Under the Overpass: Shine Muwasi

Under the Overpass focuses on politics, current events, and social commentary from a black, crunchy, granola perspective. Myshell chooses the topics. Michael writes the commentaryThe opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer and not endorsed by myshelltabu.com or its owners.

You have just walked under the overpass and, down here, we believe in giving the drummer some. Respect and a fist bump to the hand playing the first instrument.

On most Sundays, I take my 2-year-old daughter to the Leimert Park Drum Circle in LA’s Crenshaw District. Leimert Park is the nexus of Black Los Angeles politics, culture and grassroots activism. If there is a protest rally, a political press conference, an annual African-centered cultural festival, it’s in Leimert Park. The Leimert Park Drum Circle is special because it brings together the diverse elements of the Black community. There are African immigrants, poets, politicians, children, homeless people, activists, celebrities, business owners, gangstas, hippies, Hebrew Israelites, Fruit of Islam, professors, college students, street vendors and me and my baby girl. All called by the hypnotic lure of the drum.

Typically, I bring one of my djembe drums and my daughter’s smaller version. We always start by stepping into the actual circle, with her on my shoulders, and immediately begin dancing. I like to close my eyes and sway to the ritualized music that our African ancestors infused with soul that slavery couldn’t kill. As I dance, I can feel my daughter dancing on my shoulders. Sometimes she’ll synchronize her rhythm with mine, at other times, true to her already established personality, she’ll find her own rhythm—forcing me to hold on to her legs tighter so she doesn’t fall right off my shoulders as I’m swaying deeply left.

During our initial dance, from time to time, I’ll open my eyes and see the eyes of others locked on us. Though there are approximately 40 drummers, the crowd of onlookers is always at least triple this number. I know their frequent stares are not because my groove skills are so impressive (though I have been known to bust a move when inspired). They are staring because clearly I’m not simply dancing, my free hand is raised skyward praising the most high—and so is my daughter. I know this because after our initial dance, as I’m chasing my infinitely curious daughter to and fro, people ALWAYS, stop me and say how hard my daughter is grooving. This past Sunday, a sister told me: “Your daughter was dancing so hard. She had one hand in the sky and one hand on rocking her braid.”

I want my daughter to fall in love with herself (trust me, she’s on her way). My strategy is to help her fall in love with Black people. Our soul, our humor, our style, our culture, our history and our music—including our drum. Society sends so many messages to Black children (like it sends to Black adults), that Black lives don’t matter. I’m here to make sure my daughter knows: #blacklivesmatter. As a young girl, it is especially important to me that she get this message.

Oftentimes, due to the intense anti-blackness under which Black men suffer, they turn their self-hatred in the direction of Black women. Doing the death-dealing work of institutional racism and individual racists who would love to see us destroy ourselves. The unfortunate and embarrassing truth is that waaaay too many Black men go about this work like its their damn day job. This death-dealing labor force includes some male ministers, some hip hop artists, some gangstas, some athletes, some professors, some drummers, and some brothers who claim to passionately love Black people. My response to them, mid-misogyny, is always the same: Black women are Black people too. And so is my little Black girl.

After our initial dance, we always join the drummers. A part of the beauty of being a long-time drummer is that I can hear the dominant rhythm being played in the Drum Circle and immediately add my own synchronized counter rhythm. It’s a very powerful way to demonstrate respect for the rhythms of communal life, while expressing my own individuality.

I am we, even as I am me.

I often catch my daughter watching me drum, when we first start to drum. She’ll watch me look and listen for a few moments, then launch into my counter rhythm. This is what she also does now when she starts to drum. She’ll take her eyes off me and start looking around the circle. Then she’ll tip her djembe on its side so she can sit on it. Then she’ll start to play. Usually, she’s just beating out random rhythms. Smiling and having fun hanging out with pops in the neighborhood. But every once in awhile, she’ll lock in and go on a little run. She’ll be feeling the pulsing rhythms so strong, she’ll catch a current and ride it for about 10 seconds. Then get up and start dancing—then running through Leimert Park, forcing me to stop drumming and chase after her little butt.

This our ritual.

Dance, drum, dance, run.

I know that as my daughter gets older, she’ll eventually become a very good drummer. I know because she has a great passion for it at this very early age. Even though there are few women, as models, who play in the Drum Circle. Which is why, I usually stop by The World Stage before we leave the park, because during the main Drum Circle, the all-women’s drum ensemble Shine Muwasi, hosts in indoor Drum Circle/jam session/rehearsal. When we walk in my daughter’s eyes light up seeing all the sisters drumming. The sisters eyes light up too. They are so welcoming to her. They place drums in front of her and encourage her to join in. Sometimes she does. Usually, she walks through the circle and goes right to the drum set on the stage, where she plays her own counter rhythm, here, under the overpass.

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