When music means: Death, New Life, Transformation, Celebration…
Music & Death
Some songs help you grieve.
You know that friend you call when things are going wrong in your life, and you know they’ll be there for you. Or when things are going well, they are the first to celebrate you. They’ve shown up in your life in ways that have repeatedly demonstrated how much they love and care for you. Then one day you wake up and that friend is gone. Forever and ever.
My beautiful friend lost 2 of her best friends in less than 12 months. If you’ve never lost someone so close and dear, you feel so useless when trying to console someone who has — I’ve felt that plenty. Every time I think about her, I want to hug her and just be anything she wants me to be to ease her burden. I can’t imagine that kind and sense of loss for anyone. And then you meet her and she’s one of the most open, kind genuinely selfless people walking the earth. Then you ask questions like how? My God. How could this happen to her? I asked her what it’s been like navigating this aftermath. She said, “Mercy, you can run mmaaadddd. It’s disorienting, painful, and isolating.”
An acquaintance mentioned how the lyrics from Beyonce’s song I Miss You, helped them cope with the loss of his sister:
I thought that things like this get better with time
But I still need you, why is that?
You’re the only image in my mind
So I still see you… around
I miss you like everyday
Wanna be with you, but you’re away
Said I miss you, missing you insane
But if I got with you, could it feel the same?
After listening to these lyrics, he said, for the first time, he felt like he had found words that began to explain some of the things he had been feeling but couldn’t put into words. This song helped him start processing his grief.
Other songs remind you of what you lost
Linkin Park’s song Numb best describes how I felt as a teenager. I was taken aback the first time I heard it. How did Linkin Park, men thousands of miles away on another continent, know exactly what to say to express everything I felt from the first verse to the last word of the song? How did they know me? See me? Understand me, in just a song?
Just like that friend that’s always there for us, some songs help us cope with life. They come and say things no one around us seems to understand and carry us through seasons of life we otherwise couldn’t have coped with. They become part of us. Their carriers, the musicians, become our idols.
Then one day, suicide happens.
When people we love and admire die by suicide, it unravels us. How did people you admired and respected, individuals you believed understood you, end up dead by their own hand? You thought they were strong. Why weren’t they strong enough? You related to their struggles and now they’re gone. Will the same happen to you? You needed them. You looked up to them. And somehow, you can’t look up to heaven and say it was God’s hand that took them. So you rage.
Suicide is complicated.
Suicide by people who helped you cope with life is extremely difficult to live with. The sudden death of Chester Benning, Linkin Park’s lead singer, put a lot into perspective for me and propelled me to learn more about suicide. I needed answers. Over the years, I’ve read fans talk about the death of Kurt Cobain, Chester Benning, Avicii, Mac Miller, and many more. One fan said, “Mac Miller’s music reminded me I’m not alone in my struggles. His struggles seemed so similar to mine so when he died, I was devastated.”
People sympathize with celebrities who commit suicide because they were idols. The worst thing that most ordinary people’s (non-celebrities) loved ones don’t get to do is openly grieve. Because of the social stigma attached to suicide, there is a great deal of guilt and shame associated with a loved one’s suicide death. It appears like you couldn’t do enough to keep your loved one alive. “Did they even know God?” “They were weak for taking their own life.” “They were not “tough enough” to endure life’s challenges…” and many other false narratives.
But, here’s a glimpse of what people who struggle with suicide feel like:
- hopelessness, like there is no point in living
- tearful and overwhelmed by negative thoughts
- unbearable pain that they can’t imagine will ever go away.
- useless, not wanted or not needed by others
- desperate, as if they have no other choice
- like everyone would be better off without them
- cut off from your body or physically numb
- fascinated by death. (Mind, par 4)
Suicidal ideation might develop if depression is not treated. When it comes to depression that might lead to suicide, most people are ignorant of the chemical imbalance in the brain. It’s an illness, not a weakness. It can happen to anyone.
When I listen to Numb, I’m reminded of the musician we’ll never get back. They spoke a language we couldn’t articulate on our own but needed to learn, and they assisted us in coping with life.
Sometimes, even if it’s hard to openly grieve loved ones who died by suicide, songs we shared with them remind us of those we loved and adored. There’s no shame in those we cherished who left in ways others blame them for. It’s okay to grieve their loss. Their pain matters and there’s no shame in the life they lived and the way they died.
