By: Pragith Saravanan
“King Kunta, everybody want to cut the legs off him
When you got the yams-(What’s the yams)
The yam is the power that be
You can smell it when I’m walkin’ down the street
(Oh yes, we can, oh yes, we can)”
King Kunta, To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar.
Road trips are the coveted rite of passage for any college student.
Five not-so-grown men, a full tank of fuel, an AC system that just did not work, and a bluetooth speaker. What could go wrong?
Evidently, nothing went wrong.
And on one fateful five hour road trip, I was introduced to King Kunta by Kendrick Lamar.
The groovy beat and the cadence were conducive to some light shoulder and foot movement, but the lyrics were quite literally, the cream of the crop.
The excerpt I used at the beginning of this article managed to snatch my attention and led me to do some sleuthing. My suspicions were confirmed.
A few days prior to leaving on the trip, I had just finished reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. The novel was still fresh in my memory, and I was able to weave in the lyrics of the song with the novel.
At that moment, I felt overwhelmed; it could not just be by accident that I stumbled upon a song that references a novel that went through my fingertips and eyesight a few days ago.
I did have a major main character moment right then.
Yams are starchy roots of the Dioscorea genus and are widely thought to have originated in Africa, and Asia. Over 600 varieties have been discovered, and 95% of them are still cultivated in Africa.
They are cylindrical in shape and have a rough brown exterior that contains a fleshy, edible tuber. Yams are primarily cooked by roasting, boiling or frying. Their long shelf lives are a boon to people that consume it as a staple in their diet.
Despite their obvious differences, yams and sweet potatoes are often considered to be one and the same. Nothing could be further from the truth – yams possess a characteristic that would put the sweet potato to intolerable shame.
Yams are a symbol.
In Western Africa, yams are venerated for their properties of sustenance and nutrition, and rightfully so. Food in any form is a blessing to the human race and any other carbon based life form.
As a mainstay in African cuisine, yams are sold in markets where they fetch a good price. Since there is an obvious correlation between the quantity of yams sold and the revenue it generates, an individual or organisation that sells more yams pockets more moolah.
The most obvious course of action would be to just… grow more yams?
Paupers would be kings and angels would be gods if the answer to that question was that simple. Contrary to popular belief, vegetable cultivation requires an extensive knowledge of weather patterns, planning, pest and disease control, and great physical strength.
It is for this reason that cultures such as the Igbo have come to view the cultivation of yams as an honourable venture. Over time, it has assumed the role of being a test to a man’s virility and gumption.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is a poignant fictional account that follows Okonkwo through his position in the Umuofia clan and his successful stints as a warrior and yam farmer.
It is believed that yams are a ‘manly’ crop as they require intense physical labour coupled with knowledge of farming. Okonkwo’s three wives and multiple children help him tend to the fields and cull any undesirable weeds or growth to ensure that the yams are of the highest possible quality.
Judging by how much labour that the crop requires to grow, it begs the question – have humans domesticated plants or have plants domesticated humans?
Fufu is a dish made from pounded yams. Historically, men have helped the women of the house to pound the fleshy roots until they turn into a semisolid paste that is consumed with bitter leaf soup or other dishes. Fufu also has a special status in several Nigerian cultures and is served in abundance to family and guests during important festivals.
Yams are also a strong reminder of the colonial struggle that exploited several people of African origin. Since Kendrick Lamar is a person of African origin, it is befitting for him to address the depths of prosperity and masculinity using cultural elements that are appropriate.
Perhaps, this could have also been an innuendo as to how the political climate in his country might be favourable for one set of people and unfavourable for another – yams do not grow in colder regions.
Yams are an important food crop and a symbol of prosperity. It is intriguing to note the association of a seemingly innocent vegetable with the value of a man and his coffers.
Through labour and struggle, yams are accrued. The same principle applies to money and honour. Kendrick Lamar has beautifully touched upon an important cultural symbol and the kind of value it entails.