Scholar Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo on the Joys of Nerd Rap

Brown University professor Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, also known as rapper and producer Sammus.
( Zoloo Brown )

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: When somebody makes the decision to put on their coat and buy a ticket and go to a show, there's something really incredible happening there. When someone is making the decision, it creates a possibility for folks to be open to doing the show. Real work of peeling this thing back, breaking this thing down.

But I think we need these sort of doulas to even arrive at the place where we're open enough to do some of that. 

Helga: I'm Helga Davis and welcome to my show of fearless conversations that reveal the extraordinary in all of us. My guest today is scholar Enongo Lumumba Kasango, otherwise known as the dynamic rapper and producer, Sammus.

As a recording artist, Sammus explores themes of anxiety, awkwardness, Afrofuturism, and activism. As a Brown University music professor and practitioner fellow, Enongo expands the bounds of hip hop and Black feminist sound studies. In our conversation, we talk about how she crafted elsewhere spaces in her childhood to navigate nervousness and dream up cartoons, video games, and music.

We also discuss how she learned to reconcile her love of being an unapologetic nerd with her drive to be an emcee, and what it means to show up as a socially conscious artist in her generation.

Come back. Come back to me, please. Come back to me. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Yeah. Who 

Helga: did you see when you looked in the mirror this morning? Did you see Sammus? I saw Enongo for sure. You saw Enongo? 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Yes. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: When somebody makes the decision to put on their coat and buy a ticket and go to a show, there's something really incredible happening there. When someone is making the decision, it creates a possibility for folks to be open to doing the show. Real work of peeling this thing back, breaking this thing down.

But I think we need these sort of doulas to even arrive at the place where we're open enough to do some of that. 

Helga: I'm Helga Davis and welcome to my show of fearless conversations that reveal the extraordinary in all of us. My guest today is scholar Enongo Lumumba Kasango, otherwise known as the dynamic rapper and producer, Sammus.

As a recording artist, Sammus explores themes of anxiety, awkwardness, Afrofuturism, and activism. As a Brown University music professor and practitioner fellow, Enongo expands the bounds of hip hop and Black feminist sound studies. In our conversation, we talk about how she crafted elsewhere spaces in her childhood to navigate nervousness and dream up cartoons, video games, and music.

We also discuss how she learned to reconcile her love of being an unapologetic nerd with her drive to be an emcee, and what it means to show up as a socially conscious artist in her generation.

Come back. Come back to me, please. Come back to me. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Yeah. 

Helga: Who did you see when you looked in the mirror this morning? Did you see Sammus? I saw Enongo for sure. You saw Enongo? 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Yes. 

Helga: Who's here now? Enongo, I would say. Okay. So, we get that out of the way. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Yeah. 

Helga: Because I imagine, do the two things feel very different to you?

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: They do feel different, and there's definitely a sort of transition space where I'm shifting from one person into the other, but my general kind of baseline state, I think, is Enongo. Yeah, that was a good question. It was, it was, because it's like, it has become this weird thing where I have certain friends or certain relationships who only know me as Sammus.

And they address me as such, and I think I haven't totally figured out what it means when someone's primary relationship with me is through this interface, almost. And we've talked on the phone, hung out with each other's families, and then we'll be hanging out and they'll be like, Oh yeah, Sammus, go grab a thing from the fridge.

And there's a moment where there's a different way that they're relating to me than some of my high school friends or my parents. So I think. I haven't actually totally figured out where she lives, but for some people that's my always state. Yeah. 

Helga: And who do you think they think you are when they call you Sammis?

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: I think they think there's a much closer relationship between Enongo and Sammus. I think they think one and the same. So the person that I show up as when I'm teaching or when we're in friendship mode, I don't know that they register that when I go on the stage, I have to do all of this work. to step into who that person is because part of that is the persona that I've crafted is one who feels close and intimate with their audience.

It's a weird thing and I think it actually helps me to understand folks in social media and the ways that they navigate having a relationship with an audience. But the front stage person feels really, really real and like a person that you really know. And I can only imagine when there's not the barrier of having a different name that allows them to step in and out of that role when the screen name is who you are.

I don't know how people navigate that. 

Helga: I looked, speaking of social media, I looked at your Instagram, where you describe who you are or what you're thinking about, and yours said, real fraught girl shit. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Yeah. 

Helga: Black girl problems to thrive. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Yes, so Meg Thee Stallion, amazing rapper from Houston, and she has this phrase, real hot girl shit.

