We owe the people who produced us, our communities, more than just the Black tax we sometimes remit every end month. I, for one, owe my Mama a foot massage, my Guga home baked banana bread, my Baba a love poem, members of my age set a reunion, and the culture given to me, Tiriki, a review. For me, the debt of review seems to be the biggest. In fact, I might never settle it. Why? A good review is painted on the canvas of good memory. Thing with me is, my memory’s been re-threaded a couple of times with relapses, rehab(by proxy), therapy, and now only gives shape to syntheses of the past.
My memory associates certain words first, with the people I’ve heard use them, the people they’re used for – or against, and then their denotations.
For starters, I associate the word culture with the African-American rapper, Kendrick Lamar… Remember that music video with Kendrick’s face transitioning to deep-fakes of six male fixtures in his Black community? Kendrick uses it as a refrain in a song that could be considered a love poem to black men: THE HEART PART 5. Presuming his audience’s understanding of which culture he’s referring to, Kendrick uses the word throughout the poem. Without mentioning names and only alluding to events, he seems to be trying to make up for the ugliness we associate with the individual faces, by suggesting the collective identity and situation of Black men every time the deep-fakes revert to his own face.
The Black men in my life, were they ever to be in the limelight like Kendrick’s fixtures, would be subjects of controversy for similar and different reasons my community would prefer me not to mention. Cultural reasons, a brother might guess. I knew long ago when to look the other way. If the nakedness can’t be avoided, I learnt to invert things as they appear in order to view the world as culture permits. Now, seeing the world the right side up while it’s on its head means subverting some world views, such as not taking seriously the thoughts of a rapper who, in one music video, is seen hanging in the air as though crucified on a cross, depicting himself as a messiah, supposedly dying for the sins of Black men.
Place is another association I make with words.
For me, place is Kapkerer and Tiriki West, the soundtrack a song called “Si Ndiirana Inyuma”:
Inyuma wa ndatura go!
Si ndiirana inyuma,
Si ndiirana inyuma.
The last time “Si Ndiirana Inyuma” is heard during Idumi season of the Tiriki is after the circumcision of initiates in the forest, on their way to the shrine. It’s a song that men are required by tradition to remember, to sing during their younger brothers’ and possibly their son’s initiations, but to never sing it till then. “Si Ndiirana Inyuma” is sung by the Christian faction of Idumi, in the induction stage of the institution of manhood involving: collection of the initiates, head shaving, mavega – a dance, hypnosis, a ritual involving all the living age-sets in the community, circumcision, and a trek from the forest back to the shrine. “Si Ndiirana Inyuma” translates as “I won’t go back – where I’ve come from”, but it might also be understood as a song rejecting a backwards gaze. The meaning of the words in the song reflects the intention of the community with the initiate. They need him to quickly sever links with the stage of life he is currently transitioning from, as symbolized by the head shaving, grooming of clothes he’ll never wear again to mavega, and hypnosis.
‘‘Si Ndiirana Inyuma’’ invokes the memory of Sankofa. In the Twi language of Ghana Sankofa literally means “to go back and get”. In Bono Adinkra symbology, it is a bird with its head turned backwards, its feet facing forward, while carrying a precious egg in its mouth. Brother hears Sankofa in the words of one of two metaphors of Walter Benjamin’s depicting Sankofa in a friend’s voice: “The angel of history flies backward in time”, which is a reflection of the proverb associated with the use of Sankofa, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi” which translates as, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten”; “It is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience”.
Ironically, the process of forgetting among the Tiriki relies on the naivety and fear in childhood for the intended severing to take place, members of the older age-sets use methods not devoid of violence to achieve a sort of forgetting.
On top of smacking of the initiates that recurs past the induction stage, another significantly violent method is a simulated encounter with a fierce mythical creature, roaring behind a cover, that they’re required to speak with in order to be let into manhood; an encounter with king’ang’a.
While such methods are likely to expose the boy to psychological harm, for the community, the aspect of fear in these practices seem to be effective in getting the initiate to grasp the core elements of Tiriki culture within a few weeks.
Presuming that he has a whole lifetime to unpack that experience, should it not be said that the Tiriki community prioritizes the passing of its culture over the health of an initiate’s mind? If so, then part of the new initiate’s responsibility as he develops in this new stage is the revision of culture, for Idumi, the revision of manhood. This life-long task for Tiriki men contradicts the message in “Si Ndiirana Inyuma”, the song seemingly encouraging them to forget their experiences while entering manhood.
