“A thoroughly modern epic but with bones as old as time. This is a story of love and betrayal and madness and music that is all the more beautiful for its plainspoken poignancy. Yet there is prose in here that steals your breath away.”— The Gerald Kraak Prize, 2016
your life is a blooming tulip, white and un-whittled, wet and un-warm. in its peopled loneliness, you’re discovering desire, unearthing the live wire that will tie you to the things you will never have. you’re opening a lovebook of longings.
THE MANGOES HAVE BEGUN TURNING reddish and yellowish when the man starts coming to the cathedral field, and often you see him jogging in his green-and-white Super Eagles jersey and sparkling-red boots, or in the pitch lying and stretching himself on the dark-brown sand, or in the canteen buying snacks and drinks, or under the mango tree a stone’s throw from the pitch, sitting in his black Jeep. It is four months into 2000, and all talk about the world failing to end in 1999 has died. You’re still nine, still carrying footballs to CKC to play four-a-side “monkey post” with your friends. On TV, Nigeria has just lost on penalties to Cameroon in the Africa Cup of Nations final. On the streets, the Bakassi Boys are butchering robbers—robbers and people suspected of being robbers. They’re dousing their bodies with petrol in Obohia Road. They’re setting them ablaze in the center of cheering crowds in Ngwa Road. They’re throwing the burnt-black bodies into Gworo Pit along the expressway. But sometimes, when it is the crowd that has burnt the robbers, the bodies will be left there in the centre of traffic, as a warning to eyes, an impediment to noses.
That April, a few days after you begin seeing him, your coach introduces him to you all. He is average in height, not very slim, not very muscled, but with a bushy beard. He says he used to lecture in Nsukka, but this is what the love of football has turned him into: a coach. A whistle between his pink lips, he dishes out instructions in English, sharing balls and having each of you bounce it up to a hundred times, saying, “Terrific, terrific,” clapping softly.
Later he asks you all, one by one, to say any other thing you are talented in, any other thing you want to be aside footballer. When it gets to your turn, you say, “Musician.”
“Musician,” he repeats, nodding, smiling. “So you want to be the next Fela?”
There’s something about his presence, his standing there, about the refusal of his hands to stay still, to not gesture wildly while clasping that bottle of water. There’s something about the guttural bass of his voice, his grin that is a brown sketch of teeth, his eyes that rove with something you haven’t seen before, his smell of sweat and body spray. There’s something that prises you open, threatens to rearrange everything inside your brain. You feel a sudden need to close up, to seal yourself, to take back your words, to say that you actually want to be a doctor or lawyer or engineer like the others, so that his eyes that look like they want to fall back into their sockets will leave you. You want to get up and walk away from there and get as far away as you can.
Many years later, when you’ll drop football and begin stalking radio DJs to give them CDs of your songs, when you’ll begin feeling a revolving emptiness, a gratitude for the invaluable moments you felt a small lucid sanity, you’ll return daily to this evening to seek validation from the eyes of a stranger.
But now he is smiling as he asks everyone’s name again, as he says once more, “My own name is Dr. Uzodinma. You can call me Coach.” And you watch the words leave his lips, watch them float in the air, swing slowly downwards like leaves, and you stare at his beard and see beads of water dripping off it. Later, when you get home, you open the notebook where you paste images of bare-bodied men cut out from newspapers—Zinedine Zidane, Mohammed Ali, The Undertaker—and wonder how he would look in your book.
DECEMBER OF 2007 AND YOU’RE 19, and have twice failed to get admission into Nsukka, and have barbed your hair into Gallas because you’re an aspiring artiste, because the only males not harassed by soldiers in Aba when they did things with their hair are footballers and aspiring artistes. It is these seven years later that you see him again, and in the weeks that follow, realise how much of the world is beyond your grasp. Something keeps you distracted that evening and you keep watching the white Jeep, and when the driver alights in an all-blue long-sleeved Chelsea top and trousers, you watch him, too. After more than thirty minutes of watching him jog the length of the pitch, after he has sat on the sand and has begun stretching himself, you start walking towards him. “Kee ebe I na-aga, Zukora?” someone shouts. “It’s our set.”
It will stick in your mind, that question: Where are you going? A constant reminder that there are things you will never fully know about yourself.
“Good evening, sir,” you say, lowering your head. And suddenly, now that you are close, you become unsure, a part of you pricking up, insisting it is not him.
“Good evening,” he says, distractedly. He looks up.
You tell him you are one of the boys he once coached there, seven years ago.
At first, he looks blank. Then his face loosens into a smile. “Ah, I remember now. Kee ka I mekwaranu?” He is taking you in, shaking his head in mild amazement. “You’re a big boy now o.”
“I’m fine, sir. I hope everything is fine with you,” you say, smiling.
“Yes, yes,” he says. For a second his eyes seem to focus on something beside you, then he looks up, sipping from his bottle of water. “Yes. Sit with me.”
You sit on the sand, warm and pale brown, punctuated here and there by yellowed tufts of withering grass. Were this the rainy season, the grass would be shiny green, intensely itchy on bare skin. He leans backwards, his body supported by his hands, his hairy legs pulled up so that, from the border of his shorts, the white underwear he is wearing shows. It hits you again: the smell of the same body spray after so many years. You want to urinate.
Near the goalpost, three children are in a circle, chanting Ruff Coin’s “Nwa Aba”: Abum Nwa Aba, Aba, Aba ooo, Aba! Their voices so brittle, so fierce in their declaration: that each of them is a Nwa Aba, a child of Aba, in blood and character.
“My name is Zukora, sir,” you offer.
He nods. “Zukora.”
You chat for some time. About the Golden Eaglets’ U-17 World Cup victory days ago. About his support for Chelsea because of Mikel Obi and Michael Essien and Drogba; even though Drogba scored and knocked out Nigeria in the last Nations Cup semi-finals and no Nigerian non-Chelsea fan likes him for that. About your support for Barcelona because of Samuel Eto’o and Ronaldinho. Who among Kaka, Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo is the best player in the world. It is growing dark when he gets up and beats the sand and grass off his buttocks. “Where do you live?” he asks.
AROUND GIRLS, YOU HAVE AN idea of what to be, when to be it, how to be it. Around boys, you are lost, stilted, wilting under every gaze, awkward with every touch, feeling something in you ripped off its hinges, a violation of confidence, an entrenchment of confusion.
