It’s a Thursday morning. Swarthmore students are waking up, getting coffee from the Science Center, and yawning through their morning classes. In The Poetry Project, a research-based poetry class taught by English Professor Nathalie Anderson, students are sharing the poems they wrote for this week. Suddenly, it’s Nya Kuziwa ’22’s turn. She pulls out a guitar, clears her throat, and begins to croon a symphonic exploration of the science behind phonographs.
Nya is considering building a curriculum around Hip Hop, and this musical approach to literature is one of the many eclectic ways that shape her decision.
“I want to study Hip Hop as poetry,” Nya said. “I’m thinking of designing a major in Hip Hop. So, exploring the meanings and the epistemologies and the history around the artistic and cultural production. But I also want to pursue some future making music.”
At Swarthmore, Nya has a strong musical presence. In addition to singing, she plays the drums, guitar, and piano. A few weeks ago, she performed in the NPPR Tiny Desk Concert series.
“I got roped into it!” she exclaimed at the mention of her performance, laughing, then becoming more serious. “I felt very anxious about it because I didn’t have any new material. I wanted to be playing new music, but I didn’t have time to write. So, I gave myself basically just the week before the concert to write some new lyrics down and improvise some songs on the spot and then practice those a couple times. Then the concert itself was very long, like half an hour, because a lot of it was me messing around and improvising on the spot, and making a beat. There’s a lot of decision-making happening. It was very experiential. It’s not something that was an easy musical moment — there’s an aesthetic of ugliness.”
At my complaints at her self-deprecation, she clarified her meaning of “ugliness.”
“I like the music that I made because it’s an integration of different musical sources. There are parts where I sing off-key, or I try to add in a rhythm but I lose the beat, and all that is part of the human essence — being able to make entire soundscapes that are just coming from my head as a representation of myself. So I think that was the experiential aspect of it. The final result that I found was satisfying and enjoyable. And it took a while to get there. And it was just like me. It sounds like, ‘Listen, I just, I need you to come with me here ‘cuz you’re gonna watch me figure this out.’”
Nya has been figuring out music for over a decade.
“I started at an elementary school, taking lessons, through my public school in Waltham, Massachusetts. So I was learning how to play snare-drum on the dinky little practice set. I was learning how to play xylophone on the glockenspiel. And it was that for several years. And then in middle school, I was allowed to touch my school’s drum set. So that was when I started playing drums. I started playing jazz and started to transition to doing lessons more consistently and really taking it seriously. I did the band. And then it really changed when I went to high school I started playing with Boston Symphony Orchestra.”
After taking a year off of school to work, Nya was able to buy music equipment and software.
“I taught myself some production and recording techniques. And I started writing some songs that I made into a short EP, which I put out at the beginning of last year.”
Here at Swarthmore, Nya has continued to practice and learn on her own, unsatisfied with the classes available.
“The music offerings here are disappointing for someone who is interested in studying music beyond its aesthetic pleasure, because that is what music means to white people. That is not what music means.”
She suggests that this isn’t an isolated problem, pointing to Swarthmore’s focus on teaching a white-dominated canon of music.
“I don’t want to speak for musicians here, but there are many talented musicians here who have little to do with the music department because the music department’s goals are different from ours. There is barely any investment in Black art, except for our ethnomusicology Professor Lei Bryant. I don’t know what it would look like for the music department to support the musicians here, but it would mean taking some responsibility for the harmful aspects of their curriculum.”
This lack of institutional support has led Nya to an innovative, eclectic approach to studying Hip Hop. She has approached the subject from many disciplines — through taking the new Hip Hop dance class this semester, exploring writing, and delving into theatre and performance.
“Being theatrical and being charismatic is something that I project into my lyrics, like me analyzing how I perform.”
Nya’s interest in the research-based Poetry Project comes through in her lyrics as well.
“There’s one song that I wrote about colonialism in Africa. I made a lot of references to King Leopold and the Belgians in the Congo. And that’s what I like to do. I try to pursue writing lyrics that people have to do research to understand. That’s a goal that I pursue because I don’t like too much transparency.”
Her music similarly comes from a range of musical influences and traditions.
“My music-making process starts with the percussion because that’s what I had formal training [in] and the rhythm is what I feel. I have a difficult time perceiving melody, so my songs always start from a feeling about what the beat is going to be. The way I play piano is very percussive. And that’s because,” she laughed, “I don’t actually know how to play piano. So that’s inspired by my percussion background and also the classical music I listen to. I mostly listen to minimalist composers, like Philip Glass, which is basically just taking African polyrhythms and sounding them.”
“I think my two biggest influences are the books that I read, and the relationships that I’ve had. African folk music and vintage African music that I grew up on in my household. And then,” she concludes aptly, “my biggest influence is Hip Hop.”
Where does Nya want to go from here?
“I’ve finally started practicing drums again. All paths are open to me. It’s so hard deciding. You can see that indecision in the Tiny Desk show — this arpeggio or that one? This path or that path? What would sound right? Do I want to sound right? Or, should I embrace the chaos and serendipity of the unplanned? Anyway, all this is to say I’m trying to make more space for music in my life.”
“In the meantime,” Nya smiled, “I’m giving drum lessons if anyone is interested.”