TUMI THE BE: The Realest
Tumi the Be is a spoken word poet, rapper, and music maker hailing from Melbourne, Victoria. Born and raised in Botswana, before travelling the globe with his mother and brother to settle in Australia, Tumi found the need to create music that reflected his own experience of life as a middle-class kid living in the suburbs of Melbourne.
Tumi creates music solo and with his partner Gabriela Georges, who shares his love of beats, storytelling and creating music that is true to you.
THE PIN. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood?
TUMI THE BE. I’m from Botswana, where I spent the first twenty years of my life before moving to Cape Town, South Africa and then Australia.
My mother was born in South Africa and my father was born in Botswana. They were highschool sweethearts and were on again-off again, before moving to the UK to study and later marrying. My parents divorced when I was eight years-old and my mother moved to Australia.
What characteristics of Australian culture stood out to you when you first arrived?
T. I think the biggest one for me was politeness, that’s not the exact word though, so I’ll give a longer explanation. Where I’m from, people say what is on their mind, which can either be good or bad. It’s very much each to their own too, that’s not to say you don’t meet kind people, but people aren’t going to be kind to you just for the sake of it.
When I first moved here, I noticed being nice is the default. Being civil and overtly helpful. You can have random strangers, of any age, or creed, try and help you. It happens back at home, but it’s not quite the same, it’s hard to explain.
Do you think being in Australia for six years has influenced your views of your own culture?
T. Yeah, 100%. I think it’s made me appreciate my culture more, and the importance of family in my culture. I’m from a family where you know my aunty and my aunties aunty. Your second and third cousins are like your brothers and your sisters. It’s very different in Australia.
How old were you when you became aware of race and can you remember what led to that realisation?
T. I think I would have been about six or maybe eight years-old. It was the independence of South Africa. I started seeing all this stuff on the news and couldn’t understand all of the turmoil and new footage about conflict in South Africa. My mum explained it to me, and that was when I began to understand what race was. It wasn’t until I turned 17 though, and was watching a sitcom where someone was saying something to their mum that I knew I wouldn’t be able to say to my mum, where I gained more of an awareness of culture.
Race is race, but culture is probably the realest thing.
Do you think your understanding of race and culture has changed as you’ve come to know your partner, Gabriela [Gaby], who is Syrian-Australian?
T. I have friends who are from Lebanon and Syria and have realised there are so many similarities between my culture and Arabic culture in general. People would be telling stories about stuff that happened to them as kids involving their parents and it was so similar to how my mum would’ve reacted. So when I met Gabriela I saw more of those similarities.
Of course there were things we had to learn about each other as well though, the things that mattered to her in a big way. Those things that matter are because of how she grew up. A lot of the things that matter to me are because of how I grew up too.
Do you see race in your relationship?
T. We joke about it, but we don’t see it, it’s our common interests that count. I think race has taken a back seat in our relationship. It’s interesting though, because I had never ever dated a woman who wasn’t African before I dated Gabriele. It wasn’t because I was avoiding it, it’s just I had my preferences. But we just clicked.
When we joke about it, it’ll often be about something someone has said.
As a rap artist, do you put your own identity into your music?
T. These days, I bring a lot of my own identity. It’s something I actively try to do. I try to make sure that more and more of what I say is exactly how I feel and think. The more I do it, the more I’ve been able to tell my own story and express myself.
Do you have any heroes or role models who helped in the establishment of your own identity?
T. I’m always going to say Kendrick Lamar because he’s the reason I didn’t quit rapping. At the very beginning it was probably Xzibit, Dr Dre and Talib Kweli. The only thing is, after listening to their music for a while, and really digesting it I realised they come from a place I couldn’t relate to. Which was one of the reasons I started rapping myself, because I could never find anything I could hear myself in. I grew up middle-class. I couldn’t feel the story, I could hear the music, but I couldn’t feel it.
What are some misconceptions made about you and do you ever use these to your advantage?
T. I think the biggest misconception is about my level of education. My favourite is about my age. Because black don’t crack! Another is whether I am straight or not because I’m very in touch with my feminine side.
Do I use them to my advantage? Black don’t crack, yes! That’s a lifetime pass. I think as far as my education goes, people makes misconceptions - specifically in Australia, about my level of education and based on what they have seen in the media maybe. I use that to my advantage because I find the less you say, the more you learn, the better off you are.
Do you think the term multiculturalism is applicable to Australia today?
T. No. As long as there are people within a place who feel as though they are excluded, or that they need to create smaller communities within the larger community because they feel the need to exclude themselves, you cannot claim multiculturalism. The reason I say that is because if you were from the United States and were third generation, you’d be classed as African-American. In Australia you’re probably going to be called a refugee.
I think you can only use the term multicultural when the cultures start to mix and a new one emerges.
Do you think a person can belong to more than one culture?
T. I think it can be very difficult. By belonging to two cultures they are almost a part of a third culture. Being part of two cultures, you take ideas from each one and, if you’re a smart person, you use the ones that work for you. From that a new culture emerges, a culture that is separate to the two it came from….
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
T. I would not give myself any advice whatsoever. You don’t want to hear that [laughs] but I actually wouldn’t. Let nature run it’s course.
On no, actually [laughs]...actually. There is this one girl I would’ve told myself not to date. That’s the one thing. AND….AND to not have slept before my psychology exam, because I woke up late and that was a bad idea.
- This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo credit: Lucie Cutting