A New Familiar

| This is the 596th story of Our Life Logs® |

Editor’s Note

This is the story of This is the story of Ikechi ('Kechi) Ihemeson as captured by the team at Our Life Logs. The following is brought to you in partnership with Guitars Over Guns, and organization that aims to change the lives of disadvantaged students through music and strong, consistent mentorship. We hope you check them out!

In the early ‘80s, my dad left his home in Nigeria to go to college in the US, and he decided to stay. After he and my mom settled into their new lives in Chicago, my older sister came into the picture in ‘95, followed by me in ’97, and my younger sisters in ’98 and 2000.

My dad is holding me and sitting with my older sister shortly after I was born, 1997.

The culture of my home was fully Nigerian – Igbo to be specific. We ate jollof rice, ofe and ogbono soup on the regular. Nollywood movies played in the background while I played on my GameCube or practiced my multiplication tables. The language was peppered into our conversations (though I could never pick it up). My mom wove stories from her past into the fabric of our history. She made sure my three sisters and I held a connection to her family by showing us old pictures of our extended family back home. I could tell she missed them by the way she carefully recalled each of the anecdotes surrounding every photo. She sacrificed a lot coming here for our sake. But it was worth it to her.

One of the many photoshoots I did as a kid. I loved being in front of the camera (still do), 2001.

When I was seven, my parents divorced, and my sisters and I lived primarily with my mom. Dad would pop in here and there, but from then on, it was my mom who raised us. With this change came an underlying tension in the house and, as the only boy in the family, I always felt like I had a spotlight on me. I felt that I had to be at my best at all times.

Like every other child in a first-generation household—especially in Nigerian culture—I was expected to become either a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. As a kid, I thought, “That works for me” because I didn’t know anything about myself. Who does? It weighed on me as I got older.

To keep up with this demand, I found myself performing to keep up with expectations. I acted how I was supposed to. By the time I moved on to middle school, I had created a different mask for every environment I was thrown into. It was easier to fit in with the mask on. After all, I didn’t know what was behind the mask, and I didn’t care to find out.

One important thing to know about me before we move forward: I love music. I always have. At three years old, I’d go to my bedroom and harmonize with whatever music was on, beating my foot against the wall to make rhythms. I think my love of my music stemmed from my dad who was a choirmaster back in Nigeria. He kept an old keyboard in the basement, and I always found myself wandering down there to play around on it.

To keep us busy, my mom signed my sisters and me up for musical theatre. From third through seventh grade, I learned how to sing, act, and dance. I even took piano classes for a bit in fourth grade and mastered the basic scales. In fifth grade, I joined the band. At first, I tried out the sax, but after a few months, I gained more of a fascination towards the trumpet and switched. While in the band, I also learned a bit of the drums at church.

Outside of music, I still wanted to do “cool” stuff and play sports like the other kids. I got involved in a lot of what my friends wanted to join. I was just moving with the herd; maybe you can relate.

While I was finishing up middle school, my mom already had her little plan for me and my sisters: we would go to boarding school in Nigeria. It was Mom’s way of keeping us connected to the culture and to finally meet her family. In July 2011, we landed in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, late at night, then took a three-hour drive to Owerri, Imo State, not far from my parents’ villages (Mbaise on my mom’s side, Obowo on my dad’s side). I finally got to meet the people I had only ever seen in pictures. I shook my grandfather’s hand. I hugged my aunts. This part of the trip was very much like a homecoming.

And then…boarding school began. I was whisked away from my sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins, and sent off to a Catholic boarding school close to village territory. It felt like a prison cell – a row of bunk beds lined up in the dorm room with my classmates. Straight out of a movie. Oh, and it was an all-boys school. I was not a born-Nigerian, so I stuck out like a sore thumb to them. Kids called me all sorts of names; one I got a lot was ndi ocha, an insult that poked fun of my Americanness. Over time, I picked up on some of the quirks and pidgin English, but I never felt like I belonged.

All could I do was study and do really well in my classes, but what did that do for my happiness? With no one to talk to really, I started journaling. I used to write funny little stories in grade school that went nowhere, but this was different. This kind of writing helped calm me and made me realize the thoughts and emotions I’d been facing. Some of the writings even became lyrics down the road. While I was away from home and away from music, I realized how badly I missed it.