You wake up in the morning, in his hotel room, naked under a blanket, and you look at him in his boxers, bare-bodied and with a white towel around his neck, and you feel a clenching in your chest, and after you leave, after you open your wallet and see fresh N1,000 notes and call him and stutter through thank-yous, after he has said, “We’ll talk later,” you say, “Wait,” and he says, “What?”
“I love you,” you say.
“You don’t know the meaning of what you’re saying,” he says.
And hangs up.
And calls again.
“You don’t even know who I am.”
BUT THERE ARE THINGS THAT don’t always ask for permission before happening. You are changing, you know; something is making you happier, making you sadder. You are at that point in your life when everything suddenly means something, but meaning neither too much nor too little, meaning only enough for you to take them as they come, as they try to take you apart, in the little compartments you’ve boxed your life into.
To be in love is to walk, along Ngwa Road filled with taxis and buses and lorries, and hear in all that honking the whistling and trilling of birds. To be in love is to hear in the hurled shouts of drivers and motorcyclists, in the chirping of invisible crickets near rubbish-filled gutters, glorious a cappella. It is to pass by the towering refuse heap in the middle of Asa Road and perceive in the torn air the absolute smell of nothing. To be in love is to sit at home and let your eyes follow scurrying rats, your ears whining mosquitoes, to let cockroaches escape the soles of your feet, to not have it occur to you to wish even them ill. To be in love is to witness, in an October evening on Ogbor Hill, burnished-white clouds and a setting copper sun and an azure sky paint themselves into a river, skyscraping tree foliage the marshes on its aerial banks. It is to walk in the windy rain with your umbrella as walking stick, a wholesome splattering.
To be in love is to feel a lightness of being, in being. It is to feel in your belly a little god of little things, a granter of miracles in the most meaningless of moments. It is to have a You-shaped hole in the universe, to imagine that all of creation is in sync with your mind. To see in the distant eyes of Ahia-Ohuru market traders a glow, to feel in the bus conductor’s rudeness, warmth. To be in love is to imagine defiantly, to believe defiantly, that the object of your hunger will always lie in your sight. To love is to have the luxury of options, and to choose to be unshackled.
But in love, also, you just might be a stray child in a busy road junction. You just might have a deep cleft in you, a gnawing on the edges of your mind that scatters your head, unspools fear in your heart, confusion that makes you imagine you’re quietly going mad.
HE DOESN’T TALK ABOUT IT when next you see him. Instead, he talks about school while you burn away. He cradles your head onto his chest and tells you about his time as a lecturer in Nsukka, about one of his students who ran away from home after his parents refused to let him travel to Norway for a football trial. He asks why you don’t want to try getting admission again, tells you that you can combine your music pursuits with school.
You can’t, you say quietly. Your father’s burial took away everything you had. Your sister’s illness, too. “I can’t be going to school when there are problems at home. It’ll be like throwing away money.”
“School can never be like throwing away money.”
“In my case it would be. I can’t imagine spending four years with all the costs and then spending more years carrying files up and down, looking for a job I will never get. If I must gamble, then I will gamble on something I believe in.”
“Well, that makes sense,” he says, “in a way.”
Each evening, it is more or less the same thing, the same talk that he initiates it, as if saying the same thing absolves him from saying those other things. You two go to and fro, to and fro, until you fall silent. And then he picks your palm, a warm clasp, and snakes it down his torso. You clasp his erection and he chuckles. You lick it and he moans.
Your fingers rove on his body until he turns you over and kisses your back all the way down. Sometimes he doesn’t go all the way, sometimes at this point he gets up and goes into the bathroom and you lie there, exposed, turbulence brewing beneath your skin. When he comes out, he cradles you to his body, touches your penis: “You didn’t release?”
Each night, as you walk home, you try hard to not hear his voice in the honking of vehicles, to not see his oblong face in a patch on the coal tar, to not feel his cold fingers against your skin.
One evening, rising naked from the bed, he asks, “Would you like to go out?”
He is facing the wardrobe with his back to you and you watch the symmetry of his arms, the bony plunge of his lower back, the feminine elegance of his toes. He has shown you desire, cupped palms of flames, and every single time you lay eyes on him you feel a small trembling in your veins, the rush of blood still unsated.
You are behind him on his motorcycle, your body pressed against his, your hands around his waist as he speeds down Ngwa Road and up Obohia Road. You are heading down potholed Port Harcourt Road when he shouts, “What you said when you said ‘I love you,’ were you serious?”
“Yes.” The word pushes out before you recover from his casualness.
“Well, I love you, too!”
You’re surprised. You nod.
“Did you hear me?”
That night, when you get home, you remove your clothes and stand naked before your mirror, trying to see yourself through his eyes. Afterwards, you touch yourself and cry in joy and fear.
The following morning, he opens the door for you and says, “The security men were looking at me when I went downstairs.” He closes the door, waits for you to sit, then says, “I saw you talking with him yesterday, the fat yellow one.”
“He said he knows my face from somewhere. Turns out he lives across the road from us.”
“And you told him about me.”
“About you kwa? Why would I tell anybody?”
“I hate lies. I hate liars.”
“Why would I lie to you?”
As you talk, he is pacing, towards the door, towards the bed. “I can’t deal with liars,” he is repeating, not looking at your face.
“I didn’t tell anybody anything. I swear to God, I didn’t. Why would I tell anybody?”
Suddenly, he is crying. He has crumbled into the bed and he is crying, his head buried in his palms. “I always knew you’ll put me in trouble one day,” he is muttering, his shoulders heaving.
You have never felt confusion like this before. How has he, in a half-moment, gone from full calm to full distortion? “I did not tell anybody anything, I didn’t.” You try so hard to be calm even though you’re freaking out.
After some minutes, he cleans his tears, cleans his nose. “Come,” he says. “Sit down.” His eyes are rinsed, black suns in reddened skies. A week later, after he says he will call but doesn’t, you arrive at his room. You knock and knock and knock until a fat man in a white towel opens the door with a frown. “Ahem?” Fat Man asks. “I’m sorry, I thought somebody,” you say, “I used to know the person that stayed here. I mean, I’m looking for somebody.”
Weeks pass, months pass, and he doesn’t answer your calls until a year has passed. And by then the void has already chewed off an essential part of you. In granting or withholding, human love has the same immense power: heal or bruise, keep sane or render insane, to wholly create or to completely destroy. Later, you gather yourself and sit on your bed and realise where you have gone wrong—that you should have protected yourself.
