Beloved reader, this tale starts and ends with two souls who somehow found themselves stranded on these shores. Their stories are snapshots of a city in transition, a city besieged by Brexit, a city which is simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. I’m your DJ selecta and I’ma spin this shit nicely for you. Pop your cooch to this mess (and if you ain’t got puss, work your booty. We all got one of those).
There was once a Somali sage called Kayd. This brother had silver afro-puffs, smoked pounds and pounds of puff, and kept to himself. He sought stillness and he engineered his life so that he could sit quietly and marvel at the minarets, museums and ruins located in his memory, which was rooted in ravishing Mogadishu, Somalia, even though his body was based in Peckham, South London.
Kayd lived across the hall from me, but in the first three years that we lived opposite each other I never once invited him over for tea or coffee or conversation. I was wary of him because he was too much like me: too gay, too Somali, too Muslim. Disassociation, fear and straight-up self-loathing often leads to base assessments into which one’s cynicism has seeped like oil through a bed of leaves.
I initially couldn’t see the value of this man. He was my mirror and I refused to acknowledge my reflection. And Kayd never sought my companionship, never asked for help even though I knew he didn’t have a support system. My father once said that, when the Somali civil war broke out in the nineties, it was as if the whole country and its citizens exhaled and collapsed into a decades-long psychosis that shows no sign of abating. So we circle the globe, settling in Minnesota and Mumbai and Mombasa, attempting to shake off our stigmatised shadows, failing to realise that a shadow cannot be shed.
I thought I was inured to this way of thinking until Kayd showed me that our bilateral interior warscape was in fact an heirloom.
‘I am not your saviour,’ said Kayd.
‘I didn’t say you were.’ I was standing outside his flat, holding out a box of Godiva chocolates.
‘Then what is this?’ he said, indicating the chocolates. ‘I am not your saviour and a box of rooty-tooty cioccolato ain’t going to change that fact. So what do you want?’
He gave me a look that said, ‘I know this negro did not just ask me for some goddam weed,’ before slamming the door in my face.
‘I’m not leaving this spot,’ I said, raising my voice. ‘What happened to neighbourliness?’
Kayd opened the door. ‘What’s my last name?’
‘Uh, is this a trick question?’ I said.
‘No, it’s a simple one. What’s my last name?’
‘C’mon,’ said Kayd, ‘you were the one blathering on about neighbourliness. So go on. If you’re such a good neighbour, then not only should you know my last name but the last names of my two cats.’
‘You have cats?’
‘Goodbye, Migil,’ said Kayd.
I shoved my foot in his doorway to prevent the door from closing. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘my dealer is out on a date and I could really use a likkle help over here. From one gay Somali brother to another.’
Kayd chuckled. ‘God, you’ve got cheek,’ he said. ‘Wake up and smell the shit-storm, kid. It ain’t cute to out a grown man who’s simply trying to mind his business for some fricking chamba. Where on earth did you get this entitlement from? Did nobody ever tell thee thou wast wrong once while you was growing up? Jeez.’
‘So are you going to hook a brother up or what?’
‘Give me those chocolates,’ he said. I handed them over. He inspected the box like a jeweller looking for defects on a diamond. ‘Wait here.’
He closed the door. I could hear a whole heap of clattering and cussing. After five long minutes, he opened it again slightly and held out three giant joints.
‘Listen, you will be tempted to blaze this shit up in one go. Do not do this. Pace yourself to get that nice fade. This shit is Turkish noise and it will fuck you up right into next Friday, and have you out here looking like a crack whore.’
‘Is it crack?’ I said.
‘Migil, don’t make me box you. Here, take this shit and don’t disturb my groove again. Comprende?’
‘Loud and clear, hombre,’ I said, taking the blunts. ‘Gracias.’
He grunted and closed the door.
Reader, ride with me as I take a small detour. What does success mean to you? Does it mean a bigger house, a sexy partner, some cute kids of your own, a criss car tossed into the gumbo for added spice? Does success mean more money, a crazy-bangable body or does it signify social clout? What does success – in all its modern iterations – mean to you?
For me, success is something as simple and banal as getting out of bed in the morning. Success is time spent away from the gadgets that act as an enchanted looking glass that shows all the harrowing ways mandem are breaking the planet into pieces with hate crimes, climate change denialism, anti-vaccination claptrap, nationalist nonsense and-and-and. All of this is my way of saying that success, for me at least, is peace of mind: the joy of sleeping right at night. This is where weed comes in.
I wanted to smoke myself into the next century.