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Music & A New Life
Music is motivation
I started running in 2015. I remember going to the gym and, in what I believe was an effort to make small talk, one of the guys said to me “Oh, you’re here to lose the baby weight, you just had a child, right?”
I replied, “No. I’m just trying to lose the food weight.”
Growing up, I was a chubby kid but I never thought of myself as ugly. Carrying weight was like having small eyes. You either had them or you didn’t and neither took away from who you were or how beautiful.
That changed when I lived in America. Fat is ugly. No one flat out says you’re ugly though. You just become undatable because “you’re not my size type”. Thin women are portrayed as the standard of beauty, everywhere. When you’re fat, people are less likely to do you random favors, and they aren’t willingly going to try and be sweet or nice just for the sake of it. I know this because I became smaller. I came down to normal weight and I see the difference. You easily get invited to stuff. People seem to want to talk to you more. They easily want to be friends. You’re the same person. But you quickly realize your weight dictates your social experience.
When I started running in 2015, I didn’t know how to run but I had motivation. ugly. It’s a label I didn’t want to accept since I could do something about it. What worried me more was I had begun to internalize the word. I had a mental picture of what I had been subconsciously taught to look like (thin) and when I looked in the mirror, my cheeks were big, my clothes were tight. All I could see was my stomach protruding. I was 165lb on a 5'4 frame. That’s over-weight. I didn’t know what to do. Then I started to feel shame. Shame for getting myself to this weight. Shame for not being small enough. Shame that I ate more than I needed to. Shame that I wasn’t pretty enough.
For my first runs, I walked most of the way. My running playlist played tightrope by Janelle Monae every time I was halfway through my workout. I liked that song. Its beat matched my tempo and it excited me so I always tried to run the whole course of it. When you’ve just started running, you don’t know how to run. You can’t run for long. I used this song as a challenge to push through its 5 minutes. This is how I learned how to run my first 5 mins without stopping.
Today, I can run for much longer periods like 30 mins without stopping, and still feel comfortable. Every time I listen to this song, it reminds me of all the neighborhoods I ran in and all the weight I left on those pavements. It reminds me of my running journey, in which I became beautiful not because I was getting thinner, but because I became healthier. Healthy made me feel beautiful: mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Music & Transformation
Some songs don’t leave you the same.
No matter how many books you read or how much education you have about a place, there are some aspects of it that you can never fully comprehend until you physically live there. For me, that was a lot of American music. I heard the words, sang the songs, but I didn’t fully understand the story they were telling until I lived there. One cloudy Monday morning I was listening to T.I. ft. Justin Timberlake’s Dead and Gone for the 100th time, but this was the first time I truly heard T.I’s lyrics with an added perspective — I could now connect to the story he was telling because I had seen it play out far too many times on the news.
Later in the day, I was having a casual conversation with my English professor about race in America (it’s important to note that she’s white) when I mentioned that I believe black Americans should take a leaf out of T.I.’s song, Dead and Gone, and start taking responsibility for their actions. I went on,
“They must understand that not all their misfortune is the fault of others, but rather of their own wrongdoing too. They should stop blaming slavery and racism for everything since slavery was abolished many years ago, and now they could live life by standards they set for themselves. Yet, they were still killing each other.”
In hindsight, truly, I was ignorant and naive then. Very ignorant and very naive. But she was patient.
She tried to explain that I had only seen half of the picture and that the story of black America was much larger and more complicated than a song could reveal. She even provided a few examples to back up her claim. Her fundamental viewpoint was that black Americans were at a considerably greater disadvantage than any other race in the country and that this tragic reality was the result of institutionalized racism. Slavery and racism never truly disappeared, it only assumed a new structure that manifests itself in the shape of policies and laws.
Then, I still disagreed. But now, I was curious.
I wanted to know more about Black America’s story that contradicted what I thought I knew.
During our conversation, she mentioned an organization called Thread, based in Baltimore, that was working towards fighting some of the effects of systemic racism in America.
According to Annie E Casey foundation data center, in 2016, 66% of children in single-parent homes in America were black. Part of the reason is due to the high rate of incarceration of black men.