ONE NIGHT IN A CLUB, you meet Chuka, a DJ. You talk and talk, and you talk some more. He follows South African music religiously, lists Brenda Fassie’s “Vulindlela” and Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s “Umqombothi” as his favourites. He insists Nigerian pop music is half crap: good beats, great beats, poor, poor lyrics: women, money, sex, parties, boasts, women, boasts, sex. Never political, never deep thinking, except for three or four artistes. “Fela’s spirit is gone, Onyeka Onwenu’s spirit, Christy Igbokwe, all gone,” he says. You disagree on some points, tell him that not all music should be political or deep. In the end, he plays you beats he has created, says he intends having D’banj put vocals on it. It is funky, begins with a splash of drums, eases into mid-tempo, a hint of reggae. Chuka doesn’t know anybody big in the music industry; he intends to attend a D’banj show in Lagos and give it to him, beg him to listen to it, just a minute of his time, just listen.
You want to ask him how he will ever get close enough to D’banj but you don’t. Then it walks into your head. “How much will you sell it?” you ask.
Chuka laughs. You can tell it’s pity he feels for you.
But then the world is as strange as it gets and he ends up sending it to you. For free. On agreement that you have one week to do something with it.
You write something, anything you think of: money, girls, money, girls, girls. You call it “Baby Mama,” even though you suspect it’s not very good.
But Chuka likes it, says it’s flat but likes it still. “When you really think of it,” he says, “Nigerians suffer too much from the government to listen to heavy philosophy and anything not trash and good beats.” But he isn’t sure what to do with it, afraid that if it comes out someone might rip off it. Still, he starts playing it in clubs, starts giving other DJs to play it. You hover around night clubs hoping a few people will like it. A month passes before you hear from Chuka.
“You won’t believe this!” he screams on the phone. “Look, we totally have to re-do this, it will blow!”
You enter an okada and speed to Abia Polytechnic where Chuka is a student. You enter his flat and he introduces you to a friend, Jasper, a tall guy whose lavish looks contrast sharply with Chuka’s unremarkable face. Jasper is a writer freelancing for The Eastern Voice. You show Chuka what you have written down, new lyrics to “Baby Mama.”
Jasper gives you ideas: Make it a bit different, more love and less shake-it-for-me, more life, a hint of desperation, like Djinee’s “Ego,” make it distinctive or it will get drowned in the sea of songs out there. As you work, they chat—what Genevieve Nnaji did, what Rihanna wore, a Kenyan artist called Wangechi Mutu, a black American painter called Kehinde Wiley—they chat, analyzing, dissecting, in the manner of young people whose lives are defined only by their personal dreams and pop culture. Spiced with long digressions by Chuka on the world and why the world sucks. Suddenly Jasper asks, “You don’t follow politics?”
You shake your head, wonder if he’s disappointed. You’ve never been interested in the questions people like them flit through: Why is Nigeria so fucked-up? Just why was Biafra’s three million allowed to happen? How the heck did the Holocaust begin, to start with? And Rwanda, and Yugoslavia, and Sudan—what devils rode into those places on horsebacks? You wonder if it is selfishness, to simply not be interested, to be invested only in your own security. You differ greatly from them.
Fortunately, Jasper doesn’t act as though you should know better, so you turn back to “Baby Mama.” You spend the next three hours in the sitting-room writing, humming, thinking. You need to urinate, you walk inside and push Chuka’s room door to ask where the toilet is, and you see them: Jasper sitting astride Chuka, both bare-bodied. Jasper turns away slowly, like he doesn’t care. Chuka bends his head, looks around. “I’m sorry,” you say quickly, backing out, embarrassed.
A week later, Chuka calls and says, “Tune in to BCA, they’re playing it!”
You tune in, listen. It feels surreal hearing yourself on radio, your words floating on beats: You’ve made me say I won’t go, say I will stay, say you will be my baby, my mama!
After the song ends, Chuka rings again, says, “Guy, we did it!”
THINGS CHANGE. PEOPLE BEGIN TO know your name. Chuka hires people to paste posters of you on walls and gates and electric poles along roads, and soon, people begin recognizing you on the road. Lavish hellos, exuberant waving. Clubs keep playing “Baby Mama,” people keep talking about it, you keep calling Chuka to know what’s up. One morning, you come out to wash your face and your neighbour, a slim man always in a wrapper, says, “You need to pray against curses.”
You stare at him. Papa Njideka doesn’t talk to people; all day, he sits with his radio between his laps, looking out at Cemetery Road Market in his singlet and wrapper, like he’s waiting for a prediction to pass. “Your song is everywhere and you don’t have money,” he says.
Inside your flat, you cry. Your mother says, “God does not disappoint.” She rubs your head and says, “You are destined to make it.”
It takes three months before Chuka calls to say you have a show in TKT Hotel. A politician’s birthday. You cry on the phone. “We did it,” Chuka says again.
You make your first money six months after “Baby Mama” is out—a cool N200,000. Chuka says “Baby Mama” is taking over the East, he says people in Lagos are taking note. You two play more shows in Owerri and Awka and Enugu. Then, one night, he comes to your flat and says, “Man, we have to move to Lagos.”
“Travel to Lagos?”
“We have to relocate to Lagos, Zukora,” he says, impatient at your lack of understanding in how these things work. He has everything worked out: he is now your manager; you two will stay with a friend of his, Bolu, who knows a few radio DJs; you two will have to befriend those DJs; and if the song blows, strike a deal with a label and reach out to a major artiste for a remix: Flavour or Davido. “Aba is rotting away,” Chuka says. “Businesses are moving away. It can never recover from that whole kidnapping thing in 2010.”
It is a drastic change of scenery, from the vibrant, noisy life of Aba South’s streets, with their open, refuse-filled gutters and smelly stagnant waters and perpetually-potholed roads that are rivers during the rains, to the stately, clean-street busyness of Victoria Island and its electrifying nightlife, the beautiful, lifeless mansions of Ajah tucked in behind inordinately high estate fences. By the time you settle into Bolu’s flat, into the room stuffed with dusty cartons that he has given you and Chuka, “Baby Mama” is everywhere. You play shows, mostly private shows for politicians and newly wealthy Lagos Boys eager to be seen as having arrived. They don’t appear to be tiring of the same song.
