Jason Diakité grew up between worlds—part Swedish, American, black, white, Cherokee, Slovakian, and German, riding a delicate cultural and racial divide. It was a no-man’s-land that left him in constant search of self. Even after his hip-hop career took off, Jason fought to unify a complex system of family roots that branched across continents, ethnicities, classes, colours, and eras to find a sense of belonging.
In A Drop of Midnight: A Memoir, Jason draws on conversations with his parents and friends, personal experiences, long-lost letters, and pilgrimages to South Carolina and New York to paint a vivid picture of race, discrimination, family, and ambition. His ancestors’ origins as slaves in the antebellum South, his parents’ struggles as an interracial couple, and his own world-expanding connection to hip-hop helped him fashion a strong black identity in Sweden.
“Have I ever told you about the time I got arrested in South Carolina?” Dad asks out of the blue.
We’re sitting at a café in the middle of the Caroli City shopping center in Malmö in January 2015, and grit on the tiled floor rasps and crunches under the shoppers’ winter boots. Dad’s eyes sweep over the stream of people. So far, we have neither received the coffee we ordered nor managed to hit that nerve that stimulates a deep conversation between father and son.
I haven’t said anything more about my desire to travel to South Carolina and dig into our family history. And he hasn’t brought it up either; instead, we’re chewing on pleasantries and exchanging tidbits of information about our everyday lives.
He asks me how my car is running. Annoyed, I reply that it’s running fine. I ask how his back is doing; he says it’s fine. So, how’s work? Oh, things are fine for both of us, thanks. My head is full of thoughts about the funk I’ve fallen into. Why doesn’t he ask how my marriage is? He knows I’m in the midst of a crisis. Shit, shouldn’t Dad be more interested in the important parts of his son’s life, not just how his car is running?
This stiff, hesitant conversation is the last thing I want. Why can’t I have a deeper talk with him? Dammit, why am I always so harsh and impatient with him? Why can’t I stop being dismissive of him as soon as the conversation isn’t on my own terms? My conscience is chafing at me. Do I look down Jason Timbuktu Diakité on him? Or does he just think I do? Why can’t I reply cheerfully to his ordinary questions, share details, without immediately going to DEFCON 3?
He’s all bundled up. He always is. His blue winter coat looks two sizes too big; if it weren’t, he wouldn’t be able to button it over his stomach. Surrounded by his bulky blue woolen beanie and the large coat, his face looks so small that you might think he’s twenty years younger than he is. With his scarf still wound tightly around his neck, he continues to tell me about his memory from the South.
The waitress is balancing two very full mugs of coffee, which she cautiously sets before us.
“You know I was with a woman named Betty, right?” Dad asks as I try to take a sip of the hot coffee. “That was before your mom, Jason.”
“Yes, I know,” I respond without bothering to hide my irritation.
As soon as our conversations touch on his earlier marriage or relationships, I turn into a mama’s boy and judge him extra hard.
“Anyway, Betty had three kids. I was only twenty-four, and my mother and grandmother didn’t think she was anything worth betting on. But she was a good person. Very poor. Very black and very friendly. I lived in the heart of Harlem in New York. Betty was from the Harlem no one had ever heard of, in Georgia, a place lots of black people fled from in search of a better life. The name was the same, but there were worlds of difference between them. Her Harlem was a place to escape from; my Harlem was a place people escaped to. I knew I would never be able to live in Harlem, Georgia. No chance I would settle in the South. Voluntarily submit to the deadly racism that lived on there? No way. I’d had enough of the South after my military service in Georgia, Texas, and Kentucky.”
Dad looks me straight in the eye and won’t drop his gaze until I show him, with slow nods, that I am giving him my full attention.
“But I kept seeing her anyway.”
Dad folds his hands over his stomach, leans back, and goes on with a dreamy gaze and a small smile that suggests he must have really liked Betty, no matter where she lived.“Betty was good, she had to live a pretty boring life because she had three kids, and a routine was just what I needed. She made sure that food was on the table at the same time every day. The food part was important, you know. Anyone who gives you food is also giving you love. By the way . . . does your wife cook for you?”
“For the thousandth time, Dad, that attitude is so antiquated I can’t even handle it.”
Dad nods in concern.
“Just keep telling your story,” I say in an impatient tone that’s almost exclusively reserved for my father.
A tone I suspect says a lot about my opinions on his choice of topic and likely leaves tiny scars inside both him and me. Papercuts on our souls. But I can’t stop myself.
“After a while, Betty had to move home to the South. She’d already left, and I had promised to drive a few boxes down to her. You have to understand, son, that this was 1965, the height of the civil rights movement. Black Panthers, Martin Luther King. The year Malcolm X was shot. Did I ever tell you your aunt and your cousins were at the Audubon Ballroom when Malcolm was shot by Elijah Muhammad’s henchmen? Sai and Bibi were probably too little to remember, but your aunt Chinyelu remembers. Her husband at the time, John Farris, was one of Malcolm’s bodyguards. It was a terrible time. Black heroes were being murdered. Kennedy had been assassinated too, and the police and the Ku Klux Klan were terrorizing black people all over the country. I felt so fucking resigned after Malcolm was killed. I tried to drive uptown to Washington Heights to rescue your aunt from the chaos. But it was impossible to get through the traffic. It was late, late at night before I got hold of Chinyelu. She couldn’t believe it—that Malcolm X had been murdered. She was heartbroken and shaken. She’d been sitting there with Sai and Bibi, and she still hadn’t recovered from the shock of what might have happened to her children if the killers had aimed their weapons at the audience.”
“What? Why didn’t you ever tell me this?” I ask.
“You were always in such a hurry,” he responds with a crooked smile. “If you’d taken the time to listen to me, I would have told you.”
JASON “TIMBUKTU” DIAKITÉ is one of Sweden’s most well-known hiphop artists. Born in Lund to American parents – an African- American father and a white mother —he has released eight solo albums and numerous singles, the majority of which have reached gold or platinum status. His accolades include eight Swedish Grammy awards and four P3 Guld (Swedish radio) awards. He has performed all over the world, from Africa to Svalbard, from the Apollo in New York City to the Roxy in Los Angeles and at the Polar Music Prize and Nobel Peace Prize award ceremonies.
Jason is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir A Drop of Midnight, which has sold more than 100,000 copies in Sweden and has been adapted into a stage performance premiering in March 2020 at Harlem Stage.
RACHEL WILLSON-BROYLES is a freelance translator based in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She received her BA from Gustavus Adolphus College and her PhD from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her other translations include Malin Persson Giolito’s novel Quicksand; Jonas Jonasson’s novels The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden and The Accidental Further Adventures of the Hundred-Year-Old Man; and Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s novels Montecore and Everything I Don’t Remember, as well as Khemiri’s stage plays Invasion! and I Call My Brothers.