23 Chromosomes, Me and Afrobeat(s) – My DNA and The Beat of West Africa

23 Chromosomes, Me and Afrobeat(s) – My DNA and The Beat of West Africa

It was probably a year ago – another “girls night” for the books. We made our way to Savoy Entertainment Center in search of Caribbean music, longing for the rhythm of our culture. As we got through the security pat down and ID check, we finally got to the main door – the portal to the beat that brought instant “yassness” to us. One more step and we’re IN. Bad news. There would be no reggae this night. A Nigerian singer by the name of Iyanya was performing and Afrobeat(s) was on the turn table. I’d never even heard Afrobeat(s), or so I thought. Whether there should be an ‘s’ at the end or not, is up for debate. But, I’m a lover, not a fighter so I leave that alone. Arguments aside, we were open to new experiences. One week later I found myself on 23AndMe ordering a DNA kit.

The Whole Caribbean Feels Like One Nation

We paid our $20 and walked in, open minded and ready to witness a different culture.

Growing up in Belize, Caribbean music is a part of who we are. In some ways, the whole Caribbean feels like one nation. There’s a familiarity that permeates gatherings and events born of Caribbean culture. It’s as if there’s a basic foundation from which we all evolve. Of all the music from our region, reggae/dancehall resonates most profoundly with me. My friends would jokingly call me a Jamaican and I’d jokingly suggest, ok outrightly and proudly say, that I must have Jamaican ancestors on my mom’s side. I love many genres of music but no other sound makes me want to sway my hips the way reggae music does. Until this night.

Jamaican dancehall music was bouncing off the speakers. We felt right at home and guessed that Afrobeat(s) wouldn’t be much of a shift. There must be some similarity and we will feel right at home. Of course, looking back now, that would make perfect sense since Caribbean culture is a sweet drop of Africa for your cultural palette. Same vibe, different tribe.

People Watch and Catch a Vibe

I wasn’t expecting anything other than the music to be different. We walked in and headed over to the bar like we normally do. The girls got their usual drinks and I opted for my one glass of merlot. We took pics to show off on Facebook – we have a life and new outfits.

Don’t judge. It’s what people do.

Finally, we waltzed over to our usual spot and planted ourselves firmly to “people watch” and catch a vibe.

We were in a familiar environment but something felt different. There was a vibe and the women were different too – their hair and attire spoke of a more regal essence. Confidence oozed out of their graceful struts. There was a nature about them that struck me, as if they were indeed queens. Yes, I know all women are innately of a queen like nature. We don’t always acknowledge it or feel inspired to notice it, maybe. I’d just started my natural hair journey and in this place my fro, frizz and random curls coming back to life were accepted. My pale skin was irrelevant. It was all about good vibes, good music and good people.

Lineal and Magnificent

Besides feeling a sense of royalty in the room, I realized that the music had shifted. It wasn’t dancehall but it felt familiar. It reminded me of a song I heard some time before. It was catchy and my girls and I felt like we were one with it. When it played, everyone seemed to know it except us.

Side eye to everyone that night. [-.-]

We had no idea how to search for the song since we didn’t know the words, the artist or the exact genre. These songs were similar and we were listening keenly to see if it would play.

I enjoyed every single song that played even though I couldn’t understand some of them. All I knew was that Reggae/dancehall would not be the only music that makes me sway my hips. I loved the beat of the music and the people – especially the dancing.

There was something about this “Afrobeat(s)” that I knew. I recognized it as my own – lineal and magnificent. I was sure that this music was a part of me. Maybe it was the drums. Whatever it was, I knew it.

My brother had suggested a few times that at least one of us take a DNA test to learn our roots. This was it. I’d finally do my DNA test to see what I am made of.

Hook, Line and Sinker

Iyana made his grand entrance and once he did, I was sold. A new genre was in town and it won me over. Iyanya Onoyom Mbuk (born 31 October 1986), better known by his stage name Iyanya, is a Nigerian recording artist and performer. Although I’d never seen or heard of him before, I was just as excited as anyone there who knew all the words to his songs. It got me – hook, line and sinker as we say in Belize.

I felt at home. This vibe, this tribe – it was my own.

As much as I knew who my mom was, where I was born, that my skin was pale, that the sun rose and set each day no matter what was happening in the world, I knew this was a part of me.

Pablo Escobar and Me

I leaned over to share my new found ethnicity with my girls, but they laughed. They figured it was another claim to a culture that wasn’t mine. It was kinda like the time I claimed to be Colombian because I binge watched Narcos on Netflix. Pablo and I were family that weekend. He was bad and he was good and we were family.

I swear he and I had a connection. For real. For really real.