Your life is changing: with money, life always changes. Chuka says you have to have a definite look, you can’t afford to look generic: everybody wears glasses, you won’t. You’ll be You. Bolu is giving you her brother’s clothes to try on in front of the mirror, telling you that Lagos Girls will start coming soon. She is noting the looks in a book, how you feel about them, what she and Chuka think about them, and finally she says she is going to take you to her designer friend. “He used to dress WizKid,” she says.
Everybody you meet asks if you’re working on an album and you say yes. You record more songs, and you decide the album will be about life—not just love, not just sex, just life. You call it Beginnings. A bit of Timaya: a story of how you arrived; a bit of WizKid: girls, money, girls, and young It-ness so you won’t sound out of touch with your generation; a bit of D’banj: full-blown Alpha male swagger, hormone-filled charisma that proves you’re in it for the long run; and finally overlaid with You: how you actually feel. “You can’t afford to be anybody’s clone,” Chuka says. You are in the studio when he says this and you look at him, this brainy, steely man, once an acquaintance, now shaper of your life, and you say, “Are you really gay?”
You expect the question to knock him off, dust off all that cool. It doesn’t. He says, “Yep.” It isn’t even grave enough to merit a proper “yes.” Since Dr. Uzodinma six years back, you haven’t been with a guy, a thirst that intensifies after each girl hits on you at a club, making you feel almost as though you don’t belong in your own skin. “How many people know?” you ask.
“Anybody I consider a friend,” he says.
All this time, he doesn’t bother looking up at you, is treating it as just another curious chat he’s used to. He gets up, cup in hand, places a hand on your shoulder, squeezes it, smiles. “Let’s run that hook again,” he says.
You will never forget that evening: his demeanour, your muted awe in that cramped studio. You will never forget because it is the last evening you will ever record something with him, ever hear his long rhetoric on Fela or Lucky Dube. Because after Beginnings comes out and you become a staple of night clubs and day radio, after major artistes begin lining you up for features and remixes and everybody begins talking about how you manage to both sing and rap well, after The Headies and the MAMAs nominate you for awards that will have Chuka screaming, “I love you, man! I love you!” after The Fader runs a profile of you and bloggers begin talking about how you just might be the next poster-boy of Naija Pop—after all these, Chuka will be attacked outside a night club. He will have a bottle broken on his head, pieces peeking out of his skull. In the hospital where you all will surround him, Jasper will cry and curse, and curse some more. You will find out that they broke up, the reason Chuka has looked increasingly confused and distracted. But he will recover. Things will normalize and he will resume accompanying you to gigs, sitting beside you through interviews, a coy smile each time you say it’s all down to your friend and manager.
He will be found bleeding on the ground outside his two-storey apartment, in his large Lekki compound filled with tulips, a gash in his head, his teeth scattered on the ground. He fell off, his gateman will cry, sitting on the floor with red eyes, he came back drunk and went to the roof and fell off.
He will die. Chuka will die and your life will never be the same again.
You skip food for days, lie crying on the floor, clutching a photo you two had taken on Lekki Beach, on the wet shore, the blue water rising and splashing white behind you, wondering whether telling him about yourself might have saved him. Then one night, you sit on your table and write “I Know,” which will spin on radio too much and spin you into depression.
Two months after Chuka is gone, you decide to move back to Aba, to the duplex in Umungasi where your mother now lives. Permanently.
IT IS A YEAR AFTER Chuka is gone and you have a new manager, Nnamdi, recommended by Bolu. An Aba boy like you, grown on the streets, tough as titanium under those suits and ties, very business-like. So business-like even in your first meeting that you had to tell him something you never wanted to tell any human being. “I want a friend I can talk to sometimes, not just a business partner,” you say, holding his gaze until he darts his eyes to the floor and says with a quick nod, “Okay.”
You two stay in Aba, only visiting Lagos to do shows, mostly doing gigs in Awka or in Enugu. You’re back to private performances for political godfathers and billionaires, some of whom want mentions in your songs. A week after the Anti-Gay Law is passed, you perform in Abuja, the crowd shouting and screaming, and you call up a girl, you stand with raised hands as she twerks on your zipper, twerk, twerk, twerk, until the hall almost comes down with deafening loudness.
In addition to a new manager, you also have a new emptiness. A yawning pit, holes snaking through you, pent-up coarseness that craves an outlet. Daily, the hole sucks you in more. You wank more than you usually do. Then one evening in your Port-Harcourt hotel, just before a show, you meet him.
HE IS STRANGE, PREYE, NOT like anybody you’ve met before. Tall, dark, broad shoulders, tapering fingers, plump toes: a cliché of attractiveness working as a mechanic. After your driver brings him to your hotel room and stands there as he tells you about servicing your Benz, you ask him to leave his number, and after they leave, you call him and ask him to come back, and as he sits there on the cushion, your gaze rests on his oil-flecked hands clasping the glass of red wine. The first feeling flushing up your chest is that you want to take him to the beach in Lekki. “Are you, like, into guys?” you blurt out.
At first, he seems not to have heard, then you see that he is frozen, is shocked. It takes you moments to soak in how bruisingly exposed he must feel, like a plane in flight whose door has been ripped off. He is still seated, an ache in his manner. “I like you,” you say. “I really like you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir,” he mumbles, beginning to stand. “I don’t know what you want.”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have. I really shouldn’t.”
He remains standing, eyes lacking conviction.
“WHAT DO YOU LIKE IN me?” he asks after the second time, on your bed drenched with sweat, as your index finger traces circles on his torso. “What is it you see in me?”
I don’t see anything in you, you want to say. He is a diva, a spoilt man, but you had not known you could be pulled so powerfully to a self-absorbed man who knows himself well and doubts himself even more. You’re attracted to his face, the too-stretched parting of his eyes, his thick nose, a face that ought to pass as unattractive. You’re attracted to his sense of freedom, his very sense of entitlement, his lack of self-awareness. How could he not know that, from the soft flesh of the crown of his head to the thick soles of his bony feet, he is a miracle cast in bronze? That you are a believer in untidy, illogical miracles? “Your character,” you say. “Trustworthiness. That’s what attracts me to people. You’re loyal, you’re a good person.”
He bursts into fierce laughter. “You think my wife will agree to all that if she finds out?” He laughs so hard that bits of his saliva fling onto your nose and lips and ears. “You’re just manipulating me,” he says.
