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The Thuglife Poetry and Afrofuturism of Hannu Afere’s Digital Ṣìgìdì

by Carl Terver

Tupac Shakur’s T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E—The Hate U Gave Little Infants Fucked Everyone—is a critique on the culture of violence and thuggishness exuded by African Americans as a reflex conditioning of white oppression. This conditioning comes from a broken identity he criticised in his poem “The Rose that Grew from Concrete”: Did you hear about the rose that grew/ from a crack in the concrete? In a song he references the poem, he further criticises: “We love the rose’s tenacity and its will to grow and reach the sun, but sometimes the rose that grows from the concrete has damaged petals.” Tupac’s thuglife critique is a dialectic that situates black/white relationship after the Transatlantic slave trade and colonialism, where the Negro perennially contemplates his subjugation to whiteness, imperialism, racism, and displacement. Hannu Afere speaks from this place in Digital Ṣìgìdì.

From this thuglife position, Afere’s tone, rather than the sartorial and measured finesse accustomed to poetry, is of the hardcore rapper. His assignment, provocation, as if to say: damn the slavemaster and his oppression. He exudes a rebellious disposition to confront the oppressive system against his race, and asserts his humanity. Typically, his poesy begins with the tale of subjugation. The first poem is “Under Arrest”:

Goodness. I’m at the far end of the road, minding my business, 
the òriki of 250 million worshippers in my ear. From here, I see
Lei Gong and Thor sitting behind strobe lights . . . 

The poem describes a crime scene the speaker witnesses. A Mexican immigrant—“wet-back” as written by Afere—is stabbed in the eye by a Brit who runs off. Lei Gong and Thor chase after the offender; as they do, the offender’s partner, another Brit, steals the automobile and zooms off with it. Afere, through the speaker, reminds himself, “he should have hauled ass out of there,” but he doesn’t. What he fears soon happens: the police arrive and find him as a suitable witness for the crime:

. . . They approach. Po lice wearing fancy uniforms and 
carrying hematophagic guns
 
[You sir, must have seen the whole thing. We’d like to see from 
your POV] And this is when I really should have hauled ass out 
of there, but again, when I try to move, I’m not fast enough. I 
make the big mistake of mouthing off [OK, sure] . . . 

The setting is futuristic. The police bring out scanners to scan his lenses and retrieve data of the crime scene he witnessed. But they find more: that he is “related to Ògún.” (Perhaps he’s not melanin-skinned?—it should be obvious to the police. Or the information of his relatedness to Ògún is useless. But it isn’t.) Thus, our speaker’s panic begins: what would the po-po do? Read:

They mutter under their breaths as following their faces, my eyes 
play ping pong—but I shouldn’t panic yet, right? Wrong. Lei 
Gong speaks in thunder sing-song [You are under arrest] I’m 
stabbed under my breast by a voltage nullifyer.
[. . .]
All these for what, they do not say but
when I feel Thor’s prosthetic leg connecting with my gut, 
I know I’m dead before I hit the ground.

This first poem is Afere’s thesis and establishes his posture to the concerns he goes on to narrate in Digital Ṣìgìdì. Its dramatic effect is on purpose for reader’s retention, to return to its wholesome metaphor in the manner it accentuates identity and politics. His statement is clear: there’s power at play here and he is dominated by it by virtue of his ancestry, and is he dead by it, not after, but before he hits the ground. He is under arrest: his race is under arrest.

The speaker is under arrest, not just by the physical arm of oppression but psychologically, too. Expressed in the poem’s opening lines, the juxtaposition of “the òriki of 250 million worshippers” in his ear with the presence of Lei Gong and Thor, racial others, depicts a conflict between worlds—of the òriki which ties him to his African roots and the foreignness of Lei Gong and Thor. Thus, “arrest” is a metaphor for his subjugation, enunciating his second place; the treatment from the police depicts the colonial ideology of dominance; and the manner he is arrested suggests the disposability of black life. But Afere’s agitation, and target to readers, is the future time this happens, not present day. Hence, his entry to Afrofuturism, concerned with the representation of black identity in futuristic narratives to counter its already predominant whiteness.

Mark Dery began its discussion in 1994 when he published Black to the Future, a book of essays and interviews of black sci-fi writers, and described Afrofuturism as “speculative fiction that treats African–American themes and addresses African–American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and, more generally, African–American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future . . ..” His concern is: how can the black community imagine its future when its past has been rubbed out from history and its energy expended in an exhausting identity search? In cue, Afere’s poem “What’s Beyond the River?” explores memory as a path to reclamation, nay, reparation:

Grandma running circles around my dead father’s electronic reincarnation 
Her holographic dog barking 
We repossessed Eden and sent the Cherubim packing 
Wrote new algorithms for happiness . . .