Sensimilla was a sweetener to counteract the acridity of daily living, which, after Brexit, had the bitter taste of an era-defining anxiety dream. After Boris Johnson was elected I found it harder and harder to reconcile the black rage I felt with my unreality: the black rage and the black blues and black toil of my people, who had fought and died to live in a country that consistently spat in our faces by creating ways to make us feel less welcome, smaller, meaningless.
So I smoked and sexed my way to a semi-sane existence. After I had coaxed Kayd to share some of his Turkish ‘delights’ with me, I sparked up and spun some Verve remixes of Billie-and-Ella-and-Nina. Soon my arse was suitably skeed and skeezy. I whipped out my silent weapon: a fourteen-inch titanium vibrator that stretched me out and made me sing sonatas, much to the chagrin of my neighbours. I’m happy to report, dear reader, that ho-ism has cleared my skin and made me happier than a pig in muck. This is highness and heat as dawa for a mind in need of healing.
What about Kayd, you ask, dear reader? What became of him, you wonder, before I took you on this detour? Don’t worry. Kayd is probably doing the exact same thing I’m doing right now in his own apartment: getting blunted on reality and boning himself all the way to a small stroke. We’ll check on him in two ticks because this story is about to get weird and wonderful chop-chop. We’re about to bring Somali-style matharau to this motherfucker.
When I wasn’t working as the assistant editor of an online magazine or as the assistant manager of a clothes shop, I hosted a club night in Peckham called Anima Kingdom. I had felt so disheartened by the lack of spaces for femme black blokes that I created a place where once a month fabulous queens and their admirers could come together, drink, dance, snort substances, fuck and essentially be free for a few hours. There was no judgement at the Anima Kingdom and we all got loose and moved lighter than thistledown.
This was an opportunity for performativity and potent blacketty-black blackness. The club night became a haven for men both young and old who were coming into their own, flexing their femininity while paying homage to their respective cultures. So the Somali brothers wore dirac – sheer dresses embroidered with mermaids and honeysuckle – their hands adorned with henna filigrees, lips painted the colour of coral stones. The Nigerian bredrin came draped in gold and lace wedding gowns, and my Jamaican brothers rocked quadrille skirts accented with platform boots and bomb beads. It was pure cultural pluralism and everybody served it up straight, no chaser.
One night, whilst I was busy welcoming my guests, I saw a stunning older Somali man dressed in a guntino, toned arms shimmering with glitter, lips lined with gloss. He looked familiar.
‘Shit, Kayd?’ I said. ‘You look fantastic. What happened to you being a hermit?’
He laughed. ‘Even the most introverted puto needs to let his peen breathe sometimes. Besides, I heard you have a fantastic DJ and I came to show these young guns how the real OGs get down.’
‘Please let me know if you need anything.’
‘This ain’t my first rodeo, kid,’ he smiled.
After all the guests had gone inside the club, I began the proceedings by ripping the mic and announcing, ‘Brothers and sistas, brothers and sistas, let us bless this room. During this time of tremendous challenges facing our global community, let us revolt by dancing to our own riddims. Let us create joyful vibrations and flavour and bounce. DJ Afrodeesia, drop the beat so all these beauties can shake what the good lord gave them. Hit me.’
DJ Afrodeesia, a striking dreadlocked brother of Romanian and Nigerian descent, brought nothing but heat: Destiny’s Child singing syncopated songs to the drums of Tony Allen, FKA twigs cooing on a baile funk bassline, Oumou Sangare’s voice synced up to Snoop Dogg’s ‘Beautiful’, Cesária Évora’s gorgeous paeans over a Pharcyde flex. We danced and offered our dreams up to Ọlọrun, the Sky Father, as the night and our queer black bodies transfused into each other.
I was gyrating against a Jamaican stud, buzzing out of my brain, when Kayd interrupted our dance in order to take his place. I turned around and faced tall, mysterious Kayd as he grabbed my waist and ground his hips against mine. I reached for his buttocks and pulled him against me. He wasn’t wearing any underwear under his dress and his derrière had the firmness and substance of someone who drank milk and did yoga on a daily basis. I kissed him and his tongue tasted of smoke and strawberry bubblegum and he smelled of oud. I wanted to fuck him right there on the dance floor.
‘You’re a good kisser,’ he said, grinning. ‘Now I know why you’re such a heartbreaker.’
I laughed. ‘You’re not bad yourself. How about we grab some smoked ribs and a bottle of brandy after this night is over and enjoy ourselves back home?’
