Siri Imani on Triiibe and the Beginning of an Era
Siri Imani is down-to-earth, personable, and an extremely proud Taurus. During our conversation, we discovered she shares the same birthday as my late father. It was no wonder our conversation felt so natural, comforting, and familiar.
Despite the warm summer heat, we sat on the porch of Rohs Street Cafe, enjoying our peaceful surroundings while cozying up to our drinks (a coffee for me; hot chocolate for her). We simultaneously pulled out our phones to snap a picture of our artsy mugs resting on the table before settling in and taking our first sip.
Siri is undoubtedly a powerhouse. She aspires to change the world for the better, strategically taking on one problem at a time. As we talked and enjoyed each other’s company, she opened up about the important work she’s doing in the community, her most treasured failure, and her greatest love.
Why did you choose this meeting location?
I love Rohs. I love Clifton in general. When I first started working with Triiibe, we all lived in Clifton, so we met out here. Rohs was the place we’d come by and we would meet anybody who we were building with. We would come here, specifically right here [at the table on the front porch], and just kind of chill out. It’s so peaceful right here.
Describe yourself in three words.
Taurus, because that describes me in a lot of different ways. I’m a Taurus to the core.
Second word: innovative. I'm always looking for new ways to level up stuff and do things. I have so many ideas.
And I'd say a connector. I like to connect with people and connect people to other people and situations that kind of benefit them.
What poem, song, or spoken word piece changed your life or made you say, “Okay, this is what I want to do”?
Death Poem by Alysia Harris. It's an amazing poem. It was her describing transitioning in a way that I had never heard before. I've always been obsessed with words and the way people use them. At that time – I was like 13 when I first heard it – I just thought: death, bad, boom. But she described it as being so much more, us being so much more, and our lives not just being like, “born, live, die,” but transitioning and what that means for ourselves and everything around us. So, it was really interesting hearing the way that she was able to get everybody in that huge room to all connect at that one thought. For about four minutes, they were like, “Okay, you know what? Death might not be so bad.” And something that simple is really powerful. So, just understanding at that point how words can affect people around you, and how they live their lives… From that moment on, I was like, “Okay, I would love to do that. I feel like I can trust myself to do something like that and take on that responsibility.” So that's when I was like, “Boom, let me get my words up.” [Laughs.]
The universe will tell you what is not meant for you and when you need to let it go.
Tell us about your group, Triiibe.
Triiibe, that's my er'thang. I love Triiibe. So Triiibe stands for True Representation of Intellectual Individuals Invoking Black Excellence. (It's a long acronym and we didn’t think we would have to say the whole thing when we made it.) So basically, we provide positive representations of urban culture through hip hop, funk, soul – music, specifically – but then also through different enrichment programs. We're not professionals at all, but we know things and we know what we're capable of doing when we have other like-minded people.
So Triiibe right now, we do urban garden classes, book clubs, street sweeps with Cincy Peace Movement – another organization we work closely with; they're amazing. None of us is over 30, so it's really dope getting all these millennials together. It’s kind of creating a different association to have towards our age group. Then we do expression courses, potlucks, any type of enrichment that you can do for yourself that we didn't have [growing up]. And then we make it cool. Kids, you know, usually they don't like book clubs and urban gardens and stuff, but when we’re blasting music and everybody's having fun, they look at us as role models easier than they probably would for somebody who has a bigger age gap. We're real receptive, and once we realized that, Triiibe kind of became, I would say, a movement in the making.
So it’s beyond the music.
When we first met, we were all doing activist work; that's how we met each other. And then we were like, “Hey, you also do music? Dope. Let's go have some jam sessions.” So, we would do jam sessions after some of our shows; we started making music together, and we were like, “Sheeeeeesh. Yeah, this should be a thing.” And that's kind of how it started. I don't even know what to call Triiibe. We're just here, doing what we can, for real. We haven't done even half of what I want us to do yet. But even the stuff that we have done, I wouldn't have thought we'd be able to do it without a corporation, a church, something like that. That's kind of how I grew up. When I saw people doing community work, they were usually backed by some type of corporation. But I think it's powerful to see individuals – especially non-professional, young individuals – literally just getting together and making it happen. It's that simple. It's powerful to see people who are everyday people getting together and recognizing that there is a lot of power in that.
What political or social cause is most important to you, and what do you want people to know about it? If you can pick one.
I don't think I could. That's what I enjoy about being Triiibe: It's all or nothing. We don't really target one thing, specifically; it's whatever is exposed to us, something that is a passion for us. Usually, and it doesn't always have to be from personal experience, but it more so goes by things that we know we can tackle right here.
