‘Kumbaya’ by Romeo Oriogun​

— Nix Thérèse

As a queer person encountering more of my Gambian heritage, finding other LGTBQ+ artists working with an African context feels necessary. Oriogun’s poetry specifically questions how much queer love cannot fully be separated from larger violences concerning African identity when many people believe that heteronormativity is peak African. It’s fitting that we begin in the bridge between interior and exterior planes: sunlight sneak behind dark curtains / & you sit up, say the light is here again. Surveillance makes this announcement of light feel threatening because the tenuous curtains girding this space could be punctured by more than sun. Yet there’s also a tenderness in recognizing that they survived again: instead their cloaked bodies dragged out into the streets, their desire to be together is enough to hold them through the dark, and isn’t that some sort of blessing?

After the neighbor discovers their relationship, the threat takes real shape: Your father smashes our bones against the wall, our blood mingle, sing kumbaya as it streaks into the rug. Obscuring who’s singing adds complexity to the line. “Someone’s crying Lord” comes to mind here, but the usual pronouncement of kumbaya as a call for grace, attention, or comfort reads more sinister when we consider that God is often used as an excuse for homophobic fury. What if kumbaya is to say, “Come and see; aren’t you proud of my handiwork?” Here I ruminate on how this interior & intimate breaking could be aimed to “save” this couple from larger communal cruelties. Yet, a warning rendered physically is thunder before the storm in that there’s no real separation; these states loop around and inform each other. I’ve often found the “someone” refrain in ‘Kumbaya’ to be a violence of unnaming. We should be able to identify who’s crying, laughing, praying, and sleeping, and what each of those states says about their lives. One’s cry of blood could be met with another’s laugh. One could peacefully sleep on how another is pleading to survive the next moment. Even as the song calls for unity, we must contemplate which body and why it can bleat.

We can’t ignore the blood that’s just beginning to situate itself outside the veins: Tell me this is not the universe saying love is eternal / to two bodies traveling through the sea as salt / two bodies sitting on sand / in a map that doesn’t die. The blood couples, yet this intermingling can’t be snapped by outside hatred. Like the room that opens the poem, it becomes their mark of being that holds both of them perpetually while their physical bodies may be thrown into a more precarious balance. The next set of couplets goes on to illustrate just that: When they came for me with knives and sticks, // I became songs falling through rain. // Do not be afraid, I will always be here. // Just step into the wet sky, / open your mouth, sing, / sing baby. I’m particularly struck by how blunt these tools of malice are when juxtaposed to the softness of water trailing down the skin. We again are brought to the intersection of both piercing and caress, a liminal space that queerness can often embody. The rain douses them in an earthly salt that surrounds the you with the same love that swims in the blood. This flips the first lines: what if the light emanating from this water-curtain was no longer a threat, but your lover’s warm gaze instead? & I love that the songs are specifically shared between the I & you, instead of the broader community. The lyric sounds singular, bubbling up from the gut, fast as blood.

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