She calls her followers her hotties, and she just sort of embodies this Larger than life confidence, and it's interesting because for me, rap has been the space where I go to be more openly insecure, where I go to be more expressive about the things that I don't feel comfortable sharing about my insecurities or anxieties.

And so it's kind of a play on that, the fraught instead of hot, where I'm a fretful person, so I'm constantly kind of worrying and thinking, was that the right thing? It's kind of this funny way of calling attention to the fact that I think my rap persona is very much trying to work through her neuroses through the medium of hip hop.

Helga: One of the things I think is very interesting about performers and performance is that there isn't a lot of thought given to how performers navigate their fear and their anxieties. And so I remember someone asked Tony Bennett whether or not he still got nervous and he said, I still care. And so there's a way in which even if you have a persona that is confident or that is vulnerable.

It is still a work. Yes. And a live work, in real time work, to show, to share, and to experience for yourself all the things that you that you navigate in the music or in the text or in whatever it is. And so what are you so fraught about? 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: How much time do you have? *Laughs* Well, it all started. Well, so for me…

Helga: Wait, wait, wait, when did it all start?

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Oh my goodness. Okay. So I think back to myself as a kid, in some ways I would describe my experience of growing up in upstate New York. I have two parents who are professors. They're fabulous people. They were hardcore about expectations around what quote unquote success looks like. And so I generally would say, oh, I had a really happy childhood.

But then I think when you tease some of the layers away, they're I was this latent anxiety. I was really an anxious kid. It's funny when I think about the first space where that manifested. It was definitely, school was such an anxiety inducing space for me. Even though I loved learning, I was a huge nerd.

When I came home from school, I would pick up whatever I could read. I was a very voracious reader, and I did well in school. My hand would shoot up. I felt like I had the answers, but there was still an immense amount of pressure when I stepped into the classroom. Every interaction felt like we were litigating my worth, almost.

And if I got the answer wrong, what does that say about me? What does that say about my family? So, early on, I think there was a lot of pressure for me around what success should look like, and that spun out to other avenues of my life, where it was like, pursue excellence, quote unquote, whatever that means, at all costs.

Helga: What did it mean for you? 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: For me, it meant, pretty simply, Being the absolute best at every single thing I tried to do, and it's kind of a mixed bag because I credit my parents with giving me this drive to really be very focused about the activities that I pursued. So I started drawing pictures as a kid, I wanted to develop a cartoon series, that was my dream was to have a cartoon or a video game.

And so it wasn't this casual endeavor, it was Every day after school when I came home, I was drawing pictures over and over again. Really almost obsessively trying to create this universe and I was writing the script for the story so I would come home and after I drew all my pictures, I would write out the episodes, I would copy edit them, I would share them with my brother.

It was like so intense. When you think of world building, it's this fun, beautiful experience and expression. But for me, there was a kind of rigor there that I think exceeded beyond the fun and joy of creation. I think there was an intensity there that was beautiful being fed into by how my parents viewed what was important.

And I get their mindset, their mentality. My mom's from the Ivory Coast. My dad's from the Congo. They both had to do a lot of work to get to the places that they have been. And I think that that really manifested in how we envisioned what work should look like. So it was hyper focused. Everything that I did, I need to give a thousand percent.

Which, yeah, for better or for worse. Because I think there are some things that it's okay to give 50%. It's okay to not approach everything with a sort of like Olympian mentality. 

Helga: Are you sure about that?

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: I think that was something that early on was the source of being so fraught. Were you the only black kid in your class?

Helga: I was one of very few black kids in my class. Yeah. Until then. What stress did that add?

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Oh, it was, it was everything. It was everything. It was everything. I mean, and the other part of it is that, again, God bless my parents, but I think some of the ways that now it's more commonplace to talk about things like microaggressions or what's happening in these spaces where you might have one Black kid in a class of 30 folks.

A lot of that language wasn't available to me, and I don't know that it was available to them. And so I felt the difference, but it was never expressed. And there's something damaging that slowly chips away at you when you feel the difference, but nobody's articulating it. And so for me, I felt this pressure very intensely that I can't get this wrong, feeling that anxiety and not fully understanding where it was coming from.

Another part of that is having all of these stereotypes that you're cast against that is also motivating the desire to be Little Miss Perfect, which is completely untenable for a child. It was definitely a part of how I navigated my experience was that I was an observer. When I described the kind of kid that I was, an adult that I grew up into, it was often I might say shy or really fretful, but also very observant.

Like I would move into a space and often was kind of quiet initially just trying to assess what are the rules here? How should I understand myself in this? Because that wasn't a thing we sort of unpacked at home and certainly we were not unpacking that at school. So yeah, it definitely was formative for me.