Tiriki elders found a name for this contradiction in the saying: “Idumi irakuduma” – “manhood will undo you”, also read as, manhood undoes itself.
At twenty-five, I have no memory of the first person I ever heard use the word love. We could blame this on Idumi, the institution that required forgetting for a younger me to be inducted into manhood. Or, with a backwards gaze, we could try dreaming back a forgotten past.
Idumi is split into two factions. The traditionally conservative faction, and the Christian faction.
This binary can be attributed to a group of Tiriki elders that sought to resist British colonialism by fusing culturally functional aspects of the Christian religion such as hymns with the practices of Idumi to benefit from the protection of that religious institution, departing from the conservative group that kept all the traditional rituals intact, and that still practice them to date.
Ironically, the two factions are popularly referred to using names designating racial categories, whites and Blacks. An interesting shift to note over the past half century, is that the traditionally conservative faction – The Blacks – that in practice did not seem to resist colonial rule are the current custodians of Idumi, as it were, before its modernization by the Christian faction – The whites.
There are numerous differences between the whites and blacks: During seclusion, the Blacks’ staple is supposed to be Kivambara(dried fish) while the whites’ staple Imbumbi(chicken); the blacks’ initiates go for village dances while the whites get visited in the shrines; the blacks’ graduate from seclusion in hides while the whites graduate in shorts and shirts – sometimes bow ties, and so forth. The biggest difference though, is how tough the blacks’ rituals are compared to the whites.
While it is a fact that some of the rituals meant to toughen initiates might have negative impacts on their future lives, it is not true that they are irrelevant to the experience of Tiriki manhood. The fact of their existence and practice suggest that these rituals may have equipped members of older age sets with the tools to navigate the political realities of their time of youth.
It would be ahistorical, for younger age sets to hold the idea that the impact of the struggles that won Kenya its independence, could only be felt in areas with the presence of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, or that the militancy imbued in rituals and traditional practices had nothing to do with African resistance against British colonization.
Rather than just a temporal or spatial repository of memory that place offers, what seems to have been in demand was a critical repository of memory. A role the older age-sets found our bodies fit to play. Perhaps the challenge for Idumi here is giving new meaning to militancy, without forgetting what it meant for earlier age sets.
Tiriki boys graduate from Idumi with privileges their uninitiated agemates might often not enjoy, such as exclusion from corporal punishment in school. This privilege extended home, where most mothers, accustomed to physical methods of disciplining children, found challenges correcting their sons. Cases of misogyny among the new initiates, sometimes with violent turns, were not uncommon after the graduation of Gamlelai, my age set.
At Idumi, we were taught that the key requirement for one to be initiated into manhood was for them to be Tiriki. So, to be Tiriki was to be a man. This meant that every Tiriki man, regardless of social class, was welcome to the institution and could teach manhood, by virtue of their knowledge of Idumi.
Let’s shed these brother gloves…
On 8 May 2022, Kendrick Lamar released the fifth part of The Heart series. A project that began close to 12 years ago when The Heart I was released, marking the beginning of a sequel that would consistently chart the conscious path of an artist using his personal against a backdrop of his community.
This would not be the only place Kendrick consciously did a commentary on relevant social and political issues affecting the black community in his work, as evidenced by tracks such as DNA, KING KUNTA, DAMN, ALRIGHT, but it would arguably be his most resilient expression. THE HEART PART 5 is Kendrick’s perspective through six significant events/stories in the Black community, throughout the track, Kendrick calls out “The Culture” with his profile shifting to that of six different figures from the Black community who’ve been in the limelight for different reasons.
It’s important for one to watch the video to understand his perspective as he doesn’t mention names but his face shifts to that of the personality he speaks about. The hook “I want you to want me back” is sampled from Marvin Gaye, so is the beat. The Marvin Gaye samples are not arbitrary as the songs he samples mostly from Inner City Blues, What’s Going On, and What’s Happening are directly related to the project’s theme.
Coming from a middle-class background, Marvin Gaye’s expression could not be as raw as the hood he sings about in the track Inner City Blues. It makes him wanna holler, in his perspective, but he has more refined ways of expressing his perspective, which does not necessarily reflect his own material situation. Kendrick was engaging the Black community, making a commentary of the Black Culture while also in conversation with Marvin’s work.
