What a week…I thought that Prince’s death was the shocker and blower of the 21st century. And then, I saw a random post from a friend that said Papa Wemba, also, passed away. WOW. Papa Wemba too? I didn’t feel compelled to write a piece about Prince, not that he wasn’t worthy of my lamenting, but because I knew that others who are better equipped to do so – and thousands of people are – would.
Papa Wemba, however, is a different story.
A story that was unknown to me until several years ago when I started researching the sapeurs for The Dandy Lion Project. Credited as the leader of the contemporary sapology movement in the Congo, he was definitely a huge cultural icon known throughout Africa and Europe. La SAPE – Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (The Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People) formally named Papa Wemba as their leader nearly four decades ago.
His music, afro-Rhumba was infectious. Arguably, on a musical level, Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, the man known as Papa Wemba, was to the Congo what Fela was to Nigeria. Although his music was not as political, it was certainly as influential. He was a superstar in his own right. Additionally, his flamboyance and cult-like addiction to fashion was not understated.
His film roles, controversial lifestyle and fashion made him a documentary worthy subject in the 2005 documentary The Importance of Being Elegant. While Papa Wemba may not have been a household name like the Purple One, he will definitely be remembered by thousands of fans around the world.
Unrelated to his untimely death, the Museum of the Africa Diaspora will be screening The Importance of Being Elegant on May 19, 2016 as part of its Sweet & Dandy Film Series for my Dandy Lion exhibition, that will be on view there through September. Check it out.
– Shantrelle P. Lewis