Kato is a Ugandan-American poet, essayist, and entrepreneur based in San Francisco. He is currently chipping away at an MA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. His work dances with a wide spectrum of topics and tensions, among them: human depth in a cursory world, the African experience in the American context, and the Black experience in non-black spaces.
From the Other Side of Ignorance
It took me longer than I will ever admit to learn that love lives on a coin. I joke about it often with Keyon these days... that we matured before social media bios could stuff their bellies with our names neighboring that gilded four-letter mirage: free.
Have I ever been a victim, you ask? Of course, this is a virgin-less nation. I remember the first time I stumbled on a spirit that swam my veins in secret.
To be fair, the shape of my head has always been plump, but, of course, this was fifth grade in Okinawa and, of course, we attended school on base with all the other American kids and, of course, half the Navy is hood niggas so their children tend to follow suit. One of the most consequential decisions of my life had been shoved in my face: allow Malik—whose ashy ankles looked like burnt snow—to keep cooking me in front of everyone in the cafeteria, or clap back because I wasn’t about to be the kid by himself at recess all year. His jokes pulled the Apollo Theater out from their pockets, turning my peers into hysterical hyenas. But the latter prevailed, and to this day I'm still yet to roast anyone to the crisp that I did Malik in that cafeteria. I won’t burden you with what I said but I will say this: I learned of laughter’s power as a viral weapon. When I bent the derision from my peers to hoist me rather than swallow me, I saw why the monkeys and hyenas and all their cousins have been laughing at people the whole time.
I grew buzzed with my newfound clout, at times becoming a sharper, moisturized version of Malik because that was the Culture, is the Culture. I believe I was, perhaps, a victim of survival at that time, but my compassion has since recovered, thanks for asking.
You already knew this, but the universe was up to her usual tricks when she ironically made Malik and I friends down the line. We weren’t best buddies, but when we did get together we’d hang out around the base and play basketball and talk about girls. Our friendship was one that simply stuck around over the years, you know, the ones where when time starts rinsing that initial bond away, and life starts shuffling everyone around, you still somehow remain in each other’s orbit. Both of our families moved to San Diego after eighth grade and sure enough, come freshman year, our lives collided once again in a cafeteria.
When I reached the stage of my life where I was working in offices brimming with mostly white people, a growing hunger to get closer to the Culture started chewing me: RDC and HaHa Davis videos became coffee every morning, 85 South Show remained on loop as background noise at home. I even welcomed mumble rap into my daily rotation. My therapist calmly nodded with tinted affirming eyes and a warm smirk as I spilled this to him one evening, assuring me that it’s natural for people to delve deeper into their inherent culture when plopped in environments starved of it. It made me think of the experience me and my sister and all the other Black military kids had growing up. When living abroad in places like Japan and South Korea, all we had was BET, all we had was the novelty clothing stores in town that sold knock off throwback jerseys and Jordans. We had to constantly chase the Culture down, which made many of us cling to it even tighter.
Is it simply coincidence that Malik started gangbanging around the same time Lil Wayne and The Game and Dipset were climbing into the crest of their careers? I don’t know, but what I do know is Malik loved the Culture. Loved the Culture. He managed to beat everyone to all the new bootleg mixtape releases and memorized their toxic poetry before anyone else could. He recorded interviews and mimicked mannerisms. He lived for the Culture. Lived for it.
I have said plenty thus far, my beloved reader. What I am not saying is that the Culture is simply reduced to rap music, nor am I saying that it is anyone’s job other than your own to stay out of prison. But he shouldn’t be sitting in there today. Malik is a good soul who loves hard, underneath it all. Perhaps he was a victim of that love, or lack thereof. Perhaps his love for acceptance eclipsed his love for himself. Perhaps that is why he found such joy in hurling jokes that tricked others into seeing God’s fingerprints as flaws.
Perhaps the vim that stole Jay-Z’s tongue when he recorded “Big Pimpin’” is the same as that which planted Malik’s name in those spaces Keyon and I talk about keeping ours free of.