I felt loved and supported. And there are a few kind of traumatic moments in my mind, as I'm sure are in the mind for any Black kid who grows up in an environment where they're one of two or three. But generally speaking, I felt confident in my sort of abilities, but there was always this looming Fear of getting it wrong and therefore playing into ideas about what it meant to be a little black girl.

Helga: And so how did that fear and that experience shape who you grew up to be in terms of what you studied at school, what school you went to, your music, and who you are now? 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Ooh, that thread. So, the most overt way that I would say that it shaped the person that I grew into is that because I felt kind of alienated at school in the sense that there's these differences and no one's talking about anything, and then also would feel that way at home, I started to imagine Elsewhere, or like, is there a third space?

Is there a place beyond school and home and even friendships, the kind of cute little friendships that I had, but a space where I can be fully me. And I think that was shared by myself and my brothers. I feel really fortunate to have had a little tribe where we could just be our little weird selves.

When I was working on all of these cartoon ideas and writing my stories, my brothers were my audience. I would read the stories to them, and what do you think? And what do you think of this character? And so in large part, I think having this expansive sense of an idea of somewhere else was definitely shaped by a desire to be somewhere else.

But not someone else? That's a good question. Not someone else, huh? I guess I hadn't thought about it like that. Crafting a persona or someone else to step into didn't arrive to me until way later. But I guess you can say, in a way, that Elsewhere Place was also a dream about being the person who could exist in that elsewhere place.

And when I think about analogies around space travel, it's like you shift the environment as much as you're selected to go into that space. So I do think in a way, dreaming about some other universe or place that I could live that felt safe was about becoming a person who was confident enough to create that space and then inhabit it.

And so music became a space for me to start exploring those ideas around creating an elsewhere place. The music that I initially created was trying to create the soundtrack for the cartoon slash video game that I was developing. I was playing around with Lots of different ideas on the keyboard, and my older brother, he taught himself how to play the guitar, and then he shared some ideas about how to create songs with me.

So we would make little tunes together, and I wanted to be able to connect with the right people, then they could bring these songs to life, essentially. I had all these ideas I had recorded on my little, uh, Cassette deck. And then in high school, I was introduced to a digital audio workstation, a tool that allowed me to produce music on the computer.

And that was so revolutionary for me, not only because I had access to all kinds of different sounds now beyond just the sound bank of my keyboard or my guitar. It was thousands of sounds at my fingertips that I could use to make works. But I could also record those songs and then burn them onto CDs and listen to them on trips and move around with them.

It's funny because I remember going to school, I brought a mix of these songs to my friends and shared them with my friends and I was like, A lot of them were like, this is really weird. Why are you making music for a video game or a cartoon that doesn't actually exist yet? And I didn't really have a response, but I had the conviction.

Because it felt so good when I was making, it was something that I was willing to hold on to, even if it was weird or my friends didn't necessarily understand what the purpose was. So to get back to your original question, I think Learning that I could make stuff for me, I think, kind of gave me the insight that I could make even more things.

That all of this is kind of made up. And it was this insight into the way that all of the things around me came into being. That all the songs that I love, somebody had to make them. That there are so many things around me that are made and people give their life, energy, love into making those things.

That was an important development for me in recognizing, Oh, maybe I can make my life. Maybe I can actually build my life too. I don't have to just take this path. That my parents have set out for me as being the pathway to success. 

Helga: Will you talk about the intersection between making music and sound that activate the issues that are important to you?

And their relationship to your idea of feminism. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Hmm. As a beat maker, which was the primary entry point that I had into making music was through the production side. I think, for me, again, this sort of observer position was really valuable to me. And one of the, Interesting and important parts of hip hop and the sampling tradition within hip hop is that when you make sample based beats, you have to be an incredible listener, an incredible interpreter.

And something about that act of listening to something and hearing it differently and repurposing it and reforming it felt healing to me and also spoke to this idea that the ways that I feel different are a gift. The ways that I hear things differently is like an asset, that's a strength, even though maybe when I was a kid the difference was not felt in that way.

That was an early opening for recognizing. Not necessarily a feminist ethic, I don't think I recognized it as such, but leaning into this idea that the difference or the space of difference is an important, powerful one was an opening for me to think more about feminist thought. And then when I started to become a lyricist, which was after I had graduated, I was still making beats.

But at that point, I became a third and fourth math and science teacher after I graduated. And I was drowning under the weight of the educational system. The school was really underserved. It was a wake up call for me, just recognizing the ways in which my parents had insulated me and done so much to ensure that I had this charmed educational experience, and just seeing the disparities up close with the ways that, for so many of us, school is a battleground.