The project is no longer just the search for traces of lost history but to rewrite and claim it. This is the Afrofuturist vision, after all. In this process, enters decolonisation, to tear down colonial legacies that entraps the imagination of black people. Yet Afere is aware of blacks who take sides with the coloniser, either by blindness or sabotage: “Beyond the river, however, purist hunters still find species traitors/ Refusing to master any tech smarter than smartphones”. The smartphone is a metaphor, like the entrapments of colonial brainwashing, that imprisons the colonised from attaining freedom. So an enraged Afere accuses them:

You see the future with 2020 vision, that’s why you’re so damn blind! 
Tomorrow doesn’t look like you or talk like you, she goes on a space holiday 
But what can I say? 
Last week, a man was lynched for blushing at a cyborg’s flirtatious smile . . .

We detect the desperate voice of Africa’s past liberation fighters in Afere’s tone and sympathise with him, knowing well how our history of liberation has, so far, met waterloo, especially by our own hands. It is this knowledge Afere reminds us of in the last line: “Beyond the river, I guess nothing really changed.” Thus, the next poem introduces violence.

In “What’s Beyond the River,” a man is lynched for blushing at a cyborg’s flirtatious smile. He is a man of progress, the freedom fighter, the Pan-Africanist. But his people persecute him for trying to disturb the status quo. In the next poem “Early Lessons,” Afere’s speaker is insulted, “Byte prick! Cyborg lover!” But he doesn’t cower to bullying and engages his oppressor in combat—by thug life. As stones are hurled at him, he says, “[You better hit me with the next one/ Or I’ll make you wish your mother had had a miscarriage].” And when he eventually fights this bully, in his head are the “deathly possession of violins . . . like/ Paganini’s reincarnation—only with Nubian curl and Yorùbá/ intonation . . ..”—once more Afere draws our attention to the conflict between worlds. When he gets home, his grandma knows he has been in a fight. He answers her:

[Yes I was fighting,] replied I. [I wasn’t getting beaten up by legacy humans. 
I wasn’t getting backed into a corner & getting shoved around. 
For once, I fought.]

Violence, in fact, was Frantz Fanon idea of any real, pragmatic decolonisation; Afere only reiterates it. In the past, heyday of post-Independence Africa, this should have been the gospel, for a total overhauling of the colonial system. But African intellectuals at the forefront of Independence negotiations were in league with the colonial bourgeoise class whose positions they sought to claim, inheriting the colonial structures in place. Fanon disagreed. In his words, “colonialism isn’t a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with violence.” It is this spirit Afere’s thug-poet espouses and evangelises to us: seize your black power, by force.

The titular poem “Digital Ṣìgìdì” continues this project as an anti-religious manifesto: “My eyes avoid like a plague, peace-of-mind preachers who only give you/ the Satan as a target for your woes . . .” but “The simulation ends when you say it ends, book-walker/ As it begins./ Now, would you like to save changes? Y/N.” But the choice to be emancipated from the chains of religion hangs in the balance, an apt capture of our present predicament: it’s yes and, or, no. While we dilly-dally about it, its scourge in our socio-political experiment is visible. “Terror Incognito,” with its obscure opening, is still a grudge against colonialism; it ends with the lines, “my people no get work, but when tracing the roots of/ this truth, one thing they’ll never have to do again is guess work.” At this point it is tempting to get underwhelmed by Afere’s angst, because we ask, and so what? What next?

So as comic relief you find a poem on climate threat, “Plastic Rain.” It begins: “microplastic to nanoplastic,/ pristine air where microns ballistic/ bombard nostrils. I can’t breathe . . .” and ends:

we are inhaling microbeads 
while sowing the wrong seeds 
and you know what that means— 
there’s fewer and fewer strong trees.

Or strong men, for the sake of multiplicity. However, Afere shows a stronger side of his poetry in the poem “City Lights. Goddamn” where his Afrofuturism bears a broader and universal perspective.

Going home? This city sits on the bones of new world order and 
prime number coding. Smart-dust probing; 
exploratory, electronic, sub-atomic eyes. 
All ties to the primitiveness of oil and gas gone. Which means no 
more wars, which means new hobbies, which means space stations 
and moon bases until there is nothing left to fight for.