For the brother in Harlem and Compton, the hood is more than just a place, it’s an entire country. For the brother in Tiriki, where I learnt in my adulthood to not walk like an anxious tourist who spews accented versions of Kiswahili when asked about his roots; our colonial struggles are still present in the memories of Africans that have chosen to stay in their ancestral lands, places they’d kill to keep should it become necessary, where I brought the hood with me, and almost got kicked out of the village, dismembered, the hood is outside the village…
The sky is crying softly under the full moon somewhere along Parklands Road. LED lights shooting multi-coloured rays above a few hundred teenage and twenty-something year old working class, bourgeoisie and their petty counterpart youth bobbing, leaning back-forth, side to side, as though possessed by the pervading sound spirit of drill music in the air, where new entrants to the Nairobi partying scene have obviously tossed that bouncers’ caution:
“Wekeni simu vizuri!”
Amid this sea of aspirational, raw, and polished energies, I bump into an old friend. Time stops. My memory runs loose, flooding this blocked space of time I so much want to disappear from. I know I talk too much, so the only meaningful words I let myself say to her are:
“This was the soundtrack of my hood last year!”
The date is 14 of April 2022 but our story begins back in 2021.
During this period, I’d vibe and jam with boys from the hood, most of whom just made or were about to make their shrap debuts. I’m talking about albums and EPs. Which we’d sample on loop for days: If you happened to have spotted three, or five silhouettes bobbing in a parking lot somewhere in H-Town around curfew hours this time last year, that was us: Some dope(bleep-bleep), as my boys would have me say, may be the only accurate way of describing their sound. It’s in one of these sessions that my producer friend Kakaz suggested that we record a poetry reading over a Litungu rhythm. The attempt to fuse a traditionally African sound with what we thought was a foreign sound; some type of hybrid between Omutibu Blues and Hip Hop. This would also mark my debut as an amateur shrapper, recording one single that would have to be edited for verbosity before playing on any speaker.
“Although music has a tremendous ability to create communal feeling, no community can form without excluding outsiders. The sense of oneness that a song fosters in a human can seem either a beautiful or a repulsive thing – usually depending on whether you love or hate the song in question.” writes Alex Ross.
Music is a form of blind art. During periods of uncertainty, high stress or chaos, the most abstract aspects of the visual realm such as perspective – the only difference between perspectives and dreams being the certainty of waking, in which most dreams are absent – might cross into their somatic reality. Allowing perspective to be felt and even touched, to borrow Shabu Mwangi’s expression, the artist’s intuitions and convictions become their leading cane in a space where a minority enjoy clear but exclusive vision.
The Kendrick Lamar who said he “wished his manhood would be as tall as the Eiffel tower, so he could make love to the world for a whole seventy-two hours” is the same artist whose expression we draw inspiration from in other songs… Hip Hop culture presents us with the doppelganger of the young Black man, one that is an archetype for all men in the entire Black community.
A Black man that could forget all else but where he comes from. Does this sound like a foreign notion? Let’s begin with Kumi na Sita, a track by Boutross Munene and Asum Garvey, titled after the Nyayo Highrise route number 16 where both hail from.
“Hood repping” is a trope among Kenyan Hip Hop artists with acts such as Buruklyn boys dropping the number Tano Nane, Buruburu’s matatu route number at the beginning of every track. Richard Oduku gives a succinct historical account of the use of these route numbers by Kenyan MCs in his piece, “Khaligraph Jones and the emerging Hip Hop futures in Kenya” which commands huge presence among recent attempts at critically engaging an aspect of popular culture, using the individual artist in a backdrop of the collective.
So, place, hoods, really seem to be a strong foundation in the works of most artists representing Hip Hop culture the world over, their mention a shorthand or a claim to authenticity.
The word culture, as used and practiced by Hip Hop artists, shows me just how detached I am from the people who produced me, my fathers. It shows me the amount of debt I owe the people I have produced, my sons; my father calls me brother these days.As regards the incident I mentioned earlier; It gives me a perspective as to why my village folk, elegant in expression and strangers to verbosity, once in 2021 thought me a stranger and mistakenly branded me a child trafficker. I had used my father’s instead of my grandfather’s family name when asked about my identity after a teenager from my clan ran away from me while I was in an anxious state, a flight that almost cost me my life, had I not re-introduced myself as my grandfather’s son.
For obvious reasons, I may never be able to pay the debt of review to Tiriki culture. Having only memory and no place there. But I can pay a debt to someone who embodies the culture, my Baba, whose name has insured my life more than once, whose name I shall never forget.
In many ways, this is a love poem to my Baba.