He chuckled and hugged me. ‘Beautiful Migil, where have you been all my life?’
‘Ten feet and two doors away.’
He laughed and we continued grinding as if the world was ours, as if the past few years of social anxiety and unrest meant nothing. We were here, two Somali men of different generations, singing the hymn of our shared heritage. There is nothing sexier, more sacrosanct, than black courtship. Reader, this is how our relationship took on new dimensions.
We returned to our block at dawn. Kayd took me by the hand and led me to his apartment. It smelled of mango mist and frankincense. It was the smell of comfort, the site of love, Somalinimo style.
The winter sky was smudged a pigeon-grey. We shut it out. Kayd lit candles as if he was ushering me into communion. Once the candles were lit, he pressed play on his iPod, which was plugged into a sound system, and out poured the molasses-sweet tone of Melody Gardot. Kayd walked towards me and carefully unwrapped his guntino. The dress fell to the floor and I marvelled at his magnificence. His body was toned, abs gleaming with sweat and cocoa butter, a silver navel ring glinting in the candlelight. He was smooth and silken, his dick long and gorgeous. The man’s body was godlike and I wanted to worship at his feet.
He kissed me on my forehead, my shoulders, my neck and my lips. He then turned me around, unzipped my dress and had me step out of it. He laid me down on the sofa. My stilettos sparkled like they were embossed with gold leaf. I tried to take them off but Kayd told me to keep them on. I was on my back. He sucked my nipples, slithered his tongue down my belly until he reached my groin. He blew me until my thighs trembled, until his mouth was glazed with silk thread. He didn’t spit.
By now his own dick was dribbling. He unwrapped a condom, rolled it down his rigid cock, lubricated both of us as we caught the most soul-satisfying strokes. He fucked and fucked and fucked me until our bodies were lustrous with sweat, until the room stank of sex and sticky-icky, until we both cried out to the creator. After we had simultaneously climaxed, we lay on the couch in silence, savouring the sixir we had just conjured. It was queer black love as medicine and soft magic, queer black vulnerability as grace and holistic humanism, queer black sex as sensory dynamism and divine ritual. We drank each other in and did it again and again until we were both brimming with pleasure, until we collapsed in each other’s arms and dove into dreamless sleep.
I woke up earlier than Kayd, who by the way, beloved reader, makes no sound whatsoever when he’s snoozing. Groggy and strung out, I got up and took a cursory glance at his living room. Beads and brocaded silk cluttered his desk, next to a neon-green Singer sewing machine, needles, rolls of thread and tubes of silk paint. Hanging above his desk was a mood-board with cut-out photos from fashion magazines like Dazed, Wonderland and i-D. Alongside these images were sketches of designs and patterns. Was Kayd a fashion designer? He had been my neighbour for three years and we didn’t know anything about each other, except that we were both gay, Somali, solitary and smoked a lot. I totted it up to the insane isolation of London living, whereby if life didn’t possess the texture of an endurance test, then it was as worthless as a pork pie at a Muslim picnic. I didn’t know what had made Kayd so hermitic. I didn’t know if he was suffering from mental ill-health like me, if he had any family. As I stared at him, sleeping naked on his tatty couch, looking incredibly fragile despite his firm musculature, I knew this man had been hurt so profoundly that his wounds would never fully heal. I got dressed, kissed him on the cheek, and quietly left his apartment.
I went for a walk in the freezing February afternoon to fight ghosts. Why was I doing this? Why was I hooking up with my neighbour, who was more than twice my age? Was this sudden romantic entanglement misplaced desire, a curative for loneliness, or a displacement activity with potentially damaging consequences for both me and for him? What was I hoping to gain from this?
A small voice in my head said, ‘It’s okay to want to be wanted.’
I tried to hold on to this commonsensical approach like a raft, but when your whole life has been a morass of self-doubt and destructive behaviour, it’s difficult to school yourself in how to be a halfway well-adjusted human. I was a mess, reader. The voice in my head came through once again and said, ‘Take it slowly. You don’t have to slit your wrists to see sense. Enjoy this moment because that’s all life is: a series of disjointed moments that may eventually coalesce into a semi-comprehensible whole.’
As I traipsed down Rye Lane trying to quell the riot within, I realised that all of this was transitory: the distress, the blueness of my imagination. It was all cyclical and my survival hinged on this understanding. I was unanchored right now, but there were shallows and ports as well as reefs and deeps. Dispiritedness and anxiety were not fertile soil for a new relationship to bloom in, but if I tended it with care and patience, then I would reap wonders. I popped into my favourite restaurant, Tupi, which served massive portions of Brazilian dishes. I went for dill infused salmon and poached eggs with hollandaise sauce along with sweet potato rosti with avocado and kale drizzled with chilli butter. I ordered to go and rushed back home.
