Black Odysseus: An Elegy

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth

A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.

Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

Nes Wordz : Photo Sharon Colbert

It was his smile that first struck me. I was biking home in July, 2016, hearing as I neared the garage my son’s band, New Thousand, practicing their synthesis of hip-hop, classical, and Mediterranean. A young man I didn’t know was coming out: African-American, tall, lanky with a beard, probably in his early thirties. “This is Nes Wordz,” my son Adrian called, introducing me as it turned out to perhaps one of the best hip-hop artists in Ohio. We shook hands; mine slightly sweaty from the long bike ride. But this didn’t matter to Nes.

He had a pharaonic majesty about him without the sneer of judgment, both conciliatory and welcoming. When he smiled, you felt the tensions and contortions of the universe give way, and then a breeze of exaltation.

Nes, it turned out, had come over to talk to Adrian and the others in the band, Max and Alex, about their upcoming performance in a hip-hop festival to be held that weekend in the Wineland Park area of Columbus.

To support them the following week I went down to hear the show, though I felt out of place in every way: race, class, and age. But it was Nes who, in a wordless way, made me feel welcome, lean against the telephone pole and take everything in.

They had set their “stage” in front of someone’s porch and in the twilight of that July evening they began: Adrian on electronic violin, Alex on electronic percussion and Max on synthesizer, Nes, in hip-hop style, improvised on everything.

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Photo Adrian Jusdanis

Thrown any word or phrase, without missing a beat, Nes could turn it into a rhyme. It was not only his linguistic virtuosity but also his presence that turned his shows into magnetic, mesmerizing spectacles.

Feeling rapt by the magic, I began to think about how I could bring Nes and his word-craft to the large lecture class I was about to teach at Ohio State, an introduction to classical literature. The improvisation of music and words I had witnessed that evening was Homeric, a street performance without previous planning. It had its roots in a time when art was part of life, not something detached and termed “art,” which you paid money to hear and see.

I considered asking Nes and New Thousand to compose an episode of the Odyssey for my class, to demonstrate how Homer might have functioned in his own society. Wondering if this was a crazy idea, I approached Nes who grinned and told me he loved it. He had enjoyed the Odyssey in school and remembered many details of the poem. As my wife said of Nes, he would put the “rap” back in the “rhapsode,” the Homeric performer.

The next weekend I invited Nes and his manager, Darrio, over for beer and pesto, which turned out to be one of Nes’s favorite meals, so that we could go over various scenarios. Nes wanted to rap about Polyphemus, the one-eyed creature Odysseus blinds in his cave. He seemed taken by the possibility of not simply reciting Homer in hip-hop rhythms — that would have been easy — but of reimaging the Greek bard, of setting him in the “hood,” in Columbus, of translating his language in Nes’s own idiom.

As we approached the day of the performance, Nes seemed maniacal in his determination, changed his approach, revised drafts, called often, stayed up late at night. He wanted to get it right.

When we met we often talked about the seeming incongruity of our collaboration. I was twice his age and we came from parts of the city that hardly communicated with each other. And then there was our race. “Can you believe it, Mr. Jusdanis, you working on Homer with a black rapper!” he once said over dinner. It was Homer and Nes’s heart that made our relationship possible.

On the day of the performance in October 2016 my fingers jittered as I introduced my class to our guest artists, before taking a seat among the students. The magic began. Nes rapped about Big O and the One-eyed P. “I'm a man, tryna reap the spoils of the land, with a big torch placed in my hand.” He made Odysseus into an arrogant “gangsta,” someone selfishly moving through the neighborhood for his own benefit, subjecting everyone around him to his own experience and domination. Nes had given a different slant on Odysseus from that we had taken in class.

In the ensuing discussion he told the students he hoped to rewrite the entire Odyssey and the take it to schools to bring the classics to the street, to unify the high and low, the abstract and the concrete, the black and white. He wanted to call this project “The Black Odyssey.”

When New Thousand migrated to New Orleans, their winter home, I met often with Nes to talk about the next episode: Odysseus’s journey to the land of the dead where he was reunited with his deceased mother and his fallen comrades from Troy. Nes would set this episode in a funeral home where Big O would pay his respects to a dead friend.

We discussed various possibilities the day I invited him over again to share with him some designer clothes my relatives had passed on to me from their own wardrobes. Since I could not wear everything myself, I wanted to share them with my two sons and friends. Sitting on the floor of our sunroom, I threw out to him Brioni shirts, pants by Armani, Versace jackets, and shoes by Salvatore Farragamo. Nes would take them and try them on and reappear with a big grin, as comfortable in Christian Dior as in street clothes. “You’ll be the best dressed middle-school teacher in Columbus,” I told him. What he really loved was a leather jacket by Hugo Boss which he wore going out into the cold night.

By early spring our meetings stopped, Nes becoming silent. There was another bag of clothes I wanted to show him and, of course, I wanted to talk about our project. With Adrian in New Orleans, I thought it was best to wait for Nes’s semester at the middle school to end.

The weeks passed. In May I went overseas to a conference and to conduct research. On June 28, 2017 out of the blue I asked Adrian if he had seen Nes in the meantime. And he told me that indeed he had a few days earlier at ComFest, an annual music festival in Columbus, which I had to miss because I was out of town. Just by coincidence Nes had the slot before New Thousand.