“How am I manipulating you?”
“You’re the one with the money na, na you be the Oga.”
You get up and enter the bathroom. You wash your face for the second time, wishing lightly that you could tear off your skin. You want to be understanding with him. He is a thing to be lost if not pampered properly. When you return, you gently push his body down so you can feel it, the rigid symmetry of his torso, his warm neck, his beating chest, his penis standing stiff as if with a different life of its own, in a clutter of hair oozing the muskiest of scents. Later, your neck on his arm, he says, “I haven’t had sex with my wife in three months.”
You don’t ask why, don’t want to know.
You’re determined to not develop any feelings for him, so you keep reminding yourself of his deficiencies: his frequent refusal to pick his wife’s calls even though he says he has three small children; your certainty that one day he will try to blackmail you, which is why you’re always watching him, his nuances, his phone, lest he records your conversations. Still, you ask him to accompany you to Lekki and he says, laughing, “You want us away together so you can fall in love with me?”
At Lekki Beach, you sit on the sand eating suya. You know from the smell of the Atlantic, the stale saltiness the breeze washes up the shores. You know from the ease with which your toes curl in the fine grey sand, from the sprinkling of its grains on your legs. You know from the egrets padding about on the beach, padding away from the child toddling after them. You know from the peppery moisture on his breath when he mumbles that the water is so blue it’s almost black, and you want to point out that the swimmers’ bodies shine so brown, like polished pebbles in a sea of deep-blue crystals. You know from the countable tens of ships deep in the ocean, visible only as ants walking on water. You know from everything around you that the man beside you will always be claimed, will always belong somewhere.
You return to Aba, and each time he leaves, he opens his arms, his body, and hugs you, and frees himself without looking in your face. You’re lying on the floor one hot night when you suddenly realize why he does it. That he does it not primarily because of sexual attraction but because he merely needs another man to hug him, to affirm in him self-worth that has gone lonely and needs to be lured out with simple affection, with frank friendship. Staring at the ceiling, you want to cry.
One afternoon, he is sweating when he arrives, and he pulls off his shirt and flings it to the settee and says, “You can’t even guess what just happened.” He falls into the bed, his palms supporting his head. “There’s this boy in my street that acts like a girl, so annoying. This morning he had a problem with another tenant and they beat him.” You’re standing there and he is talking, about the boy begging and them continuing. You’re staring at his heaving chest, his terse torso. The words form in your mouth: “Go.”
He is chuckling. “I hate boys like that, eh. How you go carry penis come dey behave like say na vagina you carry?”
You open the door. “Get out.”
He is looking at you.
“I will call security if you don’t take your stupid self out of here right now.”
Your calm surprises you. His face is blank, eyes narrowing. “Is this a joke or something?”
He doesn’t know what he has done. He lies there, staring at you. Finally, he gets up and picks his shirt and walks out.
YOU DESCEND BACK INTO ANARCHY, into cloying restlessness. Twice you almost call him, but each time, after you masturbate, your senses return and you’re grateful you didn’t call. Then you want to call again, to convince yourself that you aren’t that emotionally ruthless person. Then you think of what he did, his ignorance of what he did. Finally, the shame crawls up to you, the acknowledgement: you really have changed. You’re no longer the person you used to know.
Hidden under your hood and behind glasses, you visit random night clubs. Once, in a bathroom, Phyno and Olamide and Lil Kesh’s “Ladi” rattling in the background, you are standing before the mirror when you hear someone behind you. A man in a sleeveless fur jacket, hair dyed golden. When you feel his palms on your hips, the hairs on your body stand erect. You’re stunned. You’ve half-known, are almost certain, and yet you’re stunned. Thrilled at his boldness, you allow his palms to creep down your thighs, allow him press his body to your back, his erection solid. And then you turn away. “I’m sorry,” you mumble.
“Wetin happen na?” he asks.
One evening, after your driver goes past CKC, you say, “Slow down,” and you switch on the phone with your old number and scroll through your contacts there, a small tremor in your heart. Finally, you see his number and dial it.
“Jude, stop, please,” you tell your driver, and you get down for fresh air. You lean against the car and try again. Still no answer. You try again. Finally, he picks up.
“Hello, o Zukora,” you say, wanting to get it all out, to skip his surprise.
“Zu-gini? Who?” came a female voice. A fruity voice. “Onye na-ekwu?”
“O Zuby. Azubuike.” You pause. “Can I speak to the owner of this line, Dr. Uzodinma?”
She is silent.
“He’s not available.”
“Where is he?”
“Do you have any message for him?”
You ponder for a moment, and say no. Then you say, “Wait.”
“What?” she says.
“I used to know him. He used to coach us in CKC field.”
“Okay.” There is impatience in her voice.
“I last saw him in 2007, I need to speak to him.” Your need lingers on the line.
“He can’t speak to you now. I’m sorry, bye.”
“A wu m Zukora, Zukora na-aku egwu.”
“If you’re Zukora the musician then I’m Rihanna the actress. Nonsense.”
Exasperation wells up in your head. But she doesn’t hang up. For the next ten seconds in which you say “Hello?” non-stop, she still doesn’t hang up.
“Are you really Zukora?” There is calm in her voice now.
“He used to talk about you.”
You wait for more words, you want to be sure whether what you are thinking is what is in fact happening, but she is actually crying.
CHINELO IS AT THE HOSPITAL gates when your SUV pulls in that same night. The clinic, you guess from the posh tree-filled compound, is exactingly expensive. You alight and, as she approaches you with muted shock, her palms pressed together, a false-confidence smile on her face, you feel a small joy that she will not scream or drop her phone or run to hug you or even kiss you. A girl did try all those in Nairobi, and three overexcited others actually pushed you down in a boutique in London and demanded a series of selfies, which you granted because one of them was a blogger and you didn’t want to trend on Twitter as arrogant.
“I’m grateful you let me come,” you say, realizing in her manner of standing, her large eyes, in the sheer grace she radiates without even trying, that he very much spat her out. You didn’t expect her to let you come here, especially with what she said is his condition.
But her smile is steady. “I don’t know what to say.”
As she leads the way in, down the long passage, up the stairs, along another laboriously long passage washed in bright white light, you wonder yet again whether yours is a happy story. She opens the door and you enter. She walks up to him, her shadow covering him, and he looks up from the papers he is reading, a vacant glance around the room. “Zukora no ebe a,” she says. “I chetere Zukora na agu-egwu—your friend from CKC?”