When I got into my house, I put the food on a tray and shoved it in the oven to keep warm. I set the dining table whilst jamming to a soundtrack of sun-soaked funk. When that was done, I crossed to Kayd’s apartment and rang the buzzer. I heard him grunting and knocking things over before finally opening the door. His eyes were bloodshot and his mouth was smeared with dried drool, lip gloss and glitter.
‘I got lunch,’ I said, ‘so get your cute ass over to mine.’
‘What are you, some woodland sprite?’ he groaned. ‘How are you so energetic after the night we’ve had?’
‘Oh, trust me, honey, I’ve already had my mid-afternoon meltdown. See you in two?’
‘I stink of sex and sweat,’ he said, ‘I’ma need more than two minutes to scrub up.’
‘Just put on a dressing gown.’
‘Okay, let me brush at least.’
‘And bring some weed,’ I said.
‘Man, I thought you were using me for my dope body, not my dope.’
‘Can’t it be both?’ I smiled, kissing him. He tasted of me.
‘It’s a good thing you’re a great kisser.’
I laughed and went back to my house, leaving the door unlocked for him.
He came in ten minutes later and took in the décor: the butterfly magnets covering the fridge, the Disney and Star Wars mugs on the shelf, the bottles and bottles of perfume arranged on my dressing table, mementos from former lovers who no longer mattered. My apartment was a studio, much smaller than his two-bedroom digs. After surveying it, he said, ‘I like this place a lot. What’s that incense you’re burning? It smells wonderful.’
‘It’s called Badu’s Pussy,’ I smiled.
‘Her cooch is clearly popping. Shit, that smells good. Makes me want to wife you up right now.’
I laughed and told him to sit at the table as I removed the food from the oven and served it to him. As he ate, he moaned like he was having the most life-affirming orgasm. After we finished eating, he rolled us some sensi and we smoked in silence, two soul-brothers meditating on the strange journey that had brought us together, the spiritual properties of coitus, kindness and ice-cool symbiosis.
‘So you’re a club promoter,’ said Kayd.
‘Amongst other things. And you’re a fashion designer, I take it. Does it run in the family?’
He didn’t say anything for a second. ‘My mother was a tailor in Mogadishu. Her designs were sculptural, extreme but exquisitely crafted. She made her customers — all of them wealthy birds — look like Nefertiti.’ He blazed, then ground the joint out in the ashtray. ‘She died during the civil war. She was in our back garden, purifying herself for prayer, when she caught a stray bullet. She had raised us. She was an old woman when she was killed.’
‘Samir iyo imaan,’ I said quietly.
‘I was here in London, having sex with a stranger when my family called to tell me the news. I couldn’t travel to Somalia for the funeral because there were no flights to Mogadishu.’
He wiped his eyes, which were glittering with tears. ‘I make clothes in order to stay connected to her. She taught me everything about design. This life is cruel, kid.’
‘Is that why you keep to yourself?’ I asked.
‘Never allow yourself to be ravaged by grief.’
He got up to leave. I grabbed his hand, pulled him to me and gave him a warm hug.
‘Stay,’ I said.
‘I will only disappoint you.’
‘I will honour you if you meet me halfway,’ I said.
‘I can’t,’ he said, breaking the embrace, turning away and leaving my apartment.
I didn’t go after him.
Reader, there’s no compass to map a complicated man’s emotional terrain. I wanted to love up on Kayd but his pain was deeper than the Danube. I hadn’t lost a parent like he had. I hadn’t been disowned by my family due to my sexuality. In fact, my parents were loving and queerer than the late and legendary Pepper Labeija. I was privileged as a gay black bloke in a predominantly white, increasingly racist country because I was insulated from the harsh experiences faced by most folks of colour across the spectrum. My family was black and queer, my doctor was black and queer, my psychiatrist was black and queer, my local police officer was black and queer, my bosses were black and queer, my friends were black and queer. I was protected from the worst prejudices.
My longwinded point is I empathised with Kayd but I couldn’t imagine the ostracism and sorrow he felt. My parents, who were only slightly younger than him, and more directly connected to the times of the Civil War, could understand his anguish, but it was a foreign language to me. So I did what I was taught to do in moments where misperception threatened: I laid down my arms and tried to move like a conservationist tending to a wounded deer, which is to say, I tried to move with compassion.