So, most black children grow up without dads or parental figures, as single mothers sometimes work multiple jobs to make ends meet. This is where Thread volunteers step in to help fill the void. They become extended family members who agree to drive or pick up certain children from school, assist with schoolwork and be active in their lives in general in ways their parents can’t be.
Now, I was confused. How was I living in this community and still didn’t know all this?
A few months after this conversation, I happened to watch the Kalief Browder documentary on Netflix. I followed that by watching The 13th and things started to fall into place. I started to feel shame for the level of ignorance and arrogance I carried before. It started to make sense, black people were victims of unjust systems for so long and T.I.’s song was just part of the story from a different perspective. It’s unfortunate that such songs are necessary to demonstrate that black people must still find it within themselves to beat the odds and become persons who are distinct from what their surroundings expose them to. But how do you practice self-control when all you see is anger, violence, drugs, and guns? Black Americans find themselves killing each other because of the conditions systemic racism forces them to live under. It’s a cycle.
I couldn’t sit back anymore.
That summer, I left my job in Northern Virginia, 10 minutes from my apartment, and got a job in Baltimore so I could be a volunteer at Thread. It meant I now had a 2-hour commute for that summer but I was determined to be the change I wanted to see — at whatever cost. So we did that.
My journey working with inner-city youth in Baltimore has been one of the most transformative things in my life and one that most proud of. It’ll be 3 years this summer since I joined Thread and to imagine it all started with a song, then a conversation.
One day, I hope I can tell the story of how Thread has transformed me as a person.
Music & Celebration
Some songs uplift (literally and figuratively)
Here’s what I think when I hear Once dance + Controlla by Drake:
Bring me the dance floor. A red Bull. And a table.
I’ll be on the table, dancing, with my red bull, in the middle of the dance floor.
Summer 2016 — Happy vibes all the way. 🏖
Other songs Celebrate
Congratulations by Post Malone & Quavo.
In my senior year (last year of University), I couldn’t bring myself to play the song Congratulations by Post Malone because every time I looked at my upcoming semester schedules, I genuinely didn’t know or think I was going to graduate. I’d feel anxious listening to the song because it was a reminder about my supposed impending doom. I was taking 6 Computer Science (CS) classes per semester that year. No one does that. People simply didn’t do that. My professors were like, WTF? Are you begging for failure? But I had to. I remember joking with my friend that I had already sent out graduation day invites without actually knowing if I will be graduating.
CS is demanding, and it taught me to take each day as it comes because it was difficult to think about or plan beyond the current assignment. Many times you didn’t know if you’d pass a class until you actually saw the final grade that you had passed the class.
So logically, graduation was approaching. Realistically though, it was a foreign concept of a faraway land I couldn’t see happening that year. CS was stressful in every manner, and the amount of doubt about one’s ability to manage all courses was very high. It was a very real possibility to achieve an A+ in one comp sci class and an F in another within the same semester. Knowing one thing didn’t guarantee the other, and the various skill sets required made it all the more difficult.
I’d wake up some mornings worried that I didn’t know enough to keep going, or if I’ll make it. Sometimes, I sat in the shower, unsure if I would ever understand the code and complete the assignments on time that day. I walked to the bus not knowing if I’d make it to class and understand which algorithm was being taught. It was anxiety madness.
I made the dean’s list both semesters of my senior year, despite having one of the most difficult semesters ever. I’m still not sure how that happened, and I’m not trying to figure it out. All I knew was that I was getting my BS in Computer Science and that it was time to blast the dang song. On graduation day, I played Congratulations and turned the volume to 100, and wore my grad gown for three days straight after that. I wore that grad gown to bed. I awoke in it. I chilled in it. I didn’t need a party. Passing Computer Science was a party. Me, Post Malone, and Quavo had made it!
“What Are Suicidal Feelings?” Mind, www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/suicidal-feelings/about-suicidal-feelings/.
“Children in Single-Parent Families by Race: KIDS COUNT Data Center.” KIDS COUNT Data Center: A Project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/107-children-in-single-parent-families-by-race#detailed/1/any/false/1729,37,871,870,573,869,36,868,867,133/10,11,9,12,1,185,13/432,431.