History & Geography: Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi Covers “The Source”


This past August, in a bit of a writing funk, I came across Lawrence Ware’s, “What The Source Taught Me.”  An homage to the magazine in its glory days as a hip-hop magazine edited by Black people, the article brought memories to the surface. Good memories, often buried underneath thirteen years of post -Katrina drama. Ware’s article reminded me of the now demolished and shuttered neighborhood grocery stores where I begged my grandmother to buy me the magazine or where I plotted on how to acquire the ones she wouldn’t. Like this classic issue pictured below.

I guess an argument can be made that I was too young for both Lil Kim and Foxy Brown’s debut albums in the eighth grade. But I can also say The Source deepened the discussion and walked me through the complex and fierce love I had for both Lil’Kim and Foxy Brown as a young girl. The Source, of course, was not without its problems including being sued for sexual harassment by former editor-in-chief, Kim Osorio. Even this part of its story is instructive to me still, as I navigate my own career.

Just as my Katrina feelings had reached their peak and were departing, I was invited to participate in the New Orleans to Nairobi Artivist Exchange by Noirlinians. Noirlinians is an AfroFashion blog exploring the complex relationship between culture, clothing & identity in the diaspora. Featuring Liberian artist and designer Denisio Truitt of DOPEciety and Kenyan poet and organizer MwendeFreeQuencyKatwiwa.  I had been working on an art project called Republica: Temple of Color and Sound focused on creating aesthetic representations of the Gulf South as free unincorporated territory within the borders of the United States circa 1811 and a successful slave revolt of the same year. So, I was very interested in the chance to work with an artist from the Continent.

Within a couple hours of meeting, Bankslave and I discovered we had a lot in common, including a mutual love of The Source magazine.  Thousands of miles apart we had both grown up fascinated by the cataloged thumbnails of graffiti artists present in every issue. The magazine took street art seriously, included, and made us fluent in a conversation we couldn’t have otherwise participated in from our respective locations, Kibera and New Orleans. We decided kind of without deciding that we would collaborate on creating a new rendition of a classic issue of The Source.

The question then was who would be its cover story?

Bankslave offered me the choice of an iconic figure from New Orleans. “I don’t want to disrespect anyone,” he said. I was struck by his automatic grasp of a concept that I have struggled to communicate to various people, who came to remake the city, as they saw it or in their own image, post-Katrina.

“Who would you put on there?” I asked him.

Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi emerged similarly to the decision to do a Source magazine, easily and without much belaboring. Kimathi along with Musa Mwariama led the Mau Mau, an armed struggle against colonial power in Kenya. The Mau Mau began as the Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), a militant Kikuyu, Embu and Meru army which sought to reclaim land, which the British settlers had gradually stripped away from them. As the group’s influence and membership widened it became a major threat to the colonial government. For me personally, Kimathi’s connection to Black American history (Malcolm X suggested in 1965, in his “Prospects for Freedom” speech that the Mau Mau were the solution in Mississippi and elsewhere to racist violence) and his aesthetic ( the free-form locs that came as a result of he and other Mau Mau fleeing into the country and living in caves while evading the British) made him the right person.

I write and think a lot about aesthetics. What are the thoughts and principles that cause us to present ourselves aesthetically the way we do? In Kimathi’s time, they were a visible declaration of the choice to live or die free. Kimathi was captured and executed in 1957.

While doing my best to be an assistant to Bankslave, who completed the large majority of this mural on a ladder in the sweltering heat, I tried to recognize when he needed to be alone with his countrymen. The amount of energy and precision of detail in this piece is truly awesome. I encourage everyone to go and see it in the back parking lot of StudioBe. Resident artist, Brandan “B-Mike” Odums says that artists who work with spraypaint as a medium are always trying to create this illusion of control, in which case, Bankslave is a sorcerer. He developed his technique, he says, through the improvisation of working with materials that weren’t always up to par.

Witnessing the completion of this mural as night fell was quite surreal. This visual representation fictitious world of Republica, where New Orleans gained its freedom from colonialism in 1811 had become tangible. It was cathartic but also bittersweet as it is also a memorial for a fallen comrade in an unknown grave.

The Noirlinians invited us all to do a photo shoot for their blog reflecting on the exchange for the fashion blog they co-produce. Noirlinians thinks about fashion and how clothes interact with their person and their politics. The morning of the shoot I was a mess of feelings. Considering what mistakes I might have made throughout the project and also anxious about doing its existence justice. Creating public art in temporary spaces in New Orleans is fraught with issues around ownership. For this reason, again, I think Kimathi and the Mau Mau are an appropriate cover story for our imagined magazine. Asserting the boundaries around your intellectual, artistic and individual freedom is a lifelong one, I came to accept while working on this project. How does actual resistance to colonialism and imperialism interact with our memory of it? With capitalism and the structures that harness all of our discourses of remembrance?

My eyes are a little puffy in the photographs from that day, my t-shirt and pants are both second hand. Both bought or given from those leaving town. I have a lot of objects like that, things I have inherited from people who have come and left and come again to New Orleans. My earrings are a gift from Mwende.  One of my favorite things about them is their similarity to another pair of mine that is Chata/Choctaw. Reminders that indigeneity is global. Look out for their post on the exchange to come.

My boots are original to me, in the sense that they are not previously owned. I love combat boots in all their forms. The ones I wore to memorialize Kimathi have a heel and mesh sides to help the foot breathe. They can be worn in all weather. It’s a lifestyle. It’s an aesthetic.