Words by Eloghosa Osunde
How does art come to be? Nigerian fiction writer Eloghosa Osunde tells the story of Akin, a man who becomes a bridge between worlds, allowing music to pass through him into this one.
The album crawled out of the intangible, found Akin to be a worthy tunnel and moved through him like a beast with nothing to lose. To survive its passage, Akin gave up distraction after distraction after distraction without complaint. The heft of the assignment was flattening, the rigor relentless; but Akin multiplied from under it all, knew from a far place inside that if this specific project could prowl from one plane to the next without falling in the gap between, its skinsuit intact and glimmering in the light, then there was no one else in the world it would trustfully choose. Because Akin agreed with his head to knowing a) the weight of this undertaking, b) what in his configuration made God believe his neck could carry his ori, and c) the specific set of gifts stacked one on top of the other that made a thing like this his alone, the project started its stroll in his exact direction, jumping over lakes of time, skies of space—eyes yellowed by intent, muscles slinking under midnightflesh—just to find him. A deep chord touched Akin’s shoulder from behind one night in a three AM confrontation, unmistakable paw and all. And what did he do? Akin simply fell to his knees, his neck weightily fixed in place by a new spine of understanding, and nodded, accepting. Then a mantle entered his hand.
Akin had a clear sense, from when he was little, that he had been here—in the world—many times before. The knowing snoozed like soft perfume in the ringlets in his wrist, his belly button cave, the rolls around his ankles—and the Seeing adults around him Saw it more and more as he grew. When asked questions, often, the words he chose in response were either brief universes or stories not from his time or age. His body threw him off the couch once and onto the floor where he landed on his shoulder, mouth foaming, eyes rolled back into crescent moons. Inside where he went to, a deep voice from the back of his throat called: “ta ni e?” His mother, Ayinke, looked at her husband, Ajimobi, their eyes four frozen suns. “What does he mean, Who is it? I’m his mother!” Ayinke said, panicking. “He knows that when he is himself,” Ajimobi said. Akin came to with Ajimobi’s hand under his head. “What?” he asked feebly at Ayinke’s face staring. “Nothing is allowed to pass through my son,” she told herself that night. Already, he had made a different deal. They did scans regardless, of course. Things came back clear, the doctor said to keep an eye out, told him not to worry about death, asked them to return if it ever happened again. It never happened again.
He was curious, this boy—a starving listener, tearing through his parents’ records in the house, unstoppable, unmoved by how much he was missing outside hooks and bridges, unbothered by all the other kids doing things outside. At first, it rattled inside his gums, the music; tried to come out even before teeth. When it saw that it wouldn’t be allowed—that time is time on Earth for a reason; everything has its place and order for a reason—it thought, “That’s fine. I’m yours regardless, and you mine.” It left his gums, moved through the tunnel, his tonsils overhead bulbs watching it go, crawled down to the back of a bone, to return more slowly, later. Later, just under 300 weeks alive, some mornings Akin woke up adrift inside a Miles Davis song, and choosing not to swim in either direction, sent his body falling down to go drown. It carried him, still, sound; threw him back up in majestic sweeps. He still cried then every time they played music with lyrics, wanting only jazz, humming each note back to himself later, before sleep. Ayinke tried to pull him out of himself and call him out to playgrounds, tried to feed him books, organized reasons for the children to come together, showed him new hobbies. Ajimobi taught him to ride a bike, knot a tie, change a tire, but he’d rather be sketching or spend hours eyes closed, flatback-flying through vinyl needles.
He did not read until he was six, did not catch on to TV until he was fourteen. When he found poetry, he devoured it like scripture, memorizing verses whole. His parents were thankful that he was this instead of Something Else. There was a contentment in him that was disturbingly ancient, and both of them worried that that would mean he’d lead a heavy life, a life bogged down by the detailed dimensions and compositions of each planet to ever exist. In their eyes, Akin was that curious. At some point, they even thought he would grow up to be the kind of man who wanted to climb Kilimanjaro just because and maybe even go to space; you know—do that for a living. They worried about what he would miss out on in that time, what he wouldn’t get to enjoy with his peers. Their worries were fair—warranted even—but they were worried in the wrong hue. Akin, more than anything else—more than a striver, more than a star—was a listener. He watched them too as they watched him, quietly, out of the corner of his eye, folds growing into their foreheads, and decided to make being an outstanding student a priority. He could grasp whatever he wanted if he wanted: all most things took to know was effort. “Plus, it would be good for his parents to have a child like that, wouldn’t it,” he thought; it would repair something in between both of them that had been needing fixing for so many years inside; it’d adjust their postures in the world. So, yes absolutely he could afford to face his studies that way, he decided. He gave them the A’s and A*s, and in return, they let him stay quiet.