I had students who we were asking them to do homework and they didn't have a home. Those kinds of experiences where it was really understanding the state of the world. I think having a really important confrontation with the ways that I thought things were and the way that things actually sort of were.

And so for me in that moment, I remember I had started writing songs and speaking to the things in my life that I felt were under the surface, but I hadn't had the courage or bravery yet to speak to. What were those 

Helga: things? What were some of those things? 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: So one of those was thinking about the ways that, as a Black woman navigating desirability, All of the things that were so fraught in that.

And songs that I wrote at that time, they weren't the most sophisticated, but they did feel like things I had felt but had never expressed out loud. And so that was one piece. I also was starting to work through my relationships or ideas of spirituality. Like, what are we here for? What am I here for? Why do I make the decisions that I make in terms of Taking things on in life and recognizing that my desire to rap was an articulation of me rejecting this way of being that I think I had subscribed to when I was younger and do the thing that's the most respectable and that people will respect the most versus thinking about what is my purpose.

and what inspires me. So those were the ideas that were going into my early songs. And then the last piece was expressing pride and joy in being a huge nerd, which my very first album was called Fly Nerd. One of my first songs was called Fly Nerd. What was important to me about that was I had loved hip hop as a teenager but it wasn't A form of expression that I felt like I could take on as a maker, as an emcee.

Because everyone that I saw and experienced within the world of hip hop was super cool. Everybody was just really cool. shiny and either they were in this space where they were talking about all the dope shit that they have and they've got all this wealth and power and all this stuff and then there are these other folks who are waxing philosophical about the meaning of life and the way that they play with words is this poetic brilliant contribution and at that stage in my life I was just a nerdy teen!

Who didn't really know what her place was in life. And I hadn't heard an example of someone speaking from that vantage point within the hip hop space. And so, in that weird limbo period where I had graduated and I was trying to find my voice and trying to figure out what was next. I developed at least enough self knowledge to know that if I wanted to express myself, I wanted to express myself as me and who I am

is just a big nerd at the end of the day, so I need to fall in love with whoever that person is, even if she's flawed or is not the coolest person on the planet. I want to celebrate that I'm someone who loves to read, I love comic books, I love movies, and leaning into that as my persona felt like a really meaningful and powerful part of my own self development.

Helga: You're listening to Helga. We'll rejoin the conversation in just a moment. 

Avery Willis-Hoffman: The Brown Arts Institute at Brown University is a university wide research enterprise and catalyst for the arts at Brown that creates new work and supports, amplifies, and adds new dimensions to the creative practices of Brown's arts departments, faculty, students, and surrounding communities.

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Helga: And now Let's rejoin my conversation with scholar Enongo Lumumba Kasango, otherwise known as the rapper Sammus. 

Helga: What's interesting is that we keep coming back to this theme of not having an example of who you feel yourself to be, who you want to be, how you want to express yourself, and understanding that you actually have to do that, that that's your work.

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: You put it together so beautifully just now. I love how you frame that because I'll be invited into friends classes and they'll Asked me to share how you became this rap professor with a Ph. D. in science and technology studies. 

Helga: Just saying. Yeah, right? 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Break that down for me. And I often have to tell the students that it can feel really linear and it can feel like I had some kind of plan, which I definitely did not.

But the thing that was guiding me, I think you're right, A search for myself, but also a search for my tribe, for my folks. And that was leading me to these spaces where I have to create the grounds for that community to grow. I know we're out there, but maybe I need to send out the distress call and then I'll be met with my folks.

So coming to that realization time and time again, I think is exactly as you've observed. I later realized was a part of my life's work. 

Helga: What are the things that you bring from early hip hop into the way you express yourself now? There's, sometimes I hear people go, what's rap? And then, what's hip hop? So yes, what do you bring?

And then, what's the language that you bring? 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: So I think in terms of the relationship with early hip hop, the first is Reverence for All that can be made with a beat and an expression of your voice. That honestly is what initially motivates me when I'm coming to the writing process. When you think about the earliest hip hop masterminds, we're exploring beats but then exploring rhymes.

A real joy and sense of play with just what it means to make words rhyme. And so that motivates my writing in so many ways. Coming up with the most fun, weird, silly rhyme, that could be a whole weekend and I'll feel like I've done my work. Like, if I came up with, with a thing that was really clever or a thing that makes me smile, just playing with, you know, The amazing constraint that is offered by hip hop in the form of the meter and the rhyme and what can you make when you have this constraint in front of you, that is the guiding force first and foremost.