This future city has reached a zenith of development. The primitiveness of oil and gas alludes to Nigeria, whose woes brought by crude oil is now gone. Its people take up new habits or are just idle—a healthy idleness—as there is no more fighting.

But we see Afere’s reflection in the speaker’s dream of a highly developed Nigeria against the country’s present nightmarish reality: “. . . The light for/ streets are either bright or insanely smart, guiding beautiful flying Ubers./ Nanobots mop up all accidents with renewable energy . . .” and “Holographic geneticists/ diagnose and find a cure for whatever malfunction inhabits her/ lymphocytes within minutes and life is good.” But he is not blinded by the threat of a too-organised city (a world) governed by tech where people become robots “hard-wired to be second class citizens” and mothers “hired and fired by AI.” Because such societies, cosmetic on the surface, are mostly dictatorships. His ultimate concern, however, is the weight of urbanisation on our existence:

Inside the city lights, since darkness is an anathema, tired minds hang— 
suspended from life-support machines... Going home? No, you can’t. 
Not really.

Utopian cities are not paradises, after all. There is no home. The lights are artificiality shadowing reality, shadowing life. The question to us is: after all our advancement, then what? Or rather, that society hastens to inertia—thus, the ultimate existential question: “Going home?” (After decolonisation, then what?) That society is one goddamn oppressor and everyone is on a life-support machine. 

The speaker of postcolonial concerns returns in “Ose Versus Hammer”: his consciousness dwells in the conflict between his world and the coloniser. His demeanour is similar to the Pan-African teenager in Kayinsola Olorunnisola’s In My Country, We’re All Crossdressers who mourns that his tongue is a path split into the feet of two warring continents Atlantics apart. In Afere’s “Ose Versus Hammer,” the speaker is confronted with a similar fate inside a plane:

						Last week, 
Baba in full regalia climbed on the Airbus & this woman next 
to me pleaded the blood of Jesus. Her T-shirt had Thor on it, 
by the way. The text read “Avengers” on it, by the way. I 
looked over & over-heard her say [Fetish.] The blemish in her 
mind seeking validation with smile coquettish.

In this laidback tone, Afere mourns the betrayal by Africans in denial of their identity, which he relates is the psychology of conquered people. Early in the poem, he makes “peace with the/ fact that there was a war my father lost,” just as he laments in a poem “Museum,” about the British 1897 Punitive Expedition against the old Benin Kingdom in which his ancestors were invaded and subdued.

“An Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Why We Are Where We Are” is the lengthiest poem in the collection. It is a decolonisation exposé on the subjects Racism, Sex, Religion, Money and Education, respectively, and ends: “The day you break free is the day you become a marked man.” Thus, liberation leads to death as the freedom fighter is likely maimed and persecuted by his neighbour if he evangelises emancipation.

But for all his testament to decolonisation, Afere acknowledges his fate, not as a liberator, righteous and fully emancipated, but one in the same quagmire of his target of evangelism. Hear him in “Speak Colonial”:

It is 3:38am and I am naked 
Standing where 3 footpaths meet 
Èṣù, God of crossroads, 
Do you speak colonial, do you understand English? 

I am a chameleon who’s lost its blender 
Stuck in the snow, stuck in the red soil 
I am the offspring of earth songs and potent invocations 
But my head is full of another man’s tongue . . .

After all the thuglife, his refusal to shut up, and Uhuru dreams, the colonised is torn in his conflict of reconciling different worlds to carve a sense of his place. Hannu Afere comes to us in Digital Ṣìgìdì with a decolonisation evangelism. However, he misses us sometimes: the poetry is not shorn of that demon of opacity that makes poetry difficult to read: there’s a good dosage in the collection. It is courage to write for the cult sometimes and lose numbers in readership. But after reading this work, we are forced to ask: what is his hardcore Pan-Africanism and decolonisation about today? My question is a provocation to African intellectuals, myself inclusive, oft dismissive of the currency of these ideas today. Fanon, over sixty years ago, wrote: “for many years to come we shall be bandaging the countless and sometimes indelible wounds inflicted on our people by the colonialist onslaught.” That Afere’s muse is burdened today by this imbroglio, after many, long years of our so-called freedom from colonialism, responds to Fanon’s words◼

Carl Terver is the founding editor of Afapinen. He is the author of the poetry chapbook For Girl at Rubicon.

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