I digress.

After my experience that night, I wanted to know more about my mom’s roots besides her being mixed or as we call it in Belize, Kriol. Her mom was Mestizo and her dad was mostly Black (African) and European (Scottish). The concept of African origin seems to be shun upon in Belize. That’s just my observation – as if it isn’t a part of who we are. History would show otherwise. Our ancestors were brought over from West Africa and scattered across the Caribbean.

Many of us are great children of slaves and slave masters.

Kuk, Wash ahn Mash

My dad was all European (to my knowledge). My mom was a melting pot of many things. While her skin was fairly pale, her hair was thick and coarse, a beautiful reminder of her roots that didn’t show in the shade of her skin. She knew she was a “kriol gyal” – proud of who she was and where she was born. My mom was dealt her own share of racism, especially being married to a white man. Some people still saw her as inferior because of both her gender and her ethnicities.

It didn’t matter to her, or did it?

She also had her own inner dialogue to contend with. Occasionally, she would mention that my dad thought slavery days were still upon us and that she was not there to “kuk, wash and mash” (cook, wash and mash). This is a pan-Caribbean idiom for women who were at the beck and call of their men. Mash is another word for sex.

She was a kriol gyal and my dad was a limey (local name for British soldiers).

But who was I exactly? I wanted to know.

Jean Shaw, Kriol Gyal

 

Tom Shaw, Limey

23AndMe

I had a general idea what my mix was and I knew I was mostly European. It wasn’t enough. I wanted concrete information so I put my spit in a tube and mailed it to 23AndMe.

Less than 6 weeks later, I got my results: European, Native American andWest African.

Here’s the breakdown that comes close to 100% of me.

73.5% European
11.9% Native American. I was a bit lost on that one til I realized it included Mayan ancestry.
12.2% West African, anywhere from Senegal to Nigeria.

Finally! I was claiming a culture that was actually mine this time! 

That’s why!
That’s why the music hit me the way it did. Having grown up in the Caribbean, it was the part of me I felt most connected to. It was mine. Pablo and I were through. Well, not really. He may have had Native American ancestry which was also mine so maybe we could still hang Pablo.

Woman of Many Colors

The pie chart showing the ancestry by color tickled me.

My dad is on the right – mostly blue, indicating British/Irish and Eastern European descent.
My mom is on the left – mostly deep reds, indicating West & North Africa, some yellow for Native American and orange for East Asian descent. I have yet to understand where the European on my mom’s side is.

At any rate, she was a woman of many colors – kriol gyal, indeed.

 

Powder Bun and Me

When I shared my newfound understanding of who I was, one reaction I got was “So, you’re basically white” hahaha.

YES, I’m mostly white but have you ever followed a powder bun recipe (local pastry in Belize) and forgot the salt or the baking powder? The result was not the same. These tiny bits of ingredients completely change the outcome.

Native American and West African are like the tiny bits of ingredients that make me whole and complete. I’ve done meditations where I saw people who looked like they were a part of tribes. They were African and Mayan.

I wish my mom were alive today – I’d tell her how much I love that her genes defined how my hair is and that I finally grew to love my hair absolutely. I’d tell her that my son’s hair is a tangible reminder of her – not as thick or coarse but very similar. Certainly, I’d encourage her to stop using relaxers so she, my niece and I could all rock our natural locks in complete confidence. Lastly, I’d tell her that it’s not true that “white people can’t dance” because I swear I got my rhythm from my dad. Well, perhaps it’s unfair to credit him with all my dance moves. That 12.2% must count for something other than my hair.

23AndMe brought some clarity and inspired me to lean in love for my natural hair. The curls, fro and frizz bring random strangers to ask me, “What are you?”. I’m many things and Afrobeat(s) is a glorious part of my natural rhythm.

Nwa Baby by Flavour

By the way, I finally did find the first Afrobeat(s) I fell in love with. The name of the song is Nwa Baby by Flavour who hails from Nigeria. It is, to date, one of my favorite songs, period.

Not only do my hips sway, but my heart sings and my body feels light and full of shakti every single time I hear it.

Knowing your ancestry is vital. Maya Angelou once said she walked into rooms filled with people knowing that all her ancestors preceded her. There’s a sense of power in your veins when you walk with that kind of knowing.  “Drums of My Father by E Roy Cayetano is an ode to his ancestors. I’d love this poem just for the title alone. It reminded me of why I love certain types of drumming in music – drums of my father. Now that I know my DNA, it makes perfect sense why I feel connected to his poem – drums of my father, indeed.

Here are a few more songs out of West Africa for your listening pleasure.

May your body find the beat of my ancestors and may it wrap you in love always.

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