Even outside of, did I say something that was really deep or really powerful? Even one layer before that is, is this a fun and joyful expression of the language. And when you were asking the question about what language do I bring, there's a kind of introspection that I'm really interested in, in the rap form, that a lot of the folks that I listen to and enjoy the most, a rapper named Open Mike Eagle.

He's based in LA, but he's from Chicago, a rapper who retired, but she is named Jean Grey. The two of them reflect to me the sort of heady being in the mind of someone whose thoughts are racing and who's observing the world and trying to make sense of what the world is. That's the language that I want to bring, particularly through the lens of a Black woman in an academic space.

And it's been cool because I've connected with so many hip hop heads, yes, but also Black women academics who have said, Oh, this song that you wrote about losing your mind in academia really spoke to me or was the thing that I needed to go get therapy or was the thing that I needed to cut this person off from my life or decide that this was no longer for me.

So I think recognizing the more granular I go, actually, the more expansive the dialogues I can have are with people who I think of as being part of my tribe. 

Helga: Will you talk about your relationship to the word n***a? 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Yes. 

Helga: And I've been asking this question a lot because it is fraught with so much anxiety and I don't quite know what to do with it. I have nudged the door, but only nudged, so we're clear, towards a conversation about reclamation and about not letting go of the history, but that that history is not in the forefront of a conversation. It's not that I want to hear people ignore it, but I want also the other side of it, that is not a situation that's necessarily hopeful, but explores.

What I perceive to be forward motion. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: So one thing that I think about is a concept album that I put out in 2014 and that I'm now revising to put out. this coming year, having had this project out for a decade. And the concept album is about this character that I get my name from, Sammus, who's a video game character.

And traditionally, the character of Sammus is this white blonde woman. And I repurposed the character to reflect myself. And when I put out this project that was like a concept album about the video game, there weren't really. Other projects that were doing that kind of work in the video game universe.

The relationships that a lot of the MCs had to repurposing video game tropes were not really rooted in telling stories through the vantage point of Black life. But for me, I wanted to tell the story of Sammus, this intergalactic bounty hunter, but frame it through the perspective of my life as a Black woman.

And so the character is in outer space. She's in search of this giant disembodied brain that's the enemy in the game. And so the whole story is rooted in this. This sort of interstellar journey to find meaning in her life. But the language of the project is framed through the language of how I might speak to friends or how I might speak as an emcee who's taking up space or feels larger than life.

And so, in that project, I wasn't sure whether to include the N word in there. I didn't know if that was the sort of space. And it's not everywhere, but there are moments in the project where I felt like if I was talking my shit, like if I was my biggest, baddest version of myself, talking to my intergalactic folks, that this is the way that I convey or portray this badass self.

So I think what you're getting at is really important, right? How do we create strategies around new relationships with ourselves, with our language. We don't have to be committed to the terms of what worked yesterday or worked on these other songs and creative works. And so I think that there's a way that we can definitely as artists be more intentional and be more strategic.

I'm always hesitant to outright Let go of language. I think there's always a capacity in there somewhere to revise, rework, play. But I do think that in the absence of having a rigorous relationship with the craft, you can just rely on whatever is easiest. And I think that is definitely the space to push back and say, maybe we don't have to rely on the language that we've used to describe ourselves or experience, especially if we're trying to be in a more speculative zone.

I think that the language can be a bridge, but we also have to do the work of. Repurposing, trying new things on, and within our community continue to have a dialogue and figure out what we retire, what we let live on for perpetuity, what we put on the shelf for a minute and then bring back out.

But I do think that at the very least, rap music for me has provided a space to have a conversation. 

Helga: I guess I was thinking, too, that most of it lives in 4/4 and that's our heartbeat. And so it becomes close to our hearts in that way, it becomes, it beats at the same time and the same pace and in the same space as our hearts.

And that's what makes me fearful. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: When I talk to my students in my intro to rap songwriting class about what is a rapper or who is a rapper, often for many of them, although they will not be so explicit, the reality is that for them, Often, a rapper is the space for their most base ideas about the world to go.

That's the repository for whatever kind of ideas about domination and power that maybe they feel unable to express or articulate in their lives. And so we have to talk about the fact that there is a whole marketplace that is an extension of that history that is so invested in this one particular mode of expression through the rap form and that we actually get to decide who we want to become in this expressive space and that it can be a lot of different things, but you're absolutely right to say we need to recognize the power, the import of the things that we put out into the universe as musicians, as makers. These are spells, these are incantations, these are absolutely directives for how we Can and should move through the world, and we should own that power, whatever that might look like, whether it's the power to make people shake their ass, or the power to, you know, make somebody be in connection or communication.

