Papa Wemba, the leading high priest of Congolese music and the SAPE fashion movement died yesterday in Abidjan doing what he loved most, dancing and playing music. He collapsed on stage at the Abidjan Festival of Urban Music and as he was taken to hospital, the music and dance continued, as it should. I believe he would be proud of the way he exited the world in the excited action of enjoyment.
Reflecting about his life and work, I could not help thinking about the central role played by music, fashion and beer in the Central African region as the categories that define the essence of life. Could this focus have a connection with the fact that the region has resisted the return of democracy as dictators remain in power – till death do us part – in Congo Brazzaville, Congo Kinshasa, Gabon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda and Burundi? It would be recalled that Papa Wemba had been at the centre of the African music scene since 1969 with his distinctive “rumba rock”. He had above all been the high priest for the cult movement known as the Sapeurs whose members, young men, spend huge amounts of money on designer clothes.
When we were in France, Abubakar Siddique Mohammed introduced me to a fellow doctoral student from Congo, Remy Bazanquise who had just returned from fieldwork in Brazzaville on the political sociology of the Sapeurs. Remy explained that initially he used to tell people he was interviewing that he was coming from Paris and each and everyone one of them will dismiss him as a liar. How can you wear non-designer cheap clothes and claim you have been to Paris, don’t waste our time. Remy lived in Paris and knew that apart from a few dozen Sapeurs from Central Africa, no one dressed stitching the labels of their designer clothes on their sleeves so that the world would know. As a sharp researcher, he knew he had to change tactics and talk like a local guy. He never old anyone again – I am coming from Paris. He had embarked on the study when he found his compatriots who were at the bottom of the economic ladder in Paris were starving themselves for months surviving on baguette and water so that at the end of the misery they can buy a $2,000 designer shirt to show off at Papa Wemba’s nightclub.
The Sapeurs, are members of the “Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (SAPE)” – the name roughly translates as association of elegant people who believe in enjoyment. For them, self-esteem is found in expensive clothes and the art of dressing is a cultural statement best expressed in elegant swagger and dance. The movement started in Brazzaville and Kinshasa in the early colonial period and signalled, in my view, an over acceptance of the colonial ideology that they were bringing clothes to civilize the savages of the Congo forest. The French mission was to civilize the “uncouth” and “naked” African people. By the end of the 19th century, the “houseboys” of White men were the first to embrace European modernity because they would be given clothing instead of money as compensation for their work. The trending heroes in society gradually became these “houseboys” and other menial workers in the colonial system. The resistance that led to SAPE was the rejection of second hand clothing, which was what was offered, and the search for the very best fashion, better and more expensive than what the masters were wearing.
As cosmopolitanism grew in the 1940s and 1950s, music, nightclubs and beer halls became the centre of social life and dressing became the visual representation of progress in the Congolese townships of Kinshasa and Brazzaville. The Sape movement soon became synonymous with the Congolese rumba scene that surfaced. Papa Wemba was to became the main prophet of the belief system from the 1980s. The movement adored papa Wemba also because he paid his dues. In 2004, he was convicted in France for human trafficking. For Sapeurs, he went to jail out of commitment for creating opportunities for them to go to Paris to fulfil their life ambition. Since Fulbert Youlou, became the President of Congo in 1963, and insisted on wearing his designer priestly gown although he had already been defrocked, by the Catholic Church, Parisian designer houses jumped into the niche of dressing the President. Central African presidents cannot get respect wearing ordinary suits; designer houses exist to dress the president as well. In today’s Congo, Denis Sassou Nguesso in power since 1979 has just “won” yet another election to enable him rule for the rest of his life. He has described the Sapeurs as the bearers of Congo’s cultural heritage and they are the darlings of the regime. What is not a regime darling is democracy.
As the process of democratic regression accelerates in the Central African region with life presidents in power in Cameroon, Congo DRC, Congo Republic, Gabon, Burundi, Rwanda and the Central African Republic in chaos, there are questions to pose on the diversion of national passion to music, fashion and beer. Is there a connection between the persistence of authoritarianism and these trends? I do not know but as we reflect and the life and work of Papa Wemba, let us remember that he could afford his clothes while his followers starved themselves to dress like him. In spite of the respect I have for elegance, I believe politics matters and alternative futures out of well-dressed poverty might be a better option.