A teacher tried to talk to his mother once during Open Day when he was still in Primary School. “Because of how quiet he always is, I would have said he was…you know…on the spectrum, but I don’t think he is. I think maybe he’s just…different. Just a little old man.”
Ayinke did not quite know what that meant. Or she did, and couldn’t decide quickly enough how to take it. So she just did what she did most times when she felt tired or pitied: she nodded and smiled. She’d just recently dyed her hair burgundy because she was practicing a new laissez-faire lifestyle, and she was going to stay inside it. It was not here (in her child’s school with other watching parents) or now (in this high heat) she’d begin to draw hard lines with people. This was one of Ajimobi’s favorite things about her anyway: that she could not be provoked beyond whatever motive or mask she’d left home with that day. No matter what they encountered in public, Ayinke’s response was the same: she’d go home, put the mask on the rack, laugh her real laugh while saying to her amused husband, “I saw that.” “Of course you did,” he’d say back.
Akin wasn’t old, really. He had lifetimes stacked on lifetimes towering inside him, but he wasn’t old; he was their child and ageless. He learned early that he could be a boy all his life if he wanted—growing big while refusing to grow up; forever evading responsibility—and he would survive, like many adults were doing. He figured that as his body changed, life would try to sweep him forward, and he could simply refuse to be evicted from the preferred past, staking a life there. It was hardly the worst or even the most difficult thing, though it came with its own consequences. That, or he could be a man in a boy’s body, nine years old and wise in advance if he wanted. That would mean a particular kind of relationship with the future. Or he could be a door; a sheet of A4 paper; a transparent screen; spiraling spirits traveling through, an amoeba; a shapeshifter. He just had to decide. And that was the hard part. Wasn’t it always? Deciding mostly was.
“Why don’t you speak?” Ayinke asked when they got home, hiding her worry, or trying. “In school. Your teacher said you don’t speak. At home too, you don’t.”
“I do. But I don’t always have something to say.”
“You don’t often have anything to say,” she replied, her voice bursting open in small bubbles, “and that worries me.”
“Because I’m not sure we’re supposed to spend that much time inside our heads. I’m afraid it might be bad for you. Plus, I miss you when you’re in there all the time.”
“My head is safe,” he said. “I trust it in there. But I’m starting to trust it here too. I’ll try to come out more, Mum.”
“Please,” she said, slow-surrendering. “Please do that for me.”
He kept his word.
He grew out his hair once, just on a whim—stopped allowing them to take him to the barber. He was what, 12? At first, he pretended to be ill on Sundays, and then decided he was too wide for that kind of deflection. That day, he simply sat dressed on his bed and waited for his mother to come in with the car keys, as usual. She did. She said, “Let’s go.” He said no. She asked why. He said, “Because I don’t want to; this is how I want my hair now.” She looked at him and saw his face in its new set shape, and realized he wasn’t being unreasonable. It wasn’t a tantrum; it was a boundary, and he wasn’t going to budge. There was no point yelling, there was no point pulling him by the arm and smacking him dizzy.
The last time she tried beating shege out of him was the last time for a reason. He doubled over in half as she emptied her power on his arms, his back, his head. It was just the two of them at home. When she was done, she waited for his remorse or a short storm of tears to burst out of his face. When he looked up at her, he was frowning in shock and wearing her father’s composure on the bridge of his nose. A terror shuddered between them as she looked at him properly. He wasn’t confused or furious; he was something else—just watching, concerned, a little appalled, a “who did you just become, Ayinke?” pouring out of his pores. A chill scurried from her childhood into her spine like it had missed her.
“I will never do that again,” she said, remorseful.
“I know,” he told her from inside a conviction older than his body. “Of course you won’t.”
She let him have the hair thing. When he started refusing to let her comb it for him, she said, “If you don’t comb your hair, it will become dreadlocks,” with a hint of something in her voice—caution?—and he noted that. When he responded, his next words were gentle: “I don’t mind that happening. I would like it actually. But you don’t like it. Why?” She thought about that, throwing her mind back. In a nostalgic net, she caught an uncle. Her favorite uncle. “I used to know someone with that hair. I don’t think I like what it means.”
“What’s his name?” he’d asked. “Tejiri,” they’d both said at the same time, Akin’s voice a gentle fish swimming in her recollection. Uncle Tejiri. “How do you know him?” she asked. He’d passed before Akin was born.
“I don’t know,” he’d told her. “Maybe we used to be friends.” He watched and waited, noting that she did not freak out. That was good. He started to reply more when she talked to him, and he asked her questions sometimes that squeezed past and future memory out of her in healing bursts. This became usual: Akin pulling wisdoms out of deeper lives that were not necessarily his, zooming out on scenarios like he was watching them from somewhere higher, his pillow on a cloud.