Or riot. Right, yeah, or burn it all down, or call that person back, whatever the thing is. Go to therapy. 

Helga: Go to therapy. Did you cry today? 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: I did. I did cry today. 

Helga: How come? 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: I was just overwhelmed. So today is the first day of spring break and I was filled with so many feelings about it. Knowing I have a week of rest ahead.

Like, just, I think the things that I have been feeling or been anxious about over the past few weeks that I haven't had time to process, knowing that I'll have space to do that, it's like my body was getting me ready to feel those feelings. And I cry all the time. It's like a hobby. I love to just, I love to weep.

It feels so cleansing and healing to me. It's, it really is almost every day that I shed some kind of tears at some point. 

Helga: What set of circumstances led you to therapy? When did you understand that that was a space you needed to step into? 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: I didn't even really recognize it for myself. I had to be instructed that that was the next step for me because a few years into grad school I completely lost my mind.

I'm not being hyperbolic. I really lost it. was untethered from reality because I was so split. There was a version of me that was going to class and pretending everything was cool with all my friends. Nobody had any idea that on the inside I was in total shambles and I was in a relationship I should not have been in.

We should not have extended the life of that thing any longer than we extended it, but we did for many years. So, that relationship was sort of in its death throes, and early on in grad school, I didn't know where my life was headed. I think that was one of the first moments where it just wasn't clear to me what the next steps were.

When I started grad school, I didn't even have a really good reason. And arriving to campus and talking to other folks, I recognized, oh, there are people who have thought long and hard about their desire to be in grad school. I think I was just feeling really unsure and insecure in myself. And for someone who had constituted a sense of self.

for so long on being good at school when suddenly I wasn't the top of the class. I didn't have all the brilliant ideas in the room. None of the papers or any of the things that I made really impressed anybody in my department. So I was feeling two inches tall and then I'm also feeling like I have to present an image of myself that's 

I got it all together, I'm fine. So I was cracking up on the inside, completely breaking down at the seams. And I had a moment where I ended up in the ER because I had taken steps to take some pills and it was a really, really dark moment. And before I was discharged from the hospital. We had to come up with a care plan, essentially, and going to therapy was part of that plan for what the next steps were.

So I really had to be, like, forced into therapy. And then when I started going to see a therapist, my first few meetings, all I did was cry. I would go into the office and for almost an hour, I would just weep. I'm kidding. I think feelings are coming up now. I was just so lost. I was so, so, so broken down and so lost.

And felt so alienated because even after that moment, I still didn't feel like I could talk to my parents about this stuff. I still didn't feel like I could talk to people. 

Helga: And where were they in this process and did you feel that you had failed them in any way? Yeah. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Absolutely. Absolutely. I felt like The first time that I tried to express to my mom that I was not okay, her initial response was, don't say anything that will incriminate you, essentially.

Like, who are you talking to about this? She was just adamant that I not have a profile with the grad school as someone who was having, these issues because in her mind and understandably, she just didn't want me to be in a position where anything could be held against me that I had been managing. But for me, it was like, I don't think you understand.

This is life and death. I don't care about what the grad school thinks of me. I'm barely hanging on by a thread. And so in that moment, when I had, you know, Worked myself up to express to her at least as much as I thought that I could How bad things were feeling and the response was sort of this Protect yourself.

Yeah, I just ran in the other direction. I was like, okay. Well, I got to sort this out for myself and At the beginning, I was really inconsolable, and then towards the end of that semester, I started writing and making music to try to speak some of the things that I had mostly just felt really, you know, Ashamed and silly about trying to say it out loud.

And I think that's when I recognized the power that sitting in the therapist's office had had. When I started making, that's when I was like, Oh, that's, that's why people do this. That's why people go. 

Helga: I have a friend who is a body worker, and sometimes, especially if I'm in a show, which is most of the time, where I'm banging my body up.

In whatever way, it could be sitting still. Sitting still also bangs up your body. And she'll do something. Maybe she'll put her fingers in my shoulder or in my psoas. And I will really want to cry. And she says to me, I don't want you to cry. I want you to hold your charge. So this is a very charged space for you.

Whatever emotions are coming up for you are charged, and I want you to develop the muscle to hold that charge rather than releasing it to then create the same thing again. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Yeah, right. 

Helga: Until you can find your footing. And then I was thinking also about the people who come to you who have a very powerful experience during one of your performances or during a talk and they come to you in tears.