Later that evening, I met up with my Aabo at John the Unicorn, a gay gastropub on Rye Lane. We ordered vodka on the rocks and chopped it up.
‘Aabo, I know your relationship with your parents was difficult, but do you ever feel guilty for icing them out?’
‘My father, your Awoowe, was a hardass,’ Aabo said, sipping his vodka. ‘When I came out to him, he dismissed me and I had to make a decision: stay tethered to a toxic situation out of filial duty or fuck off. I chose to fuck off for the sake of my sanity. I’ve told you this before but there’s a history of madness in my family, which is where your mental health woes stem from: that shizz is hereditary. But I don’t know anyone from our community who isn’t caught up in the quagmire of psychic damage. We dress it up, perfume that mierda, say our prayers, medicalise religion. But religion, like all medicine, offers only half the answers. The rest is down to exercise, emotional hygiene, decent diet and sleep, companionship, effort.’ My Aabo sighed. ‘These aren’t things that come naturally to everyone. It takes years and years of perseverance. How could it not? You can’t alter your entire psychological weather system without airing out some ugliness. My father, mother and siblings never had the tools that you have, and I didn’t have the strength to teach them to love me right. Instead, I directed all my energy towards you, your Hooyo, your Adeer, your Habo. I’m a postman. The pay is shit. The work is not stimulating but I’m successful. I have a loving, stable family life. When I go to bed at night, I sleep like a newborn. If everything else must go, then so be it. But peace? Pop that mambo straight into my veins.’
‘What I should do about Kayd?’ I asked.
‘You had a one-night stand with your neighbour. Maybe you shouldn’t put too much emphasis on this situationship. If shit becomes moreish and you want to explore it further, then climb that mountain when you get to it. But in the meantime, stop sweatin’ bullets. This Kayd character has baggage. How could he not? You don’t get to be a grown man without stacking up some painful memories. I’m proud of you, son. You’re opening yourself up to the possibility of love. That takes a lot of strength.’
‘Aabo, I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready for love,’ I said.
My Aabo sipped his vodka again. ‘Just because you’re not ready for love right now don’t make you emotionally stunted. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who’s more nurturing than you. Let me tell you something about love. When you meet your person, there’s no second guessing. You will find that love is easy, unlike everything we’ve been taught by the romance industrial complex. You will know when you meet your twin flame and I don’t think you should compromise until then.’
I knew that sadness swam through the eyes of the lonely, and that each failed relationship intensified one’s inability to love more openly. It was learned behaviour, and depression had dyed all my dreams a murky tint.
My Aabo and I left the bar at closing time and went for a walk around Peckham. The air was cold, but crisp and clear. We strolled down Rye Lane with its recent avalanche of expensive restaurants and bars. My Aabo and I were witnesses to a neighbourhood in transition, a neighbourhood that was once so proudly black African you had to double-check whether you had inadvertently travelled to the market squares of Kinshasa or Lagos, that was now a neighbourhood too expensive for even entry-level bankers to live in unless they had blagged social housing or a family hand-up. And yet gentrification meant that my entire world was now located in this district: my jobs, my social life, my family, my friends. I hadn’t travelled into Central London for almost six months because everything was now right here on my doorstep.
As we turned into Choumert Grove, the posters promoting my club night, Anima Kingdom, which featured my dolled-up face in high definition, were pasted on the walls. Some scallywag had taken a neon-pink spray can to my lips and graffitied the following on there:
‘This bitch knows how to bring the heat. I can’t take this ho!!!!!!!!!’
My Aabo and I burst into drunken giggles. We laughed and laughed and laughed. Afterwards, Aabo gave me a kiss on the forehead and said, ‘I’m proud of you.’
When I came home, I found a package sitting on the mat outside my door. It was wrapped in purple paper. I picked it up, went in and opened it greedily. Maybe it was a present from my Hooyo, who had hinted that she would bequeath her bloodstone necklace to me at some point. Maybe the moment had arrived – though surely she wouldn’t leave something of such value on the doorstep. Instead it was a box of Godiva chocolates, three giant joints and a small, perfumed card that read:
‘I will honour you by meeting you halfway. (By the way, don’t smoke the enclosed in a rush. You will feel like your sexy ass has skyrocketed to Mars).’
Reader, my heart did a pirouette. I grabbed my keys and headed for the door so I could go over to Kayd’s crib and lace him with some lip-smacking Sauce-N-Stroke. When I opened my door, he was standing there, smiling. I kissed him for what seemed like a thousand years.
Image by ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE