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The Original African Bling Kings

by Kudi Maradzika / 31.10.2011

Dapper, dandy, stylish, suave and now ‘sapeur’. Taken from a term used in one of Papa Wemba’s songs and similarly “derived from the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (Society for the Advancement of People of Elegance), the word ‘sape’ is a French term for the sartorial man, a man with style and a man who knows who he is and who speaks volumes with the glimmer of his watch, the swish of his vintage scarf and the confident stride he has in his tailored suit. The history of the term ‘sape’ can be dated back to cultural and musical influences of Congo Brazzaville circa the 1940s, a presence that cements the enduring relationship between fashion and music in Africa, ten long years before Chuck Berry pioneered the contemporary rock and roll guitar sound with a clean polished look and tons of confidence to boot.

The sapeurs were the first generation of the African urban working class men and although some have referred to them as the “the fashion victims of Congo” who spend up to $1000 on a suit, one cannot deny the aspirant glamour, the drive for success, the manifestation of the urban dream and the sense of escapism they arouse with their flamboyant and stylish garb. They bring to mind classic African films like Djibril Diop Mambety’s Touki Bouki and the newly released and critically-acclaimed Congolese film Viva Riva. These are films that encapsulate the ennui and the sense of claustrophobia and imprisonment that life in low-income urban settings in Africa can evoke.

The sapeurs are Africa’s original bling kings, the only difference is that their dressing forms a cultural identity with the metaphor of individualism and self-expression taking centre-stage, leaving a distinct imprint on society whilst reappropriating the simulacra of colonialism and simultaneously enriching aspects of Congolese culture. They are the Gentlemen of Bacongo, the paradoxical clash between fashion and poverty and the dominant hustler / survivor mentality that pervades the ghettos of Africa. As a Congolese sapeur stated in an excerpt from Daniele Tamagni’s 2009 book, Gentlemen of Bacongo, “a Congolese sapeur is a happy man even if he does not eat, because wearing proper clothes feeds the soul and gives pleasure to the body.”

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this sub-culture is its influence and proliferation in the contemporary African diaspora. You see strands of the same ideology from hip hop kings with their million dollar ice grills to our very own izikothane. Formed by New Yorkers Joshua Kissi and Travis Gribbs, Streetetiquette.com celebrates the dichotomies that exist in black culture, from the harsh urban settings to the chic and polished tailoring of the outfits. These sartorial “geniuses” featured recently in ELLE magazine and were lauded by The New York Times for “pushing the boundaries of black fashion”. The fact that sapeur culture resonates and gets amplified in New York is understandable, but maybe we’re starting to see the outline of a new 3rd world order where Africa leads and New York follows.

*Opening image courtesy Pop-Africana.

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