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Yeah. 

Helga: And you hold them. And there's some kind of exchange of you holding them and them holding you. But my question is, does that let a person off the hook? If they're crying because they loved the way you spoke about the killing of young black men, and they cry, what happens when they go home? And I wonder if what's happening is that They are putting on you the responsibility of change, of hope, of helping them feel better, of essentially avoiding responsibility for much deeper political, social, cultural issues.

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Yeah, that's a real question because there is a limit. There is a kind of point past which the work needs to move beyond. And live in the world. It needs to live in the world, right? It needs to live in the world. And so I do think that there is a way that folks coming to shows or who are experiencing all the feelings of like, oh my goodness, I'm so riled up and I got to cry and now I feel better when it's like, whoa, but we're still on fire.

Helga: Yes, we are still on fire. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: We're still on fire to keep that sort of present. How do we do that? But I do think that Just having performed in enough spaces, I think we're still in a place where people are Generally closed off from even that first stage of recognizing one's own feelings and position in the world.

I have to remind myself sometimes that because I'm friends with so many artists that I'm in a bubble and a lot of us have done slash are doing the work, whatever that work looks like, both in terms of self, um, actualization, realization work, but then being called to action to do the work that they then are called to action to do because of that creative work that they have brought into the world.

But for a lot of friends, for example, from undergrad, who did not follow the trajectory that I followed, who got a job at an investment bank, and they went and did their thing. And now They have not been in a space where they've been able to cultivate real feelings about their kind of like lives. 

Helga: But also haven't had to.

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Have not had to. Have not had to. Absolutely. Have been able to build a life insulated from what that work means. And so, I do think that there is something important. It's not the full journey at all. I'm a homebody, so I always think about this. When somebody makes the decision to put on their coat and buy a ticket, and go to a show, there's something really incredible happening there.

When someone is making the decision to disrupt whatever it is I have going on in this moment, to go and experience something bigger than myself in a room full of other people. It creates a possibility for folks to be open to doing the real work of peeling this thing back, breaking this thing down. But I think we need these sort of doulas to even arrive at the place where we're open enough to do some of the really, really difficult work of sitting with each other and wrestling over what do we want.

For example, I have a friend who, I have a song called Mae Jemison, it's named after the first black woman astronaut, and the song is from this concept album about this video game character. And he arrived at the project because he loves the video game. He had no relationship with many of the frames of reference that shaped the project for me.

Through listening to the song and engaging with the material, started doing some research on Mae Jemison, is now teaching his kids about her work, getting them acquainted with this incredible figure who I feel like should be a household name, but it's not a household name. So that's not everything, but to me that is significant.

I will say that a big part of my show is talking. In between songs, because I really want for people to feel empowered to go out into the world and show up fully as themselves and push back against the things that they see as being unjust. And so whenever I perform songs, I'm always giving the context into why I wrote the piece and why it's important to me and trying to situate it within whatever is going on in the world.

And another part of that is making sure to Be on the bill with other artists who give a fuck about the world. Making sure that the, regardless of the genre, what is the politic of the other artists who are on this bill? Do we care about something bigger than ourselves? So I hear you that there is a coalitional community building aspect that folks can absolve themselves from.

If it's just about, oh, cool, I bought this record, it's really dope. But I do want to honor the work of that first version of showing up and then for us as artists, we create these social conditions where folks continue on in their journey or their eyes are opened a little bit more to be able to recognize what's wrong and that they have power to say something about it.

I've heard it said that every generation, we have our work, and the most important thing is to hold the line. And there's something that enables me to get up, to actually envision that there is a meaning and a reason for continuing to show up. 

Helga: What's a thing that you do every day that every person can do?

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: That I do every day. Every day I have some moment where I talk to myself where I just have a real conversation with myself and part of that is like, okay, what's going on with you? What is happening or why are you feeling this or why are you responding in this way? Like really sitting down and Talking like I would be talking to somebody else.

Out loud? Out loud. Okay. Yeah, I will talk to myself out loud. And I've definitely been caught talking to myself. Folks think I'm crazy. It's fine. But speaking it out actually does make it feel like I'm really working through this. And sometimes laughing with myself about, like, you know, you might see something ridiculous and really expressing that, oh, I'm telling a friend about a totally crazy thing that I just saw.

Let's laugh about it. Yeah. 

Helga: Is there anything you want to ask me? 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: How do you prepare for these conversations? I feel like you're so agile and, I admire so much folks who are able to follow a conversation and pull out the threads and see the bigger picture. There were so many times that you synthesized exactly what I was saying, but I didn't realize it.

