by Natachi Mez
Edited by Sarah DeSouza:
An older Black woman walked from the opposite end of the M60 express bus to stand next to where I was seated. Would you like to sit? I asked instinctively. No, but I’d like to hear you play that drum. With my fingers still tapping away modestly at the mini djembe perched between my legs, I asked, Would you like to try?
—No, I just wanna listen.
So I played. Louder. More confidently. More purposefully. More certain.
Are you okay? I asked her. Her heart was heavy. You know what they called those displaced in Hurricane Katrina —refugees, in their own home. And you know what they call Syrians tryna come over here? I didn’t want to respond. But I knew. She knew.
She nodded. The weight of the world’s injustices sat heavily on her heart. I felt her emotions inject into my veins. My fingertips felt the influx of blood and channeled it into rhythm. My fingers also understood the need for softness in that moment. They brushed across the drum skin, producing the sound of a gentle wind, a comforting whisper. She tells me that the drum has healing properties. Perhaps that is why I clung so closely to it.
If you ever saw me in college, there was a good chance you saw me with my petite djembe, cradled in my hands like a precious thing, or resting from a strap on my left shoulder, or sat between my thighs. Maybe you would hear me tapping along to myself, crooning made up songs as I traversed from dorm room to class, or from class to subway, or from subway to grocery store. I brought it with me almost everywhere.
When I started college, my father and my sister flew with me from California to New York to help me move in. When I was eventually without them as a safety net, nerves and social anxiety eased in. What was I to make of this place that was supposed to be my new home?
Amidst the newness, I eased into new habits. I felt compelled to carry my djembe with me nearly everywhere. I remember ridiculing myself before leaving my dorm room, debating on whether I should bring the drum or leave it behind. More often than not, I brought it. Early on, it felt less like a conscious decision and more like a magnet. I was pulled by this handheld symbol and conduit of rhythm, an instrument that had been instrumental to my upbringing as a first generation Nigerian American, instrumental to communication and culture across the diaspora.
I got my first small djembe in Harlem the summer before I started university. I was on a trip with Black student artists led by mentors dedicated to supporting Black youth in the Sacramento area. Our mentors took us to the Malcolm Shabazz West African Market Place on 116th & Malcolm X Blvd. The market welcomed us in with concrete, melanin, earth tones, and bright colors, multitudes of cloth, shea butter, black soap and jewelry crafted from wood or bones or other materials. At one point, I saw a small djembe, and I imagined it living in my hands. I asked about the price, trying to use my market tactics of not appearing too eager. $40 dollars, the woman smiled, but for you 20.
I said thank you and continued walking around the market. Our chaperones later told us students that we could each get something within $20. And so I got the drum that came to live in my hands.
Following that trip, I brought my djembe with me to a youth poetry festival in Atlanta. I wasn’t very confident in playing it, but the drum began to symbolize joy and possibility. Its presence seemed to catalyze cyphers, supporting circles that held space for freestyle rap, poetry, and movement. I often passed my djembe to hands more knowing than mine. I danced to the beat of someone else’s rhythm, with my drum being an instrument of collective co-creation.
Among my first impressions of my university was that loneliness seemed to be baked into its culture —if not loneliness, then a sense of stark independence. Still I gravitated toward it. As I wrestled with the possibilities of loneliness, I characterized it as a challenge to overcome.
Throughout my college years (and even now), I questioned, how do people connect? How are we connected? Attending large lectures, living in a densely populated city, people were always around. There was a lot of passing by without acknowledgement of the other. I questioned how we choose who to see and when. I felt activated by the possibility that being around others brought. Still, I didn’t always know what to do with that possibility or how to navigate it in productive ways.
But intuitively, perhaps I did. My drum was a way for me to speak to others without talking. I remember a day when I was walking to general chemistry, feeling isolated and insular. I remember crafting solace as I tapped my drum and sang to myself on the walk.
I have come to know my drum as invitation. When I returned to my dorm room that day, my floormate said they saw me, heard me singing to myself, and it made their day. And this knowledge, in turn, made mine. I was connecting with others more than I was conscious of.
This was deeply affirming for me, making my drum seem akin to a super power. Throughout college, it connected me with myself, with other musically inclined spirits, with strangers who became less strange. Often, I passed the drum to those curious and those who asked. Carrying my drum also showed me the entitlement of strange hands, mostly belonging to men, who would reach for my drum, hitting it without consent.
I remember my freshman year, a more senior schoolmate vehemently told me, don’t let this place take away your joy. It sounded more like a warning, as if joy at that institution was an endangered resource, steadily under attack.
Don’t let this place take away your joy. As if to be Black & Joyous is rebellion. As if to be Black at this institution and in the US is to be at war by default. As if I was arming myself with song and a drum and an open heart.
Don’t let this place take away your joy. As if they knew what it felt like to be stripped of it. As if they saw joy in me. And it was precious.
The joy they sensed from me co-existed amongst a constant questioning of self. Why am I here? Do I care about what I’m studying? What is my purpose? Do I know enough? Am I honoring and making use of the privilege that I have in being at this institution? There were so many people I looked up to —for the strength of their passions, their authentic spirits, and commitments to community. I know people looked up to me for the same reasons —and though it didn’t always feel accurate to how I felt about myself, it was a testament to our expansiveness.
Our virtues are not contradictions to our shortcomings. Our joy is not anomalous to our pain. We are assets without being perfect. We add value to each other’s lives even when we question our own. We don’t have to be perfect to feel purpose. We are whole just the same.
To carry a drum around was a choice I continued to make despite the lingering insecurities of drawing too much attention to myself. I became breathing idiom, marching to the beat of my own drum, but the drum was not solely mine. It belonged to the tree and skin from which the drum was crafted. Belonged to those who made the drum, to those who carried its vibrations in their eardrums even if only for a moment. To those who danced with me. Smiled with me. To those who thought I was a public nuisance. To the person who freestyle sang with me for the remainder of my commute while I drummed on the subway. To the man who before exiting the subway told me, in case no one else tells you this tonight, thank you. [You playing] was a game changer for me.
Before getting off at my bus stop, the woman slid two dollars into my pocket. As I attempted to decline, she retorted, Don’t block my blessing. We were blessings to each other. There is much healing to be done, but I have learned that I too have an offering. I will not block the blessings, with the knowledge that there are people, myself included, in search of healing and grateful for the invitation.