorial displays. Only royalty could afford it.

For the rest of mankind it just wasn’t practical because, you know, they have to do real  work. So they created these acceptable uniforms for ordinary men and women that both announced social and gender status and kept the people trapped within them. It was and is a display of power just like any masquerade contest in Africa attempts to do. Its all theatre. Village Square Theatre.

I always felt sorry for men because of the social restrictions on their fashion choices. At least women, royal and plebeian, were still allowed to adorn and display themselves. I hated shopping for my sons, there never seemed much variation in the offerings for young boys. I spent hours obsessing about dressing them with some individuality.

What happened to men’s fashion that all you can boast of is the quality of the fabric and cut? Anyway I looked at it, it was still a a rather uniform suit, whether it had three buttons or one, a peaked or notched lapel,  made in Aba or by Ermenegildo Zegna. The suit and tie seemed so status quo, so reactionary.

Music is visceral. Art is visceral. And good music and good art challenges and questions the status quo. We feel before we think. And Prince, his music, his art and his fashion made us feel. Both comfortable and uncomfortable emotions and that was his true genius. Then it made us think. And his visionary style empowered many to break out of anachronistic fashion rules. Today we have cool fashion lines for boy’s and Jaden Smith. Prince was part of THAT revolution.

That he was a black man is no surprise (because Elvis was just too theatrical if you know what I mean.)

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The Lovers

They sat on opposite ends of the room, two twisted bodies.  Twisted from many years of  many bad relationships that did not work, twisted into a protective ball, twisted in on themselves.

Guarding their pain, shielding their wounded hearts. Closed to feelings and emotions. Yet she wanted to tell him how much she loved him. Yet he longed to hear her say the words but they were closed and twisted.

She opened herself up hesitantly like a rose blossom opening itself to the sun.  Beyond the beauty and radiance of those soft petals all he saw was the memory of the thorns. And so he twisted himself into a tighter ball and roared like an old lion from his sanctuary for her to stay away, stay away.

The rose trembled in fear and withered before the furnace of his hostility. She retreated into a ball of safety, protecting her belly and her heart. And then she roared – in pain and frustration. And he retreated further into his pretzel.

He was a man. She was a child.

Francis Bacon - Man and Child
Francis Bacon – Man and Child 1963

 

 

Buses Around the World

I can’t remember the last time I took a bus. Actually I can, it was sometime post the June 12 protests in Lagos. It was the only means of transport available. Nigerian buses are smelly, crowded, randomly timed (buses don’t move till they are full) and high risk modes of transportation because you never know whether the driver is actually licensed as he hurtles down bad roads at 120 kilometers per hour.

The mad rush for a molue captured quite eloquently by an artist unknown
The mad rush for a molue captured quite eloquently by an artist unknown

The English bus service is as civilized as the British of course, on time, clean, and only crowded during rush hour when the natives commute to and from work and they are generally happy to stand in orderly queues to board the bus and are sure that there will be another one coming if they miss the first one. The UK bus service is geared towards a structured economy, while I think the Nigerian bus services have always reflected and serviced our super entrepreneurial hustle economy.

Modern British buses have retained the character of their older predecessors. This is an old 'route master'
Modern British buses have retained the character of their older predecessors. This is an old ‘route master’

In Nigeria we have the molue, the danfo and the luxurious. In the good old days of my misspent youth the ‘luxury’ buses were called by their company names – like The Young and Chidiebere.  They usually had quaint philosophical anecdotes written on the side like “At all, at all Na em bad Pass”.  In the UK you have coaches, with free newspapers, free wifi and lots of advertising.

There is a philosophy lesson  on every Lagos bus (and once upon a time on most other commercial vehicles too)
There is a philosophy lesson on every Lagos bus (and once upon a time on most other commercial vehicles too)

I came across a site that calls itself Buses Around the World, not a single one of the more than 20 galleries featured buses from Africa (South Africa does not count here right now for inexplicable reasons). I googled ‘buses around Africa’ – all I got back were bus schedules for – did you guess right?- yes, South Africa. Apparently they are the only African country with scheduled bus routes online.

There is barely any mention of the quaint buses of Dakar, brightly colored and more than just a means of transportation, they are little works of art themselves. Perhaps a photographic project for the future ‘Buses Around Africa’. Or is it too late already? Have we forgotten them in our mad rush for sleek modernity and copy cat western inspired progress and development?

Bright colored buses certainly takes the drudgery out of bus travel in Senegal. They are called demm dikk - coming and going
Bright colored buses certainly takes the drudgery out of bus travel in Senegal. They are called demm dikk – coming and going

I wouldn’t say anyone bus is better than the other by the way, I enjoy the diversity. I would like to say that in Nigeria specifically and in Africa more generally we should do more to preserve the unique nature of what is ours. Lagos BRT buses are so soulless and without character, but I guess Lagosians are just happy they get them to their destination on time and in one piece I hear, and I get it.

Of course like all Nigerians I’ve been slightly embarrassed by the molue and the danfo in the past. It’s not clean or standardized or meet any of the other standards of oyibo and western life and living.  I guess it reflects our general unhealthy embarrassment with things African and ancient. It took a trip to the UK to make me see that? Let’s hear it for the molue, even though I shall probably never get on one.

Diseye Tantua a talented Nigerian artist has made the molue the subject of a series of  delightful 'African pop art' paintings.
Diseye Tantua a talented Nigerian artist has made the molue the subject of a series of delightful ‘African pop art’ paintings.