In the stories I read of Liongo, he was portrayed as a scoundrel; a bully arrogant and rude blessed with strength and near invulnerability, a thorn in his people’s side. In many ways, he deserved to be defeated by the copper needle. He had it coming…
That was my first impression when I started creating this project. As I was reading through the initial research sent, the story of Liongo kept speaking to me. I couldn’t avoid it. He kept creeping into my thoughts, singing the song he sang to his mother so that he could be liberated from captivity. He begged… Nay… Demanded that his story be told.
Well, I capitulated and allowed him to tell me his tale… So, he did. And, when he was finished, I could only think of one thing:
Liongo was a jerk.
A character like that is not a hero. A character like that is no role model for children much less adults. A character like that does not inspire others to be better than they are.
But, Liongo wanted to be a hero. I wanted him to be a hero. The world needs more heroes, especially in these interesting times we live in.
The mythology of Africa is deep and rich. It is as complex and diverse as the cultures that make up the continent. As a creator, it is a world of untapped depths and precious jewels that have yet to be discovered. Those creators, those storytellers that limit themselves in the exploration of these stories do themselves a great disservice.
In my creation, The Horsemen, I delved into the myths and legends of the western part of the African continent; in particular, the mythology of the Orishas from the Yoruba culture in Nigeria, aspects of which survived the slave trade and combined with Christianity to create religions like Santeria and Candomble. I took these myths as the source material to craft my fictional world, my New Mythology that would speak to a modern world using an ancient voice. I brought my West African sensibilities to the realm of superheroes, enriching the mythology created by the European immigrants of these United States, giving this American mythology a little more soul.
The world of Liongo was different than the world of the Orishas. It was from a different region with their own way of looking at the world, which was influenced by the cross pollination of cultures from across the Indian Ocean. However, the notion of a hero, a real hero, is universal. And, as I said, Liongo needed to be a hero.
So, I took a second look at Liongo’s tale and took key elements that I thought were crucial to the character (I.e. his mythic strength, the relationship with his mother, the handmaiden, the nephew and the copper needle). I did not want to re-tell his tale, but rather create a sequel to the original story. I wanted to re-shape, re-mix the original myth, and use that re-mix to craft my original tale.
The lands of Zanzibar and Oman would take on a magical quality in my tale, becoming realms of fantasy and wonder, populated by fierce beasts and an evil sorcerer who would wield the power of sinister spirits taken from the Middle Eastern influence that permeates the Eastern African Coast.
Combining mythologies from the region, Liongo’s mother would be named Dzivaguru, in reference to the Shona (Zimbabwe) goddess of light and dark. She would represent the Earth, and take a position next to Elders as powerful as she to oversee and protect this magical land from those who would enslave the people of these worlds.
I made Liongo a leader of his people, a warrior that came from the veldt to unite and save this newly formed Bantu Nation from a greater threat. He became a man who sacrificed what was precious to him, his compassion and his family, to save a world. That sort of sacrifice would pay a heavy toll. That sort of man would become cold. In some ways, that sort of man would be perceived as cruel…
In short, he would become The Hard Man.
But, the measure of a hero is overcoming the obstacles before him. And, a great hero, no matter how powerful, would need help in conquering his enemies and to reclaim that which he had lost…
Who better to assist such a man than his own child… His daughter?
As Don Quixote had Sancho Panza, as Sherlock Holmes had Dr. Watson, as Batman had Robin, the Hard Man would have his Sunbird. And that Sunbird, who would come to be known as Rehema would prove to be the lynchpin that was missing in my story.
Finally, Liongo’s name would need an upgrade as well. Just as Xango, Chango and Django are names derived from the Orisha of Thunder Shango, Lionogo would be the evolution of Liongo, the final transformation from scoundrel to hero.
So, was Liongo a jerk? Yes. But, he has grown. He has matured. He has evolved. He has become Lionogo, the Hard Man…
And, the Hard Man is a hero through and through.
The Song of Lionogo: An Indian Ocean Mythological Remix, created exclusively for the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, will be available the week of February 23.
Happy Black History Month and Happy Black Future Month… Cheers!