“I got, I got, I got, I got
Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA
Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA
I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA
I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA”
~ DNA (Album: Damn) Kendrick Lamar
What stands out about the recording below by Yves Tabidje is its on-the-spot improvisation, which took place for the first time at the Khirkee Recording Studio. Free verse is entrenched in American hip-hop culture, popularized by rap battles, and an artist is often judged by his or her ability to freestyle to any given beat. There is something visceral, yet hyper-real, about words that cascade unhindered from a rapper’s subconscious mind straight into the microphone. Sometimes, as in Yves’ case, it becomes a portal to understanding the human experience in a way that even the performer did not intend.
A short note about Yves. He has an easy charm about him. He smiles often and widely. He can be childlike while grooving to Bollywood beats with neighbourhood children. He can become dark-eyed and impassioned when speaking about his country of origin, the Ivory Coast in West Africa. We ask him to perform for our cameras and his French rap gets us all whooping. We catch stray words here and there. ‘Flow’, ‘Nigga’, ‘Khirkee’. He points to this skin and what looks to me like a reference to the blood in his veins. After he’s done, we clap uproariously.
When Yves translates his verse to English he is incredulous about the words that have left his mouth. He is taken aback by his anger. “I was just saying what came in my head. I never realised it would be this.” We go line by line and Yves tells us about the history of his country, about which we know woefully little. He tells us about French colonizers, who left in the 1960s, although that was a mere technicality. “Their military mans our airports. They steal our chocolate. Your phone? The bauxite for it comes from my country. The white man, he takes it from me.” He takes out his phone and scrolls through his social media feed until he comes to the image of a man – Laurent Gbagbo – who he tells us is the only man to stand up France’s bullying ways. (If you google Gbagbo you find Western media reports like this which have a contrary point of view.). When conversation swings to India’s own tryst with colonizers, Yves becomes passionate and exclaims, “The white man is the original terrorist!
His free verse includes references to Khirkee and it’s not immediately clear if he feels at home here, or at war with its ‘mafia’. It suggests an awareness of the disruptive presence of immigrants, especially African immigrants, like him. It is an explosive declaration: we are here to stay, to integrate with you. There’s defiance: We’re here to blast da flow. This defiance is at odds with his discomfort, when he sits at the studio counter acutely aware of the locals staring straight at him (one of the few times we, the women of the studio, don’t get stared at is when there is a black man inside the shop).
Rage, swagger, defiance and violence define this performance. It is compelling in its stream-of-consciousness honesty. At one point Yves sweeps his hands across his forearm. During the recording we, his audience, don’t understand what it means. When the translation comes in, the rawness of sentiment hits home:
“You see me – I’m not (just) a black nigga
My mind is pure like ivory
I blast the flow of the place”
– Purnima Rao, collaborating artist at the Khirkee Storytelling Project