When we first started, we had to really pace ourselves. You can burn out quickly and you can also get sloppy in your work. Everybody wants to save the world, but you can't be selfish, and you gotta understand the places where you're most effective, otherwise, you can do harm, especially if you don't know anything. We first didn't know anything, right? So we targeted things that we knew first. I know that as a kid who grew up in Cincinnati, I'm at risk often, especially depending on the neighborhood I live in. If I don't have anything to do after school, that puts me in an even deeper risk. And I also know that music and the arts were not pumped to me the way I wish they would have been. I would have taken a completely different route early on. So, knowing that, that's the first thing we went to.
We started with the expression courses with CPS [Cincinnati Public Schools]. That got us in the door and kind of legitimized us. That's when people really started understanding what we were trying to do. But then everything else kind of came from us witnessing things. So, once we started getting around the kids, we realized that they're hungry all the time. Most of them live in Walnut Hills. Walnut Hills is a huge food desert; they just closed Kroger. “Okay, let's start working on urban gardening classes, things that can make you more self-sufficient and not rely on your neighborhood grocery store or corner store.”
So that's how that started. Every time we would learn a need, that's the need that we would attack. So, I can't say we really have one thing. Pxvce [pronounced “Peace”] is all about urban gardening and self-sustainability, so you'll find him in the dirt 24/7 and teaching people how to build for themselves. Z is all about yoga, mindfulness, meditation, and mental health. She is mostly doing the counseling, slowing our kids down a lot [laughs], and then helping us, too, because it gets taxing. We need somebody like that. And then I mostly do the expression courses. And then the potlucks are really taking on the homelessness issue in Cincinnati. So, we all do different things, have different strong passions, and then we combine them all.
What are the failures that you treasure the most?
Basketball. That is my deepest failed treasure. I was supposed to be in the WNBA right now. I was going to be in Spain. I played basketball from when I was 10 up until I was 20. I played through high school, college, all of that. I loved it. That was my life. That also became my identity. Look, I'm still a basketball player, if you ask me. The universe will tell you what is not meant for you and when you need to let it go.
I tore my rotator cuff first. Six months of therapy; came back; boom, boxer's fracture. And this is every year, so this started my sophomore year [of high school] – that's when I got my first surgery. Sophomore year was my rotator cuff; junior year it was my hand; senior year I played with a partially torn ACL. I had no idea. On my graduation day, May 16, the day before my birthday, I was in the Cintas Center, about to walk out. All of a sudden, I hear a pop, and it's loud – it sounded like a BB gun or something. The next moment, I'm looking at the sky. [Laughs.] I didn't know what happened. I thought I fainted or something. So, I start getting up and I couldn’t. As soon as I tried to put weight on it I fell back down, and I started freaking out. I just signed my scholarship; everything was set up; I'm leaving the next week; my birthday's the next day; I'm graduating; it was perfect. That should have been my sign, honestly. But wait, there's more.
So, I tore my ACL and being stubborn, I was like, “Okay, I gotta get back. I can't afford to not go to college. So, I called the coach – that was the scariest moment of my life. I'm like, "I tore my ACL."
He's like, "Okay, you gotta do therapy; we'll hold the scholarship. If you can come back by November, we can figure out something for next semester." Either way, I was offered a semester scholarship, even after the injury. So, I'm like, “Okay, cool, you can just sign it again.” So, I did this crash therapy: massage therapy, aquatic therapy, and land therapy. I did it like three times a week and had to go through pain management courses, all of that, to get ready for when I was back into the game. I came back in four months – you're supposed to wait six to eight months for an ACL tear – and started playing. I had a great season; it was like a comeback story. I was killin‘ it. MVP for my freshman year, so I was like yoooooo. Beautiful...
I tear my meniscus on our national game. I had to come back home to do the same therapy again. I don't know what it was – my body was in better shape than it had ever been – but I did not recover as fast as I did before. It was hurting so bad. And they were telling me, “Siri, I do not think you should go back. Please don't.”
I'm like, “Nah.” [Laughs.] So, I got into a summer league to try to get my body ready. [Sighs.] Ya girl herniated a disc in her back. That gave me sciatica. So that's why I had to stop. I was a power forward, so you know, I'm the one who's driving full force and getting wracked around; it's my job to get fouled. So literally I was taking hits and I took a real bad hit and my disc got herniated and started to degenerate, so that's why I got real issues with my L5, L6, traveling down in my leg. And then lastly, my appendix ruptured. It was the most random thing in the world. So at that point I was like, I'm done. And they had dropped my scholarship from Lake Michigan because I wasn't going to be able to come back.
