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Nahru Lampkin: The Bongo Man

The Detroit Tigers street performer bangs his bongo, ribs passersby with rhymes and counts his blessings

The Detroit Tigers are battling the Kansas City Royals this September day, and the air is unseasonably chilly. Looking down at his feet, 51-year-old street performer Nahru Lampkin tells a quick story as he waits for the next group of people to approach.

"I didn't know it was going to be this cold today, so I wore my sandals," Lampkin says. "But then a woman dropped these socks in my bucket for me. Isn't that something? I'm so blessed. God gave me exactly what I needed."

He takes the time to collect himself, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, as the next set of people walk across Woodward Avenue in his direction. It's show time …

"Now here's a kid who's very cute/That's a fact you can't dispute/ask your dad to give you some loot/and come and drop it down my chute."

The kid and his father smile as they continue on their way to the game. He tries again with the next person who catches his eye.

"Now here's a lady, she looks so sad/your family's not so bad/here's a reason to be glad/at least I'm not your dad."

The woman chuckles, but doesn't drop anything in his tall, gold-colored bucket. He then sees the father and son coming back his way, money in hand.

"Thank you sir for coming back/I know this job is whack/but at least I'm not out selling crack."

Known by most as Bongo Man, Lampkin actually plays the conga drums. He's gained local notoriety by his style: playing as he freestyles about the people he sees. Performing at Michigan State University and University of Michigan home games, in addition to Joe Louis Arena, Ford Field and Comerica Park, Lampkin has become a staple in the Detroit-area sports culture.

"People who are headed to and from sporting games are looking to be entertained. They're generally more relaxed," Lampkin says. "There's a huge demographic, from the little, tiniest kids to the old decrepit guy, so I try to cater the experience to the individual."

However, not everyone enjoys his good-humored attention. Many avoid eye contact.

"My art does not appeal to everyone, and I understand that. It makes some people uncomfortable," Lampkin says. "There's a fine line between what I do and panhandling."

Although his art is more widely accepted today, Lampkin says it was a tougher gig during the Archer administration days. "I was arrested five or six times."

During the colder seasons, Lampkin makes money as the sole proprietor of Bongo Man Taxi, which he operates out of his red Chrysler Town & Country. He also teaches robotics at YouthVille Detroit alongside local engineer Yandal Waugh.

With the Major League Baseball playoffs in action, Lampkin says he'll be supporting the team with his street performances the entire way. The money and his love for performing keep him coming back each season.

"Every year I say that it's going to be my last year, but I'm a homeowner and I have a family," he says. "Until something else comes along for me to make money, I'll still be out there."
 

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