But his eyes fall back onto his papers.
“Please have a seat,” she says.
You look around the room. It has only his bed, three plastic chairs, an iron table, a cupboard, all in the shadow of the blue window curtain. You study him. He hasn’t changed much: his eyes are still as deep-set as they have always been, two gemstones un-rinsed of their glow; his hands are moving over the paper pages, his hands that were never at ease; and you imagine his palms are still as rough. The small difference is in his face: the beard that has thrived untrimmed, that makes him look like a wild prophet or a crazy professor. An ache ripens in you. He is suffering. It is pain to witness his suffering and not be able to relieve him. You bend your head. You begin to cry.
THE GROUND BENEATH THE NAKED trees in the hospital courtyard is a sea of rust by morning, the grass coated with bronze leaves. All across the compound are leaf-strewn lawns, shades browner, shades greener. From the window, you see nurses in white, in blue, hurrying past. Her nurse cap stands dignified on her red weave-on, like a gentle waiter. She turns it off abruptly and the splash of furious white whittles to sparkling drops.
“What exactly happened?”
Chinelo shakes her head. “I thought you would never ask.”
What would make someone leave home on a walk, on a damp evening, and not come back, his phone switched off for the two days his family endured before summoning the courage to declare a 56-year-old man missing? What will set a human being off his hinges like that? Make him stop talking, stop recognizing? What will take him to newspaper stands in the mornings, to Enyimba Stadium in the afternoons, to CKC by nightfall where he will sneak into the cathedral building undetected until the next morning? Until a neighbour spotted him on Faulks Road and called his family.
“I’ve only just returned from Abuja,” she says. “I don’t know the people that know him. He barely has friends, but when you became big he kept mentioning you. Were you that close to him?”
You nod. You wonder whether loving someone and sleeping with them mean you’re close to them.
“You call him Doctor,” she says when you return at night. “He isn’t.”
“He got frustrated in Nsukka and left academia entirely. They frustrated him, fellow lecturers. Although my mother would just say he never had the discipline. Whichever it is, he never finished his PhD. He simply left.”
You are looking at her now, her hair held firmly in a shiny ponytail, her cheekbones outlined. There is something determined about her, as if she has taken an oath to fulfill a previous oath. She is taking over the story he had fed you, the life he had allowed you to make up about him. She is carving a new one from the bits you never knew. “That was when it started,” she says.
“Yes. It started before you met him. Only that it was occasional, a few bouts in a whole year.”
At first, this only surprises you. Then, slowly, it takes possession of your bones, a shrill.
“What about your mother? Umunne gi?”
“We’re scattered. Everybody’s trying to pick up their lives wherever they are. My mum left him. He was beating her.”
“I don’t believe you.”
It isn’t what you want to say and you apologize immediately. But she is calm, collected, as if your disagreement is something she expects. “What don’t you believe?”
“It’s not that I don’t believe you. I mean, the man I knew was not a cruel person. I never imagined he could be.”
“My father is not a cruel person,” she says. “I never said he is. I’m only telling you what he did. He started it even before this happened.”
“Why he did that?”
“Why are you telling me this?”
She pauses. “Because you have to know. You’re already here so you have to know.”
CHINELO INFORMS YOU THAT THE doctor says that because his memories are out of touch with his mind, he will need to keep hearing things he is familiar with so as to allow his mind that slight chance of making contact with the present. So the following night, while Chinelo is away, you sit on his bed and talk while he reads. But he never responds, never even looks up. You talk football, try to talk politics. You pick his syrups from the iron tray, little cups of red and blue, and hold them out for him to take from your fingers and drink. Sometimes he does, his pink lips quivering; other times he ignores you until Chinelo returns and holds them out herself. Every night, you do the same thing; every week, you write her a cheque. Then you do something more: you begin talking snippets of your visible lives together: the times in CKC, on the pitch, in his car, the hotel room. Slowly, you begin liking it, your unengaged rabble. It takes you back, keeps you whole. Still, he consistently ignores your presence.
One week is gone and Chinelo is more relaxed in your presence, a new ease in the way she talks. She tells you she’s followed you since “Baby Mama.” “That song is so true,” she says. You want to tell her that “Baby Mama” also follows you about, to interviews, to concerts, people treating it as though you haven’t released other songs, more artistically realised songs. She agrees, says your best song is “I Know.” “It’s brazenly honest,” she says. “Few people sing about friendship in Nigeria; you people take it for granted. Just that ‘Four Years’ by Styl Plus, and a few others. Somebody was saying in an interview that it’s only what the fans want that artistes will give. Excuses. They just can’t challenge themselves with profundity, just wasting good beats.”
You have heard worse. People coming down hard on Nigerian pop musicians. People with High Life and Western pop and classical music and rock tastes deriding the flippancy of its lyrics. Especially now that Alternative musicians are springing up, writing about meaningful stuff. But she doesn’t quite belong in that class. She is a firm fan of what she is criticizing.
“It depends,” you say.
“I doubt,” she says. “High Life and Western music have that edge, they have everything, it’s a rounded music culture in those areas. You people want to go international without being up to it.”
“It’s not that too many of us sing about the same things, it’s that there aren’t enough artistes who sing those other things.”
“Well, true. But still.”
The next time you come, two nights later, you ask, “Does he go down to the common room?”
A week later, he is not sitting on the bed when you enter; he is not in the room at all. You sit and wait. You can’t reach Chinelo’s number. You wait and wait. You wait some more. Then he appears, walking in staring at his palms. “Doc.,” you say, getting on your feet. He lets you take his hand, he lets you help him onto the high bed, and he mumbles something. You strain your ears and it is “Thank you” he is mumbling. You sit beside him. The room is wrapped in quiet. There is a crack on his lower lip. You hold his hand, your fingers interlocking, and you hold back the urge in you to shake uncontrollably.
One evening, you arrive early, but there is already a third person in the room. The man is fair-complexioned, has a face cap on, sleeveless top and plain trousers, is sitting on the bed, wearing slippers, and he and Doc. are laughing at something showing on the laptop on the man’s lap. “He’s made a new friend,” Chinelo says with a tepid smile. You sit, you watch them. Finally, you ask Chinelo, “How have you been?”
