On thin-skinned drums

They say a thin-skinned drum makes the loudest beat…

Tumi Molekane, ‘Yvonne’

Many ages ago, a friend introduced me to South African hip-hop artist, Tumi Molekane. I loved him instantly. His flow is mesmerising and his lyrics are socially conscious and relevant à la  Common or Talib Kweli. And although his accent is tinged with faux-American notes, it’s recognisably African and its cadences and nuances are comforting and familiar.

My favorite Tumi track is ‘Yvonne’. It is more spoken word than song, and it weaves a short story about a girl walking home being persuaded and harassed into giving the protagonist, voiced by Tumi, her number. It begins innocently enough. Tumi is smitten by Yvonne’s beauty which contrasts sharply with the harshness of the streets they are both walking:

They say a thin-skinned drum makes the loudest beat

I am fairly grounded amidst the bullshit
My harvest is sweet
I walked passed a crowd of creeps
The type who rob and speak
Like their résumé requested what they do upon the streets
I was adamant that I wouldn’t get
Involved with these ignored them peeps
I just kept my walk discreet
A few blocks later boom!
Sister’s aura is sweet
Initial shock left my heart with a faulting beat

He proceeds to pester her for her attention, following her, ignoring her protests that “For fuck’s sake [she needs] to catch the bus”:

Couldn’t help but admire what’s your name little cutie?”
She said ‘I am in a rush thus don’t be a fuss
I mean for f***s sakes I need to catch the bus” ” wait
It must be fate you sway to the soundless rhythms
Of club deejays, I don’t normally do this
But I don’t commonly view this
Sisters in the city got a thing for playing nudist
And you are fully dressed truly next to odd
So I pursue it give me your name and number
Where you been last summer
I know your world eagerly welcomes new comers
Come on!’ I grabbed her by the wrist and went on
” Forget the bus you look like you like the loud type
The fist in the air the fat black and lovely proud type
That’s me Tumi at your service with a purpose

The encounter escalates, and amidst Yvonne’s protests, Tumi gets on his knees, in front of the audience of those people on the street that he is so above, and begs Yvonne. She, needing to catch the bus, and wary of the spectacle she is being dragged into, relents. Tumi is overjoyed and makes his uneventful journey home where he immediately picks up the phone to call her:

“Hallo, can I talk to that pumpkin Yvonne?”
“She got raped this afternoon she can’t come to the phone”

And with that jarring narrative and tonal shift, Molekane takes us into Yvonne’s monologue and her version of the afternoon:

Hard day at work stains the face
But I was looking pretty
A five minute walk, through this place
Takes an hour in the city
See brothers act rude and throw gestures at you
Some will even try to grab like you in a petting zoo
You gotta get fully dressed and not summon suggestions
That will get you pressed to brothers
Thinking you show interest
I may be bugging but it’s like slavery or something
These cats mastered the art of s***e invasion but f*** it
I will deal with it tell them straight
How they make me feel and s***t
It gets to a point where I feel conflict is imminent
Two blocks form the bus stop
This kid looking love struck
Mumbles something at me and I say nothing at he
Lord have mercy here’s another l***ing at me
” Look I am in a rush thus don’t be a fuss
I mean for f***s fakes I need to catch the bus”
Ay these cats are made to frustrate/straight up

Grabbed me by my wrist I didn’t play that
He looked a little cute talking loud on his knees and s***t
And brothers started looking he was smiling
Very pleased with it
I gave him my name and number and left suddenly
But still missed the bus I cussed this kid for loving me
Slapped from behind I turn around
There two in front of me
I am shaken I gave ’em my purse
Thinking they mugging me
When the other two drag me to the nearest shrubbery
Pulls my lips to his unzips the jeans
And rips the seems
Knocked unconscious in attempts to scream

It’s a sobering listen, that contains many depths, some of which I uncovered in this week, when the country is reeling from a spate of violent attacks on women and children. I wrote a post the other day expressly refusing to give in to those who object to the #MenAreTrash online movement. The response to the post and in online conversations about the hashtag has been predictable and depressing. The usual chorus of #NotAllMen has resounded, all sound and fury, with none of it being directed at masculinity. Never mind the broad message about violent masculinity and its inextricable links to everyday, seemingly innocuous sexism. The point seems to be to convince those of us writing about how #MenAreTrash that we are part of the problem in our refusal to acknowledge the good guys.

