"Two Young Black Boys Playing Tennis" | Tiyé and Azikiwea
by Lali Pizarro (Interview by Lindsey Norward)
Tiyé and Azikiwea are first to be featured in Transcension, Voices’ ongoing Culture series embarking on a journey to witness and amplify the voices of Swarthmore’s most inspired creators.
Tiyé Pulley ‘19 and Azikiwea Green ‘18 are two of Swarthmore’s most passionate musicians. Perhaps you’ve had the pleasure of watching them perform live at Olde Club or on Freestyle Fridays in Parrish 4th at WSRN, listened to their work on SoundCloud, or even just recognized them around campus in the light of day. But have you listened to their stories? Do you know how they came into music and why it sustains them? Have you heard their thoughts on why music is important and how it can be powerful, restorative, and even a form of self-care and self-definition? Listen to the voices of the artists you know and love as they tell you who they are, where they come from, and outline how and why making music matters to them.
Azikiwea Green began making music when he was eleven years old, inspired by his father, who played the bass. He initially played mostly reggae, and then later got into jazz and RnB. Following this, he began making beats. Since his freshmen year at Swarthmore, he’s been making beats on his computer and has since been producing more and more Hip-Hop music. Though he enjoys playing music, his true passion is creating his own, he says.
Tiyé Pulley makes music here at Swarthmore and also records with a band back home in New Jersey. If you ask him, he will tell you that he “[doesn’t] really have any music background.” His introduction to the world of music was less formal, but by no means less valuable than Green’s. It began in high school, when he took much interest in writing and listening to rap.
“I would just be on my phone in class or in the bathroom writing little rhymes,” he says of his high school experience. He continues, “And then once I got [to Swarthmore] I realized there was gonna be like this kinda community here who all were down with hip-hop and were down with rap and producing and all that stuff. So I think all the people here really, really just push me to be better.”
Azikiwea and Tiyé began collaborating and thus, pushing each other to be better, this summer. Their decision to work together seemed to happen quite naturally.
Tiyé says, “Over the summer, we were just in the same house for a lil while, I was just like, ‘yo you got beats?’ and [Azikiwea] was like, ‘As a matter of fact, I got beats.’”
The rest is history. Azikiwea played back his beats, as Tiyé wrote hooks and rhymes.
The two value their artistic relationship for a number of reasons. Azikiwea describes it as a “support system.” He says, “I am sometimes hesitant about the way my beats sound. And so hearing other people like them is always super important. So that’s why what we were able to do, bouncing ideas back and forth off each other, was good. Cus also it gets rid of some bad ideas, too.” The two laugh as they illustrate times they’ve had to intervene and influence one another’s music for the better, telling one another “Naw, that’s not hard,” or “That was weak.” Just from speaking to them and witnessing their rapport and the passion with which each discusses their musical collaboration, one can tell that, in Tiyé’s words, they really “push each other to be better.”
It is not difficult to tell how passionate they are about the restorative and healing power of music, particularly as it manifests itself for self-care purposes. All one must do is ask them what they write, how they write, and why.
“I’m just really writing about life. Cus there’s nothing else I’m really qualified to write about,” Tiyé says, matter-of-factly. To him, this sometimes means being truthful about pain. He explains that in his song, “There You Go,” he writes about the pain and hardship of losing a friend and a partner at the same time. Tiyé recognizes rap as one of the most powerful, vulnerable, and truthful ways to write about pain in life. There is something unprecedented and unique about the way rap can tell a story, as it can convey pain in a joyous manner. Tiyé explains, “The thing about rap is you can, talk about something that’s really painful and it can just be like, hard. Like people are just gonna wanna turn up to that.”
Another song of Tiyé and Azikiwea’s, “Live Life,” is about trying to survive and thrive in a toxic environment wherein people all around are “taking L’s.” This is a particularly salient message in the Swarthmore Community. Tiyé stresses the need for people, particularly people of color, in our community to practice self-care in the face of the our constant struggle to reclaim space and have voices here. He says powerfully, “I think a lot of black people don’t know how to take care of themselves...We don’t know how to take—especially in a place like here, we don’t know how to take care of ourselves. Cus who’s gonna take care of us here? We don’t have anyone, you know? You know, I’m a young black guy trying to pursue higher education, but a lot of us don’t make it to graduation. A lot of us do not make it, period. So you see people drowning, right? And it’s like… ‘I’m just trying to swim’ [lyrics to “Live Life”].”