I remember I moved back into my mom’s house after being at college all that time. I'm watching all my teammates hittin' stats, killin' it out there, and I was in my chair with my knee up, depressed. I didn't do anything for like three months. I mean, it worked pretty well, though, 'cause you naturally are like, who am I even? I've been a basketball player this whole time; I don't even know who I am. So, I started writing about it, and that turned into poems. My mom's a poet, so I've been around poetry my whole life. I started performing. I didn't really like it at first, but people were really receptive to the story. So, I was like, “Okay, this feels a little bit better than being in my room all the time.” Then I started going out and performing more and more and I just loved it. I kept writing, and my body slowly started healing. About two years later, I met Triiibe and everything took off from there.
Everybody wants to save the world, but you can't be selfish, and you gotta understand the places where you're most effective.
Would you say it was kind of a rebirth for you? To become this poet and leave the athlete behind?
Yes! I tell my mom all the time that I low-key died. I really did. That honestly changed it all for me. That's when I started writing like crazy. I was down, and I really had time to think through everything. I thought I was going to die when I had the appendix rupture. I wasn't driving at that time. I was at home by myself, and I started throwing up blood. I didn't know what was going on. I went to the hospital, got an X-ray, and they were like, “Nothing's wrong. You're fine; it's probably just the medicines.” They sent me back home. Then, I started throwing up blood even more. I was on morphine at that time, so I had a choice: I can either take morphine right now and go to sleep, or I can go back to the hospital because something doesn’t feel right. I called my grandma. To this day, I thank her for everything. I called my grandma because my mom was at work, and my grandma was like, “Are you okay?”
I'm like, “Nah, not at all. I need you to come right now. Something's wrong.” She races me to Good Sam; they do another screening of my stomach, and my appendix was shrinking. It was tucked behind my pancreas, so that's why they didn't see it the first time. I was sick. I had to stay that whole night, do these antibiotics and stuff, and then go right into surgery. I could have definitely died. And I wouldn't have had any type of legacy at all. So, it changed even the purpose of writing for me. It was like, “I really need to do something with my life, because that was so scary.”
What, in your life, are you most grateful for?
My mom. That's my baby. I love my mom. For real. She is the reason for all of it. When I was going through all those surgeries, my mom was the one changing bed pads, wrapping up my knee, taking catheters out – stuff that nobody else would've done. [Laughs.] So definitely my mom because anything is possible growing up under her. And then Triiibe, of course.
I think I know who it might be, but tell us about an influential woman in your life.
Boom! Let's talk all about it. I gotta write a book about my life but I gotta write a book about my mama life, 'cause she is so special. She was an activist and poet [stage name, Black Budda’fly]. I'm like the biggest biter in the world because everything that Triiibe is is what my mom was doing back in Cincinnati in like, 2004, 2005. So, the Ra Poet Society is dead-on what Triiibe is now. They did enrichment programs; they put all their messages through music – specifically through poetry. My mom was a part of that and when I grew up, I was surrounded by all types of poets in the city, some amazing poets that are still here: Duwaup, Floetic Flo, Hakiym, Olufemy, Watusi Tribe – all of them were really influential. They were the first people I saw being unapologetic with their message. They did not hold their tongue, and they were way more radical than we are. We're a little privileged now, but they were in the thick of it. They were doing necessary work that was even more necessary then, just 'cause no one had the balls to do it, honestly. And they ended up getting separated after the riots (first in '94, then again in 2004/2005). Some of them got arrested; some of them got threatened; it was too much for them at that time.
So, I watched my mom be in the thick of that. My mom is like the second coming of Assata. She is a firecracker. And my mom's a Cancer, so she's just always been that person. You know how it is for women who are really opinionated: She don't chill. Rightfully so. My mom is one of those people who, if she sees something going down that's not okay, she’s about to use her voice. And she's so resourceful. She taught me that early. She taught me how to speak to people, not taking all of yourself into a conversation when you're with somebody, and allowing yourself to meet them halfway. My mom showed me how to do that well.
And then poetry. Me and my mom, we used to set aside time for writing. Take a book; close my eyes; put it down. Whatever word I hit, I had to write about. Even if it was “The” or “A,” she made me write about it. Thinking like that early helped me to be able to express myself in ways that people around me did not have at all. My mom, she did poetry here for years and was dominating here. I still got an old City Beat article right above my bed; it was when she was doing Catskeller at U.C. She started a poetry slam, and it was amazing. I used to sneak in there when I was young.
