Listening to the Drum

From Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest, by Hanif Abdurraqib

Cover image of Go Ahead in the Rain

The thing about percussion, which remains true today as children still pound fists on lunch tables to stretch a simple beat into something greater, is that all it takes is a surface and rhythm—a closed fist or an open palm and something merciful enough to be trampled upon. Without drums, slaves would make beats on washboards, available furniture, even their own bodies, finding the hollow and forgiving spots with the most echo. They would stomp and holler. The voice, too, is its own type of percussion—particularly when it is used to rattle the sky on a hot day, when there is endless work resting at your feet. The work is also an instrument—the way the wood can be chopped is a percussion and the march to the work is a percussion and the weary chants, when laid close enough to one another, can be a percussion.

From “Book Power” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

     Books are meat and medicine
     and flame and flight and flower,
     steel, stitch, cloud and clout,
     and drumbeats on the air. 

Drum” by Langston Hughes

     Bear in mind
     That death is a drum
     Beating forever
     Till the last worms come
     To answer its call,
     Till the last stars fall,
     Until the last atom
     Is no atom at all,
     Until time is lost
     And there is no air
     And space itself
     Is nothing nowhere,
     Death is a drum,
     A signal drum,
     Calling life
     To come!

Langston Hughes

Marchers all over the world draw attention to insufferable violence: George Floyd . . . Elijah McClain . . . Brionna Taylor. . . . Feet stomp the pavement. Voices rap, knock, pound and break the silence. Bodies push against other bodies, making anger, outrage, and sorrow into a drum: Enough!  Enough!  Enough!

This month, A Space for Image centers on drums and images of drums. In Go Ahead in the Rain Abdurraqib recounts how enslaved people (denied access to drums by law) turned their bodies, their labor, and their lives into percussion instruments. The drum is first an instrument, a mode of communication, and then a drum is resistance: a refusal to be silent. The ability to drum and to make chaos into rhythm—something controlled, shaped, imagined—gives the weary a balm for weariness. And finally, Abdurraqib’s discussion shows that drums form community. Small voices and lived experiences placed side by side, shaped into a rhythm, and into percussion, evoke belonging: you are not alone. This is what we are together. Percussion transforms.

Brooks sees books—and thus language, story, poetry, the author’s voice—as drums. By reading, we turn our minds into drums. Or maybe reading, like writing, is a tool for producing percussion? For making music? That is, if music is chaos organized and reshaped to make pleasure, inspiration, or—you know—make us jump up to boogie or sing, sing, sing.

Hughes imagines the large, metaphysical ceaseless drum of death, which is not the drumming that most folks want to hear. What Hughes calls a “signal drum.” And a signal—a gesture, action, or sign to deliver information—now seems an especially apt image. Life too is a drummer, a percussionist, which Hughes also knew.

     Listen to it closely:
     Ain’t you heard
     something underneath
     like a—

The forces that made the drumming that Hughes heard in his time shape the drumming heard now. In “Dream Boogie,” Hughes knows, however, that some readers are not ready to hear it. The drumming frightens.

     Hey, pop!


Marchers everywhere chant, lift the drums of their voices, pound the air with the drumbeat of names—Floyd . . . McClain . . . Taylor . . .—each name a signal drum, a talking drum, and so too, the deep pain that gathers to fill our television screens, city halls, neighborhoods, streets. Together, what might have been only quiet voices has grown louder than the silence—voices raised not to make noise (uncontrolled, chaotic, indeterminate, babel) but percussion.