So I'm just curious from your perspective, how you think about navigating these conversations. 

Helga: I tend not to listen to conversations people I'm going to speak with have had with other people. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Yeah. 

Helga: I don't want to know. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Yeah. 

Helga: The other thing is to have an active creative practice. So sometimes I think the assumption is that I get your name, and then I Google you, and then I listen to all your music.

And that that is actually a very linear process and experience that I think only leads to one kind of conversation. So I can only ask you to be as human. And as vulnerable as I am willing to be human and vulnerable, and that means I'm going to read. Like the other day, I didn't come out of my apartment.

I got stuck in my chair. And when I went out yesterday, I realized how small the world had gotten because I hadn't been anywhere. I didn't know anything that was not in my walls and already in my mind and in my experience. Yeah. So part of this work. Is actually going out and having many experiences and reading many books and making sure if there's a full moon, I know where it is.

Trying to figure out what that star is over there. Knowing that the cardinals are back and when I hear them sing, it's five o'clock in the morning. Hmm. But I also spend a lot of time alone because I need to think and I need to feel, and you can't always do that in the presence of other people. So that by the time I sit down with you, I'm coming with a well of experience that I believe we can share.

And that it's not about what records you've made, what your next gig is, what you're teaching this semester. People can go Google that. 

And the function and the word technology has been coming up a lot is to speak, to listen, to be silent, to rage, to cry. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Yeah. 

Helga: And to take those gifts. and bring them in, bring them together, and then take them out.

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Wow. I love what you're saying about being in and of the world. You know, it's been four years since 2020, but a lot of us are still figuring out how to be in and of the world again. So this is an important reminder of all that is at stake when we shut that out and all that's possible. 

Helga: That was my conversation with Enongo LumumbakKasongo.

I'm Helga Davis. Join me next week for my conversation with the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and novelist, Suzan-Lori Parks. 

Suzan-Lori Parks: Entertainment's nice and lovely, but it's like bread and circus back in the olden days where they just say, keep them entertained and we can pull a fast one, you know? Art is the stuff that moves people, that, that wakes people up to the love and there's a hunger for that.

Helga: To connect with the show, drop us a line at helga at wnyc. org. We'll send you a link to our show page with every episode of this and past seasons, and resources for all the artists, authors, and musicians who have come up in conversation. And if you want to support the show, please leave us a comment and rating on any of your favorite podcast platforms.

And now for the coda. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: It's been a few months since the last verse. Since I called you bad words, I went ahead and got my masters. I trimmed the last of my relaxers, so my fro big. Got some mo gigs. My cell phone says I'm roaming, cause I'm on tour. I want more. Forget home, so I go big. I was taking pills up in the bathroom.

Ended up alone in grad school. On Mario, I busted ass, but my prize is sitting in another castle. In a tight spot, trying to disappear. I would write songs for my friends to hear. I'm trying to keep my lights on. I'm a Nikon. Now it's crystal clear. Opportunity is at my doorstep. So I'm moving back up on the horse like it's the first time I ever wore specs.

I do my thing like life's a Rorschach. I see things nobody sees since my B stings turned to double D's. I'm conceding that my feelings is a mate. Now I'm loving me, I could give it up, but where's the fun in that? Gotta live it up or you will never laugh. Life's a box of chocolates with a lot of options.

Gotta keep it rocking like a rumble pack. The first letter of your first name makes your name emerge when I search things. And it hurts me, but I guarantee that without you, I'm a better me. And now I see the past with some clarity. Thank God I took my ass to some therapy.

I'll leave it there.

Helga: Enongo, thank you for bringing Sammus into the room. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Thank you so much for having her. She is grateful. 

Helga: As am I. I have the title for your next record. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: I'm ready. Please.

Helga: Okay, We're still on fire. 

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: We are still on fire. Mic drop. Alright.We are still on fire. 

Helga: Season six of HELGA is co-production of WNYC Studios and the Brown Arts Institute at Brown University. The show is produced by Alex Ambrose and David Norville, with help from Rachel Arewa, and recorded by Bill Sigmund at Digital Island Studios in New York.

Our technical director is Sapir Rosenblatt, and our executive producer is Elizabeth Nonemaker. Original music by Meshell Ndegeocello and Jason Moran. Avery Willis Hoffman is our executive producer at the Brown Arts Institute. Along with Producing Director, Jessica Wasilewski. WQXR's Chief Content Officer is Ed Yim.


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Produced by Alex Ambrose and David Norville