Around 2014, when I first came home, my mom got diagnosed with sarcoidosis and at that time, it wasn't really bad, but it was starting to make it hard for her to breathe. Her lung had a hole in it, so she was going through it, bad. And I had just got back from college, was in the thick of my stuff, too. So that's why I'm saying, she was amazing. She stopped performing; she wasn't able to do it, with her lungs and the breath support. And then she really took care of me, while also hiding everything that was going on with her. But it was pretty obvious. She started losing weight and stuff like that. So once I got better, our roles completely reversed. Now I'm taking care of her, and she is trying to get better. And that was the story for the past three years, until last year when she started really getting better.
I started performing heavy. She loved it. She started writing again. I couldn't wait for her to get back on the stage 'cause I hadn't heard her in years. And finally this month [August], at the Price Hill Community Fest, Eddy Kwon – and I thank him so much – gave her the opportunity to express herself for about 45 minutes, and she got paid for her performance. It was so good to see her do that again. That's my baby. I really, really love her. I really do. She's the truth.
What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
Music wise, I really want to add poetry as a mainstream genre. When you ask kids, “What's your favorite genre?” they're like rap, country, pop. Nobody’s ever like, “Poetry.” Poetry is really like the blueprint of it all. It all starts with lyrics, which is poetry, you know what I mean? It needs more respect.
I want to open a school in Cincinnati. I want to open multiple [schools], but I definitely want to have a school here in Cincinnati. I don't know anything about opening a school. I'm young; I got time. I'm only 23, so I'm probably going to open it when I'm in my 30s or 40s. I don't want the responsibility of it being a school that you go to all day. Something like an afterschool place or something like a summer camp, but I want it to be specialized. It's a lot of kids that we've met just circling through CPS that come with a forewarning like, "Everything is usually fine but watch out for this kid because he might try to do this with you." And usually those are the main kids that take onto the art so much, and they end up completely changing. The Children's Home, on Madison Road, is the most amazing place I've been to. Ever. I don't like to show favorites, but I love the way that they run that facility. It's not like a school where they go all day, but it's specialized, so it's for the kids they usually warn you about: the kids that have some type of behavioral issue, that have been in fights a lot. They seem to have a hard time functioning in regular school. They take them there, and they shower them with love. You see it. It's tough love a lot of times, but they make sure that the representation is there. They give them people who look like them, who speak like them, but are saying the right things. That's kind of how we fit in perfectly, 'cause we look like them. And you know, with these kids, it's all a trick. I've become the biggest trickster in making things seem cool. They look at us and they see piercings and tattoos, things that aren't really important, but to them at that age, that's the end-all be-all. And instead of seeing us do all these destructive behaviors, they see us doing this stuff, taking pride in that, and glorifying each other. That's really what they want, to be glorified for stuff at that age. And they see us glorifying things that are positive and that benefit them, the community, people around them.
Cincinnati's local music scene, specifically, is so good right now. It's so full of good people who are like-minded. I could have at least 50 teachers in my facility that are teaching these kids, looking like these kids, and inspiring them on a way bigger mass than 20 people, once a week, for two hours. Our whole city dynamic can change. And that's always been our focus with the kids. We understand that at one point, our generation is going to be the oldest generation on this earth, so we're going to create a whole other world just with our ideas, and they're all going to live and be influenced and build off of them for years. So if we start teaching them a certain way that is not detrimental or toxic to us or this world, it'll be a completely different world by the time we are ready to leave it.
I don't want Triiibe to be just one thing that you can pinpoint. I would love for Triiibe to be like an era or something like that. I always think of people like Buddha. Even the practice of Buddhism, there's a whole culture associated with it. Kindness, loving each other – that's kind of what I want Triiibe to be. I want it to be an era; I want it to be a practice that, everybody is Triiibe. And that's just something that you take on and that whole way of thinking and living kind of expands out. I don't feel like it's toxic; I don't feel like it's going to hurt anybody. I'm doing my best to make sure there's no way that it could. So knowing that 100 percent I get to a point where I'm completely sure that's what we're doing, I would love to expand that out to the world. I would love for people to find some of the peace that I have gotten to find just by being better and being good. It feels good to be good. I haven't always been good in my life, and I haven't always seen people who I would say feel good and are good inside. I've met some of the best people in my life and have had some of the best experiences in the last four years of my life. And I want that for everybody. So if we all get that, it could be a completely different world. That's my goal, for my life in general [laughs]. I would love to be a part of the solution. I know I'm like a dot in the timeline in humanity, but I would love to be a very positive dot that creates and inspires other dots.