Tiyé’s lyrics speak to the experiences of people of color and low-income students at Swarthmore, whose struggles are largely different from those of more privileged wealthy white students or legacy students. He says, “For a lot of us who are here, there’s no big precedent for our existence in a space like this. For example, there are people here who, their whole families have gone here, or generations have gone here. Or like, you know, their parents went to Brown, or Stanford, or whatever...And there’s this legacy that’s inherited, so there’s an understanding that this has been done before. It’ll be done again. So there’s a comfort and self-assuredness that even if you really mess up...It’s gonna be fine. Because it was fine for your pops, who did the exact same thing and now is like a businessman...Whereas, my parents went to college but it was a very different thing. So the expectation for me to come to college is like you’re gonna get to college and get your degree because you have to, and there’s no other option. That’s it...We were gonna go to college because we had to. Because there was no other option for us to succeed.”
Tiyé also speaks to the fact that these differences in experiences and struggles can lead to feelings of self-doubt and displacement. Because of this, as people of color, we have to create and reclaim space for ourselves. Tiyé does this by taking classes with black professors, and other people who “get it.” He says of his course of study here, “That world of the art department…it feels like it’s not something that I’m supposed to have access to.” These feelings of not belonging lead to a neglect of self-care and, according to Tiyé, an inability to “feel at peace here [at Swarthmore].”
On the topic of self-care, Azikiwea proposes that though self-care is important, a healthy way to conceptualize care is through a framework of what he calls “community care.” He remarks, “You can’t expect people to care about themselves if they don’t feel cared about generally...If you don’t feel like you have friends, and if you don’t feel like you have anybody who cares about you, then how are you gonna feel like you belong? How are you then gonna value your own well-being?” The key to this, he says, is maintaining an honest, intimate, and close community of friends. The spirit of support, care, and mutual trust that Tiyé and Azikiwea’s musical collaboration embodies seems to speak to directly to Azikiwea’s emphasis on the importance of community care.
Both Tiyé and Azikiwea agree that in order to produce music that touches people and connects people with one another, one must write honestly and specifically about their life experiences. When discussing this, Azikiwea interjects, “One of the [songs] I really like is “The Tennis Song, because [Tiyé] said ‘I’m a black boy playing tennis, hoo ha!’ There are a lot of lines in that song.”
“The Tennis Song” lyrics were written by Tiyé while Azikiwea was in the room, an experience that is near and dear to both of them. One can tell that this piece of music is particularly special to both of them, as they both begin buzzing with excitement and passion as Azikiwea explains the song’s significance. Azikiwea says of the song, “It’s about assimilation.” Tiyé references a bar in the song that goes, “Remember the first time that you gave me a pout, puckered up them lips, and then asked me about clout.” The two agree that this bar alludes to the racial microaggressions to which people of color are so accustomed. The song continues, “Tired of being treated just like your pet, show me off to your friends, look at his braids and touch them.”
Azikiwea feels very personally connected to “The Tennis Song,” because of his experiences playing tennis growing up. He explains, “I was the only black kid in basically the whole league. It was like me and this other kid in the whole New Hampshire tennis league. And so that image of being the only black boy playing tennis or being the black boy playing tennis, both literally touches me, but also it’s like symbolic of like n*ggas out here not trying to be white, but having to be.” Tiyé interjects, agreeing that “The Tennis Song” is about being “forced into these white spaces. And you have to excel in those places.”
Azikiwea feels connected to songs that include “the narrative of the black male trying to get an education at a white school. It’s not really a narrative that’s talked about. But that’s why I like Tiyé’s music a lot of times, too, is cus I can relate to a lot of the things he says because we’re in the same position.”
Music empowers both Tiyé and Azikiwea, and gives them a sense of self. At the same time as it’s rewarding, bearing one’s soul can be quite risky and daunting. When asked whether musical collaboration is a form of “self-preservation,” Tiyé quickly counters with a description of the process of making music and connecting with others (particularly Azikiwea) through that creative process as “self-definition.” Azikiwea agrees, adding the term “self-expression” to the discussion. He says, “I made this. Music is crazy. This is more for beats, but it’s like ‘I made this out of nothing.’ This is all me that you’re listening to. And that’s why that shit’s scary as fuck. Cus what this person’s listening to is all your choice. So literally your identity lives within this thing.”
Who is Tiyé and Azikiwea’s music for? Do they do perform for an intended audience? Merely for self-fulfillment? Perhaps for their families? Perhaps for each other? The answer is complex.
Tiyé explains, “I don’t really know who I’m making music for. Because at the end of the day, the more selfish you are with your art, the better it is and the more people will connect with it. Cus you gotta reflect inwards to reflect outwards. I’m not making it for other people. I’m making it for me, but I know that the more that I make it about me, the more that it’s gonna connect with other people.”
Evidently, music, identity, and self are largely tied to one another for both Azikiwea and Tiyé. Tiyé expresses the salience of these ties with the sentiment, “That’s what makes music so beautiful: it allows for the fluidity of identity.”
photography by Min Cheng