Adrian said that Nes was dressed in white, brought his oldest son on the stage, rapped about the difficulties of being black in America, and mentioned his many dead friends. People were dancing on the stage and hundreds on the ground. At one point Nes came forward and threw a stack of dollar bills onto the crowd.

In retrospect, I can only wonder. Did Zeus know? Did God know? Did the cruel fates know that this was going to be his last concert?

At the end of the show and before Adrian got on the stage Nes approached him and said: “I can explain everything.” It was a literary moment, a prelude to the next act. But it was not to come. That night Nes fell and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He died a few days later, roughly at the time that Adrian and I were talking about him.

I was in the office when Adrian called and told me to sit down. But I couldn’t. I remember hearing his words but not being able to comprehend them, my mind preferring to think about the sharp pain in my right thigh. That was graspable. Nes’s death was not.

It was not difficult to love Nes, his incomparable smile, his capacity to turn breath into song, and his courage to wear his heart like a Hugo Boss jacket for all to see. As the seventeenth-century poet, Abraham Cowley said about his dead friend, William Hervey, “Large was his soul, as large a soul as e’er/ Submitted to inform a body here.”

When I finally raised my head from my desk, I thought about the books around me that dealt with the dead friend. In the ancient Sumerian epic Gilgamesh asked “What now is this sleep that has seized you?/ Come back to me! You hear me not.” And David in the Hebrew Bible wailed, “I am distressed for thee my brother Jonathan.” John Dryden perhaps captured best my feelings: “Once more, hail and farewell, farewell thou young, / But ah too short, Marcellus of our Tongue.” Nes was like Marcellus, a talented, future Caesar who died without fulfilling his promise.

I sought solace in Tennyson who wrote of his friend, Arthur Hallam:

For I am but an earthly Muse

And owning but a little art

To lull with song an aching heart,

And render human love his due.

In times of grief I have often said to myself that love conquers death. But in the case of Nes, poetry also overcomes life’s passing. Throughout history poetry has attempted to make sense of death by rendering the friend immortal through song. Achilles and Patroclus live forever in Homer’s enchanting verses.

Sometime in the winter Nes sent me a copy of the “Black Odyssey.” I include it here so that it can continue, a first draft, subject to revision.

The Black Odyssey

I'm a man, tryna reap the spoils of the land, with a big torch placed in my hand, I could light up the whole block ya understand, so hot I could make glass from the sand, I'm big O you ain't know who I am, we'll get familiar cuz I'm bout to go in....

From a fight I never ran, I fought many battles and I didn't lose a hand, hopped out the Trojan horse and guns went blam, flawless victory, I'll make you a memory, I'm a king so I know they envy me? Hop out my chariot, all black tints so you haters can't stare in it, tryna get back to my queen that I married got son that I cherish it's crazy I could have anything I want staying at the Marriott, roaming Zeus green earth, tryna get back to my native dirt, but I really can't cuz I know I'm cursed, but I won't never stop now, ima keep trying till my lights out, cuz I got a family that miss me and I fly house, it all started when I put that sucka P's eye out, called his pops up on his celly to tell him bout it , thought he was tough but all in the end he started pouting, should've heard the way he his screams when I did it, he was crying and shouting, asking me what name is, like I was a lame kid, if I didn't do that I could've got away with it, funny how these things happen, who would've thought I'd let somebody get that beat of catch me slippin.

Let me tell you about P from up the street his pops a old school gangsta he be running wit g's, he be holding down the block counting all of the cheese, everybody who cross his path say he is mean, while me and my men we grinding hard, trying to eat, I got a plan to go and get him tie em up for his cream, it's survival, I don't really look at him at as rival, better for him to get it than to do somebody I know, we go in his palace take what we can manage, no more than we can handle, from the jewelry to the chalice, we make our way into the crib, nobody was in, so we took everything that we seen and raided the fridge, time passed, I forgot where I'm at, I'm just chilling in this big house like it's my pad, heard the latch on the door, keys jingle, it's about to go down, gave the signal to my people.

He came in quick, big dude at least 6'6", when he seen us, he was eager to scrap with his fist, didnt flinch put my homies head in the wall, he was putting ppl down left and right with no prob, it was amazing, I couldn't just run in guns blazing, and I wasn't gonna go out with the white flag waving, we should've been in and out to count up at the days inn, but instead we partied in another persons haven, just let me think, what do I do I can't blink, I'm caught red handed my futures looking bleek, everybody round me getting bodied, while I was in hiding I spotted me a shotty, grabbed it up checked it for shells making sure I got a shot, got one, came from round the wall, aimed at his top, caught him in the eye now he blind and he's on the ground, screaming out "who shot me in my eye" I'ma get you clown, I told that my name was no man, he vowed revenge, even if wasn't until he was old man, time to run, dropped the gun, gather up my duns, feeling like a dunce but happy that air still in my lungs, turned around I left and said loudly, my name big O, I'm a king and I say it proudly, he laughed hard and said you made a big mistakes, my father won't be happy to hear what happened today, I hope he find you and kill you he's as powerful as gates, more richer than Buffett, more gangster than frank, better watch ya back and better watch ya place, cuz what you done today it prolly sealed your fate, I look and reply wit a grin that I can't wait, but what he said was real and more problems awaits.

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