You fall asleep on the chair and when you wake up the man is gone and Chinelo is asleep. He is sitting, staring into space. You take his hand, veined like a roped pot. You touch his face, the back of your palm on the sprinkling of hair you haven’t noticed until now. You wake Chinelo and tell her you won’t be around in the next two weeks. London. Miami. New York City. You have concerts, an international publicity tour for your second album. There is a bit of helplessness on her face. “Take care,” she says, finally. You turn and look at him, then you open the door.
You attend the launch of Jasper’s novel, a slim thing called The Love Laws, where he talks about his inspirations and talks himself into stiffened sobs. Chuka. You wish your own response to everything isn’t crying. At home, you sit at your mother’s feet, your head on her lap, her hands on your scalp. Her palms smell of groundnut soup, and somehow it makes you feel better, is containing the tension in your head. On the screen, Mercy Johnson is screaming at a stunned man. “This girl can act!” your mother snaps her fingers. It’s almost the same pitch she used the day you told her you’re not sure you would marry. “Ana m a tukwa anya nwa n’aka gi o!” she’d snapped at you. Her acceptance that you can only love men hasn’t altered her expectations of grandchildren. After she gets up, after she plants a kiss on your head, you get up and stagger into your room. You cry.
THE MATERIAL YOU HAVE RECORDED for your second album is much and you have difficulty narrowing it down to the eighteen tracks you eventually choose. Afrobeats, reggae, house, South African, the Eighties, with splashes of EDM. “A risk,” says your Nigerian-Swedish producer DJ Wire. “Something too experimental might not connect with people.” But you have archetypes you want it to sound like: in 2010, Cabo Snoop’s “Windeck” banged up major attention; in 2012, D’banj’s “Oliver Twist” crossed over to the UK charts; in 2013, Mafikizolo’s “Khona” was king of radios across Africa and Davido’s “Skelewu” was scattering dance floors from Lagos to Nairobi to Cape Town even more than “Dami Duro” had; in 2014, Lil Kesh’s “Shoki” was tearing up the streets; and in 2015, it was WizKid’s “Ojuelegba” spreading across the Atlantic, and Olamide’s “Bobo” throbbing everywhere. Plus, you want to do Afrobeats covers of Rihanna’s “We Found Love” and Nina Simone’s “Blackbird.” All the time you work, the same playlist is on: Fela, Onyeka Onwenu, Angelique Kidjo, Sade Adu, Olamide, Yemi Alade, Nicki Minaj, but mostly Rihanna’s Anti album and Lil Kesh. DJ Wire grew up on Lucky Dube. “With reggae all things are possible,” he usually says, because he knows you will laugh.
DJ Wire invites an upcoming artiste, ShineBoy, whose song you heard on radio once and followed on Instagram. You and ShineBoy gel and you ask him to play another of his songs and he plays “This Love” and you are dancing and singing along: Fly you ’round the world, na only you matter. “You’re dope, man,” you tell him. “You’re dope.”
You draw up a list of collaborations: Akon, Angelique Kidjo, Asa, Flavour, Nneka, Phyno, Mafikizolo. You are rushing the release; you can only rush it or push it back, and you don’t want to push back because Aba is on your mind. You grant interviews where you reveal the album’s title: The Emancipation of Fela. It sounds too ambitious, journalists and bloggers are quick to point out. Will it be political? Can it live up to the name? Is it metaphorical—is your phase as one of Nigeria’s most secretive celebrities about to be over? You have to know you’re exciting a whole country. You ignore their questions, talk about its inspirations instead. “There are a few love songs,” you tell them. “Songs of hope also. It’s inspired by a friend in need.” And you refuse to say more.
The Emancipation of Fela drops on a quiet Sunday while you’re in Lagos, a week after you celebrate its completion with Nnamdi and DJ Wire and Bolu and ShineBoy and your childhood friend Nonso. You’re in Lekki when you tweet its release to your 700,000 followers, post it to your 1.3 million Instagram fans.
And you break the Nigerian Internet.
“CONGRATULATIONS,” CHINELO SAYS ON YOUR return. The bulb light is flickering, your shadow darkening a large portion of the wall. The TV is on. “Triple congratulations, actually,” she adds. You have been nominated at the BETs and the MTV EMAs. Best African Act, both. “Thank you,” you say, smiling. You gesture at him. “Kee ka o mere?”
“He’s improving. Two days ago he said my name. The doctor says it occasionally happens like that and that sometimes he may break out of it.”
You nod slowly. She doesn’t sound like she believes the doctor. False hope is the last thing anybody needs now.
She turns up the TV volume. “In case you haven’t noticed.”
The two women and one man on TV are discussing you. You’re getting worn out from seeing your face everywhere; you appreciate it and loathe it. Your fans are calling themselves Zuko Nation, and you had to force yourself to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender. Any time you upload a photo, #ZukoNation trends on Twitter (#ZukoSaveUs, #ZukoIsTheGOAT, #OnlyZukoCan, #FirelordZuko), and just last week a big rapper was dragged for saying you’d never be as big as WizKid and Davido. Now Zuko Nation is trending #ZukoXBurna, because they want you to do a song with Burna Boy. Sometimes, watching them, you are afraid. They will fight for you even if you did something horrible. Maybe this is what capital F fame feels like: frustration.
You listen to the people on TV.
I mean, he’s just different from the current crop of artistes. He’s had a very good career so far—I mean, no scandals whatsoever, no silly posts on social media, no actual baby mama drama. They burst into laughter. There’s just something un-celebrity—if I could use that term—something un-celebrity in his music. Honesty. Yes, honesty, but not just that. And brashness also. Yes, brashness also. His lyrics, it’s just not about sex and partying; there are those things but it just isn’t about them. It’s like under all that he’s just talking about life. So many people can relate to it at once. It might just be the soundtrack of his generation. I thought “Enyimba City” is just about Aba but then my nephew says it’s about love and rejection! I think the best song there is “Teacher Fela.”
“I think your best song is ‘Wahala,’ like, your best ever, then ‘King of the Night,’” Chinelo says. “Sometimes your voice is depressing. Like it’s serving up more than just the words. All your songs have that moment. It’s like you sing of a longing and there’s always a moment when it shows.”
“We all have something we long for. Something we wish didn’t turn out the way it has.”
She is at the window, drawing the curtain. When she turns, you say, “I am in love. The same person for almost ten years.”