He wasn’t at all heavenly—who inside a body could be?—but he was clear and consistent. For the first 10 years of his life, he had mostly listened to everything: tables, chairs, the air, spoons, the spaces in the couch, the dark, the world under our shoes, peace, the blade in certain laughs, the wild wailing in some silences.
The choice to become Akin, to move through life as that one continuous self—not a conduit for ancestors, not a reincarnation of anyone in particular—was a tough one. He ran random temperatures and had days when he reacted in lashing-outs to being woken up, days when he simply refused to go to school—not because he was being bullied or anything remotely similar (he was too invisible for that: to try to bully Akin would be like trying to braid air) but because he was full of learning and needed some time to sort out his mind. His mother would lie for him and tell the teachers he was sick. In some ways, to her, he was. Not to himself, though, he wasn’t. Following a scolding once, from his father Ajimobi, who was yelling at Akin’s body but using it to scold the brother Akin reminded him of, Akin didn’t talk for some months. He was not ill, just silent. The conversation Akin had with puberty was brief. As he grew in front of everyone’s eyes into a tall man with a broken voice and a swallowing mustache, he made quiet, solid decisions—about who he would love, for how long, and why.
In his room, he practiced voices. The voice of a boy who could get away with anything (was it worth it?). The voice of a boy who could fuck a girl until she cried but who loved his family (option). The voice of a boy who had been a man for years (too obvious). The voice of someone who was neither boy nor girl (his parents were open-minded and all, but…). When he tried on one that was pure him, he watched the faces around him. He took some time, too, to try on faces. A smiler: someone for whom life was always pleasant, for whom there was always a bright streak (no); Ajimobi’s son (his future self would thank him for not choosing this); Ayinke’s baby (but for how long?). Did he want to be a smiling kid or not? “Sometimes,” he decided, in front of his favorite mirror, trying open and closed mouths on and settling for one that showed only a quarter of his teeth. “I smile when the moment calls for it, but for me, it is not a requirement; it is not a thing I need to wear for my face to be complete.”
Ayinke had said the same thing at many of his birthdays: “You know, it’s like he didn’t even fully boot until he was like 10 years old. So I always tell parents now, Give your child some time. Some of us need longer than others to wake up, to accept the world.” Some adults in the room would always clap. At least three. Akin noted how much she loved that.
Akin didn’t really hustle for anything, really, because if he did, he would not be Akin. So when he set out to release his music, it had nothing to do with wanting to blow; it was because after seven full years of rigorous craft building—writing and recording, mixing and mastering, chopping and screwing sounds—he was done making it. He believed that music did not become complete until it was released; allowed to fly free and find its own crevice in listeners’ lives. How else would it start the conversations it was made to stir, how else would the work get a chance to do its work? The year before Runtown dropped “Mad over You,” Akin wrestled with Iku in his room alone. There was a lust in him for it already, so he let Death make an Akin-shaped dent in his mattress, its body grinding into his. Death heard Akin’s pleasure make hot air balloons around them, its envy flaring around their frames. Near the tail of the wrestle, Iku turned Akin’s handful of pills against him, a cruel grin fitted into its mouth like a grill. There was a hospital admission following it, Ajimobi’s scream dragging Ayinke into the room by the hair; there was a pumping of the stomach, a flushing of the body, some doctors in white coats, a seized phone just in case, a monitoring until release, a therapist speaking in a voice like sour tangerine juice, saying, “If you don’t open up, you can’t go home.” Akin, who at this time had already secured a stubborn limp from the fight—one that’d go and come as it pleased, for years—could not, for the life of him, stand her. He said the script at her basic face (it was depression, it was his brain, yes he was better now, no of course it wouldn’t happen again) and was let go. For a brief shudder of time that first night back, Akin feared Iku’s dance and his hand equally, worried that he had mastered too many moves already. Sleep cleared it. When he woke up, he asked the face of God he could find about purpose between shudders, begged for help to clear the lust clear the lust. A month later, resigned, the idea dropped in his spirit as he was journalling. He started the project the next week using a laptop, Logic, janky speakers, and a mobile booth with skills he picked up on Youtube. It wasn’t the first time he had heard from God. As with most messages that came to Akin from the other side, this one was clear: the project was not to be rushed and was going to take some years. In that time, Akin would benefit from working on it quietly until he felt like it had taken solid form. There were things that the making of the work itself was supposed to teach him, things it would take without returning, and other things the process would give him without rescinding.