So, as a further attempt to explain all this, to myself, to the bros, to the universe, I turn to ‘Yvonne’. By linking what seems like a sweet ‘meet-cute’ story to a violent rape, the piece makes the point better than I ever could. It starts innocently enough: the character Tumi convinces us of his good guy cred. He tells us that he isn’t like those other guys in the street, yelling and cussing and catcalling. When he meets Yvonne, he does his best to try convince her of the same. He tells her he doesn’t usually approach women on the streets. (She is therefore special to him – how many of us have heard this line before?). He badgers her, in spite her repeated pleas to be allowed to catch her bus. When she is raped almost immediately after their encounter, it is hard not to blame him. For all of his protestations about being a good guy, and his insistence that he is just not like those guys who catcall women, he is is still indirectly involved in the series of events that lead to Yvonne’s rape. He is not her rapist, but did he have to push her quite so hard for her number? And why, like her rapists, could he not take ‘no’ for an answer?

Molekane takes us straight from the revelation of Yvonne’s rape into her monologue. He never resumes Tumi’s monologue and doesn’t give him the opportunity to express remorse or make excuses. Instead, we are shown how, in Yvonne’s experience, even the nice guys like Tumi, are part of the constant barrage of sexist noise women must survive each day. And like other women, she has strategies to address them. She describes dressing modestly so as not to attract unwanted male attention. She takes the bus and not the taxi, even though the taxi is cheaper, because as all women know, the bus is safer. In her encounter with Tumi, peppered as it is with her desperate protests, we see that even in her verbal ‘sparring’, she is still careful to protect male egos and is persistent without being aggressive. As she tells us, she knows that pushing back to hard will lead to a confrontation. The unspoken reality is that she knows, like all women know, that it is a confrontation she might not survive. Finally, as a last ditch strategy to maintain her safety, she gives Tumi her number and tries to head home.

Yvonne’s narrative clearly shows that even the nice guys, the guys who imagine themselves above the noise made by what Tumi calls the “thin-skinned drums” are complicit in the assault on women. Whilst Tumi is not a rapist, his inability to read Yvonne’s obvious disinterest and discomfort at his badgering are part of the same culture that terrorise her into wearing certain clothes, taking the bus and not the taxi and being nice to even the rudest men. Not only is he a part of the culture, but he is even directly implicated in its most violent expressions.

What I struggle with most with the lyrics is the seemingly innocent place from where Tumi is coming. He sees a girl he likes and wants to get to know her. There are no nefarious sexist plots and he doesn’t set out to humiliate Yvonne. But through Tumi’s monologue, Molekane drops slight hints of the way in which misogyny is at play, even in this seemingly innocent premise. Firstly, Tumi is attracted to Yvonne’s “aura” and to the fact that she is dressed modestly (which we later find out is a deliberate attempt to avoid lascivious attention) compared to other women whom he dismisses because of their near-nakedness. Second, he congratulates himself on his comparative groundedness and soulfulness. He’s not like other guys, who are generally up to no good. He quotes Biko, for crying out loud. But even as he disdains what these others do, he doesn’t engage with them about it. Instead, he creates a discursive distance (#NotAllMen) and carries on with his actions, which contribute to Yvonne’s victimisation. This part of the song has helped me make sense of the #NotAllMen arguments and their proponents. As they’re fond of telling us, these are not bad guys. They are not themselves catcalling women, or threatening to rape us. But the question Molekane’s lyrics asks is this: if you’re not committing the violence, what are you doing against the violence? My reading of ‘Yvonne’ is that if you are not a part of the solution to the problem that is inextricably tied to your gender’s mangled and violent expressions then you’re going to be a part of the problem.

But therein lies the problem. The #NotAllMen crowd struggle to face this. Like Tumi in this song, they are sensitive to any engagement that forces them to examine their complicity in the patriarchy.  They are as “thin-skinned drums”, and as Molekane says, we know that they make the loudest noises. The men I haven’t heard from as part of the #NotAllMen crowd understand that the movement is not about their personal character. It’s about their male privilege and the need to call out it’s toxicity by using a loud, ugly word like “trash”. They understand that saying #MasculinityIsTrash divorces the problem from the people and lets some who might be complicit and who need to take a long look at their own behaviours off the hook.

And so we will keep saying it: #MenAreTrash. Until every man can move through the world conscious of the privilege he carries and the violence it connotes. And is compelled to do something about it other than engage in internet arguments with women he doesn’t know.

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