It is when she doesn’t look at you, doesn’t do anything to show she heard, that you suddenly remember: he is her father. She is still not looking at you; she is dressing her father’s bed, her manner too deliberate in its avoidance of this new subject she has inadvertently brought up. “I guess that’s what makes life Life,” you say.
THE ONLY THING WRONG WITH love is the lovers: who they love, how they love. After you leave that night and enter your Jeep; after you pass Port-Harcourt Road where, from a busy bar, “Take Me to Church” filters into the night, Hozier whose voice raises the hair on your skin; after your driver stops on Asa Triangle Road and whispers, “Sir?”; after he stretches his hand and holds your knee because you’ve begun sobbing and shaking and are blowing your nose into your handkerchief; after you raise your head and say, “Onwero. Onwero. I just dey tired. I wan shag this night. Go Ama Awusa,” and you catch his suspicious stare in the centre mirror. After you lie under the small-hipped girl whose braids are so long they rest on your chest, and you thrash like never before, agitatedly, sloppily, and you surrender completely to the settled tension rushing up from your toes and down from your brain and fingers, pooling in your waist, all of you feeling how much of a wasted first time this was. After that night, you will go back the following night and something will happen. You will enter the room and see him alone with the face-capped man. They will look up and look back down at the laptop and, for the first time, it will occur to you that the face-capped man is young, in his thirties maybe. He will shriek in laughter, the face-capped man, and then, just after his laugh dies, Dr. Uzodinma will look up again. Dr. Uzodinma will slowly push the laptop to the face-capped man and stand up. He will start out towards you. His eyes in yours. Nailed to that floor, you will feel a dissolution. You will feel hot tears on your face. Then halfway between his bed and you, he will stop. He will turn and go back, a dignified stagger, and sit beside the face-capped man whose blank eyes have been on you all along, and together they will look back at the laptop, and suddenly, they will burst out laughing.
You are standing there, in the centre of the room, crying, the door open. It is overwhelming. The ephemeral return of his memories. You leave. You sit alone in your car. You return minutes later. Chinelo opens the door when you knock, comes out and closes it behind her. “I think my father is getting better,” she says, leaning on the white wall of the passage, hands folded, a wrenched smile on her face, and you see that she has again taken up the risk of hoping, that she has suspended emotional safety, like you have.
“I think so, too,” you say.
“I want to ask something of you,” she says, her large eyeballs, shaky in their sockets, bearing down on you. They are shiny, her eyeballs, two black circles washed and polished. She will make an engrossing actress with graceful control of her eyes. Suddenly, you realize that with the way her eyes can convey so much, she already has now. You hear the words before she says them. You think of looking down as she says them but still you stare. “Please don’t come back,” she says.
You try to sound calm. “Why?”
“Please don’t make things hard for us all by pushing this.”
You stare at her. She is right, has always been right. It is gratitude you owe her for allowing you to see him in the first place.
“I love him. Since I was nine years old I have loved him. Since my father died I have looked up to him. He is like a second father to me.”
“You love him.” She is nodding slowly. “He is like a second father to you.”
“For me to say this, you have to know how much—”
“So?” Her eyes meet yours. “You’re gay—so?”
Even though you’re the one to imply it, the word still throws you off balance—your heart jumps. Dryness spreads in your throat. You are staring at her. You do not know how to take this. Something is wracking in you, throwing itself up, snapping into two, and two into pieces. Something is giving way in you. Your palm rests on the wall.
Love, in essence, is tenancy.
“Will you call me if he recovers?”
“It may not change anything,” she says.
“This is my father, Zukora. My father. I have never known him well. This is my only chance.” Her hands across her body seem unsteady. Her head rests on the wall, her eyes on the opposite wall. The line of tear runs down. “It is not about what you have with him. It is about what I deserve to have with him. I need my father to be my father. Don’t you see?”
You are nodding quickly. “Aghotaram.” A virulent shaking is taking hold of you. “I get, I get.”
You turn. Stagger back the passage burnished with white light. You hear her open the door, hear it close.
In the coming days, the world will be bandaged in fog, and you will be soaked in numbing ache, and your mother will carry you in her laps like a baby and whisper, “I raised a brave man.” In the coming days, when you’ll get calls from colleagues saying how courageous you are. When Jasper, holding you in a hug and holding back tears, will say, “Chuka would be so proud of you.” When the telecommunications company you’re endorsing will call to ask what your plans are because they’re afraid you’ll drive away customers and also afraid to lose you, but more afraid of the former. When Nnamdi will turn down every interview request and deactivate your Twitter and Facebook accounts and you’ll see in his eyes that he is unsure, that what you have done might break your career. Bolu, in tears, will call and say, “Twitter is a mess. People are fighting for you. You have changed this country and we will never go back.” In those coming days, Preye will text you: I don’t know if you still use this number. You’re strong, not like me. I just want to let you know that nobody ever made me feel so cared for until you. Good luck. And you’ll text him your address. And he’ll show up in two hours, all clean in his suit, and you’ll throw your body at him in a hug that he almost falls down, and you’ll disentangle from him and see that his eyes are reddened. “Do you have any plans?” he will ask later that evening, seated, his palms pressed together. You will shake your head. “How’re you feeling now?” he will ask that night. “I’m breathing,” you will say.
Those will be in the coming days.
But now, on the hospital staircase, you almost slip, almost fall on the rough edges of the steps. The thing clutching your throat will not let go. When you slip on the last step and land almost on your waist, you’re already crying. You sit there and wail. You are surrounded by the nurses and one offers you a chair in the Reception where you sit alone, wiping your tears. She is standing there as you bring out your phone, as you type words slowly. You’re in a haze. You stare at them. Three words.
You tweet the three words:
I am homosexual.
A NOTE ON THE STORY
I wrote “You Sing of a Longing” in 10 crazy days in June or August 2016. I was 22 and I’d received a rejection email from an American magazine and I wanted to assure myself that I could do whatever I wanted on the page. It’s the title story of my collection, the last one that I wrote. It was the story that freed me artistically. I await the day it will come true.
It was shortlisted for The Gerald Kraak Prize in 2016 and a version of it appears in print in Pride and Prejudice: African Perspectives on Gender, Social Justice, and Sexuality (Jacana Media, 2017).
Here is my 2017 interview in Africa in Dialogue, where I talk about the story.
Read more on my Publications page.