Akin played around with melodies, sketched rhythms daily, scribbled lyrics lazily, until year two when it became clear that the working title of the project was EGUNGUN BE CAREFUL! Just that—knowing the name alone—showed him the form of the work, what would fit in it and what had to remain outside. In year three, he learned how many voices thought of him as home. In year four, he learned both guitar and sax. In year five, he knew for sure that there would be 12 tracks in total then a bonus and that his assignment was to become a conduit who could embody 12 individual masquerades, each an alter ego or separate persona of Akin’s, both him and not-him, each with its own desire for the listener, a different name from his, a separate voice that belonged to it alone. The first masquerade walked on tall stilts when no one was watching, pierced Akin’s septum and the bridge of his nose—needed that bite of metal through bone. The third masquerade wore him with ease, slipped him on like a kimono, and had a voice like wisps of smoke, demanded utter silence when it wasn’t singing. The sixth one refused to eat anything but meat and vegetables, violently threw up all carbs, worked out for three hours a day. The seventh stayed up every night through the night, went for swims at four AM, and emerged two hours later. After the tenth masquerade—furious, concerned with both lust and rage—almost chewed his face off, Akin took a six month break. “Do not yet accelerate,” the journal notes told him again in Muji ink at the end of his own hand. It would be best, he wrote in another handwriting not-his, to not try to force a self on himself simply because it was interesting, to let his voices grow in whatever direction they wanted. The fourth masquerade wore only black lipstick and kohl to parties, wound its body against strangers, its eyes lowered in Akin’s face like sleepy moons. When alone, grunted like a bereaved spirit, almost did not surrender the body when done. It was that one that met Yemisi briefly at the underground party.
Akin was free to do other things on the side; so in those years, mostly, he kept consulting on installations, restaurant menus, private parties at select members-only venues, producing beats for some of the country’s top musicians on the low—and kept what he was carrying in his larynx a secret. Alone, when he put his mouth to the microphone, dark selves crawled out of him with timbres in their voices he didn’t call; some that took him so far from his body he could forget he had a container, borders to his being, bones set inside, a red river beating, a whole skeleton. Time slinked by as he worked and worked and worked on the work. Melodies wound then leapt then wept out of him in between sleeps. Verses lashed then crawled over strings and hi-hats, hooks flew and growled in his dreams. It all came together that way until he was looking at an unbelievable range of sound, a gathering of spirits expressing through rap, acoustics, drums, whistles, logdrums, shekere, distorting syncs causing a scramble of senses. He documented the process in short videos, voicenotes, and letters between selves—because it felt right to keep it that way until he had learned its shape, its features, how the project wanted to move. When Akin was done with its songs, he received permission to tell his friends.
“Why am I not surprised?” Awele asked. “If there’s anyone we know who would literally sit on an album while doing other epic shit and perfecting the craft, it would definitely be you. Is that why you were always recording voicenotes?”
“First of all, yes. But wait, are you trying to say I keep secrets?” Akin asked, fake-sad.
“Akin, it’s either that,” May said softly, “or secrets keep you. Either way, you have a relationship with them sha.”
“And we like you like that,” Awele said.
“Plus,” May added. “Not everything in a shell is hiding.”
“You know what’s really fucking cool?” Awele said. “When people discuss artists, they talk about them ahead of their time, or behind it. Everything Akin makes is on time. Right on it like this thing in your eye here. What’s it called again?”
“A pupil. Yes. When you’re ready to show us…”
“…we will be ready to see it.”
Nothing was wrong to them about the times Akin fell into other realms, when he chose to swim laps, to spend minutes in there that turned weeks in flesh. They knew that whenever Akin came back from where he often went, the first thing he thought to do was go hunting for whom he loved. May. Maro. Awele. Ziz. Karabo. Jekwu. Ayinke. His family. He was starting to see, too, how this was one of the precious things he could offer in love: a zoomed-out perspective, this profound ability to be an ear, to sit with the memories of others without itching to divulge anything in return, the power to absorb stories of any texture from any realm, the willingness to transcribe what he saw and to pay life forward. Even in that chosen family where he was safe, he could be quiet to dire degrees, fading into the chatter, floating on the couch. He kept huge portions of himself for himself. To know him was to love him like that, to love him for that. It was a blessing, this, to be loved by people who loved him because he was him instead of despite. Later, at home, he played the bonus track on the album: a choir anthem sung by all of the masquerades that hijacked him in those years. Body in seat, the sound facing him with Godspeed, he thought, “If the world was going to be itself regardless, what really was the point of fear?” He sat there and waited, feeling the last rind fall off gently on its own.
This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 08: Rhythm with the headline “Last Life.”
Nature is an elaborate orchestra of interconnectedness, in which timing is everything.