The Stupid Question: What Is A Buffalo Stance?
Neneh Cherry’s 1988 hit song ‘Buffalo Stance’ is chockers with potential for misunderstanding. As a child, I always wondered whether Neneh was so besieged by ugly, hairy, amorous men that she needed to specify, “No monkey man can win my love”. Even listening to the song now, it oscillates weirdly between rejecting an economy of sex and celebrating style and hedonism.
There are some especially puzzling lyrics (“Gigolo, what?” “And you on my mind as I sink, diving down deep, deeper, into your souuuuul”), but the buffalo stance of the title is most puzzling of all. Somehow, it seems like the key to the mystery.
Was there a specific, buffalo-like pose associated with the song, much as ‘Agadoo’ had its signature dance moves? (That video, by the way, is much worse than I remember it. Somehow, the most troubling part is the banana who is playing a trumpet by simply holding it where its mouth would be, had it a mouth.)
Watching the ‘Buffalo Stance’ video, it seems not. It turns out that the song’s meaning is far more complex, refracted through several distinct histories and cultures. Essentially, it is a reference to Buffalo Soldiers. This name was originally given to the 10th Cavalry Regiment of the US Army, which was composed entirely of African-Americans, although it came to refer to six all-black units of cavalry and infantry.
There’s some debate about how the name came about, but it reflects the Native American reaction to these new regiments sent in to run them off their land. One account attributes the name to the Cheyenne nation, others to the Comanche; some versions say the Indians likened the black soldiers’ fierceness to the buffalo, while others say it was because the soldiers’ hair reminded them of the buffalo’s dark, curly coat.
Now, more specifically, the term has become a generic term for African-American military history – and a political football. You might remember Clint Eastwood and Spike Lee had a dust-up over this about a year ago. Lee, who has made a film about Buffalo Soldiers in WWII, Miracle At St Anna, accused Eastwood of whitewashing African-Americans from his own war films Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. In response, Eastwood told Lee to “shut his face”, prompting Lee to retort: “We’re not on a plantation.”
The most mainstream cultural reference to the Buffalo Soldier is also the most muddled. Bob Marley’s song of the same name suggests that the Buffalo Soldiers were actually the ancestors of Jamaica’s “dreadlock rastas” – “driven from the mainland to the heart of the Caribbean”. Certainly Bob and his co-writer King Sporty were inspired by the idea of black heroism in the face of prevailing racism, and saw their own political project as the heir to the bravery of these soldiers.
Still, perhaps they need to take the advice of their own lyrics (“If you knew your history/Then you would know where you coming from”), because the historical Buffalo Soldiers had nothing to do with the Rastafari movement, which was inspired by Ethiopia and born in Jamaica. And while Jamaica and the United States have a similar history of African slavery, Jamaica’s population had reached a black majority by the 1670s whereas the first regiment of Buffalo Soldiers was commissioned in 1866.
Still, the song ‘Buffalo Soldier’ reflects the way that, by the 1980s, the term had slid away from its historical context to speak more generally about ethnic pride. That’s the way was deployed by legendary fashion stylist Ray Petri. Born in Scotland (and a teenage resident in a very sleepy 1960s Brisbane), he was in his element among London’s clubs and street markets. He specialised in putting looks together for magazine shoots, TV commercials and music videos, his aesthetic came to dominate magazines including i-D, Arena and The Face, and he inspired designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Helmut Lang and Alexander McQueen.
Petri’s outfits were provocative, androgynous and dependent on startling juxtapositions: couture tailoring with working-class culture; men in underpants and Doc Martens or leather skirts; sweet-faced boys in tough outfits; a scarred boxer in a baby’s bonnet or with a flower tucked behind one ear. Petri was fascinated by the Jamaican ‘rude boy’ subculture, which had reached the UK through the Caribbean diaspora and the 2-Tone ska revival. And he shared the London fascination with Native American imagery that’s also reflected in Vivienne Westwood’s Buffalo collection and Malcolm McLaren’s silly ‘Buffalo Girls’ song (“round the outside, round the outside”).
“People tend to associate the word Buffalo with Bob Marley’s ‘Buffalo Soldier’,” Petri once explained, “but in fact it’s a Caribbean expression to describe people who are rude boys or rebels. Not necessarily tough, but hard style taken from the street … a functional and stylish look; non-fashion with a hard attitude.”
Petri’s named his company Buffalo after a Parisian nightclub security firm run by Jacques Negrit. Apparently, the French bouncers were large Caribbean men who wore US Air Force surplus bomber jackets emblazoned with the word “Buffalo”. It’s easy to understand the appeal of this imagery to a man of Petri’s tastes and interests, and “Buffalo” became shorthand for his ‘look’ and for the glamorous party lifestyle of his posse.
He also favoured models of mixed ethnicity. He discovered Naomi Campbell at age 14, as well as a young Swedish model and singer of English and Sierra Leonean ancestry called Neneh Cherry. Cherry’s future husband, producer Cameron McVey, was also a member of Petri’s “Buffalo Posse” and produced Raw Like Sushi, the album on which ‘Buffalo Stance’ appears.
Sadly, Petri died of AIDS in 1989 at just 41 – when the disease was still so stigmatised that many fashion designers refused to invite him to their shows. He didn’t live to see the mainstreaming of fashion styling as a legitimate career, nor the now-widespread tendency to seek sartorial inspiration from “the street”.
“The song is about our gang, our time and our mentor, Ray, who is still behind every word and every melody,” Cherry told the New York Times in 2007. “Buffalo meant classic. None of us were into here-today-gone-tomorrow fashion, which is why we gravitated toward each other. Ray was always consistent, and he taught us that we shouldn’t be afraid to be honest.”
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