Cambridge Chronicles: Letter 5 – From Nyabinghi to Yoruba
I promised to tell you about the artists that inspired me, the musicians, photographers, writers and more. But I should back up and start that chapter with an introduction to Nyabinghi. My first true immersion in Black art was at his shop on Chambers Street in lower Manhattan. Nyabinghi was an institution in New York. I had discovered his shop just weeks before quitting my job. He had Ethiopian Bibles printed in lion’s blood, actual slave shackles, maps of Africa from the 1600s. The Perrier & Poetry group took a field trip to his store the week after I quit my job. We posed for photos with Ethiopian crosses…hand carved mahogany doors. I wanted to buy everything, but that would’ve been my entire savings. Times 100,000. I felt this urgent need to tell the world about his collection. I felt like my whole generation needed to know he existed. But I didn’t have the tools–internally and externally.
I would hang out in the shop for hours and soak up his knowledge. He talked to me about the Nyabinghi order, Black spiritual cooperation, about ancient knowledge, things I couldn’t make much sense of at the time, though I connected with the truth of his messages. Many characters passed through his shop. Some just hung out. There was the occasional white tourist for whom we’d mostly go quiet.
It was the who’s-who of Hotepdom. There’s a guy we see all over the interwebs now with his wild pimp-looking suits. Brightly colored and clean. Sharp. From Jersey. He came to the shop almost everyday. Brightened it up with his lime green suits and sharp tongue. Absolutely no fuchs were given. I got sick at one point and met a guy there who studied crystals, he could tell what my ailment was just by waving his hand in front of my stomach. He was the one who taught me about the power of gemstones, the story of Atlantis and also put me onto Hidden Colors. I loved being there because the energy was clean, and there was absolutely not an ounce of pretense ever in the space. Everybody said exactly what was on their mind. And they were radical about Black liberation.
It was about this period that I got really serious about learning Yoruba. Well before I moved to Brooklyn, I was obsessed with writing down my grandmothers’ stories. They’d spoken only Yoruba. I’d figured I would go to Lagos, sit with them, they would speak to me in Yoruba, and I would be forced to learn. Then I’d be able to listen to their life journeys and then write them down. But this never happened, because they both passed away before I could visit Nigeria, and before I could learn Yoruba.
My twin birthday boyfriend at the time was also instrumental in inspiring the urgency to learn. I ordered all the books I could find, and began learning independently, and practicing with my Brooklyn family.
My Nigerian parents damn near panicked at the idea of me learning Yoruba while being passionate about African cultural preservation. They wanted to make sure I didn’t get into Ifa. My dad said: “Stick to the language, don’t get into the religious stuff.” I hadn’t seen enough Nollywood films yet to be afraid of juju or to believe it was a real thing. I was very blasé about this advice.
More to come next time.