Music Is a Miracle
When I hear a song I can travel back in time to a specific place. Sometimes I travel back feeling tender and sore. Other times I arrive and feel all the freedom and glory of being four years old again. I’ve gathered some songs here that have the time machine magic ability to send me reeling back to specific memories. This mixed cd essay provides a snapshot into periods of my life where major and minor events happened on a scale from joy and love to violence, depression and confusion. When I hear any of these songs I can remember the textures and tones of what I was wearing, or what conversations were being had above my head, or how I felt at the time hearing the song.
1. Don’t Stop the Music, Yarbrough & Peoples (23 years old, San Francisco, CA) When I show up to my somatic therapy session and the two chairs that usually face each other are nowhere in sight, my stomach almost falls out of my butt. My therapist asks me to play a song on the small iPod speaker so that we can move around to it during the session and I choose “Don’t Stop the Music.” I turn my back to her and sob the entire time it plays, full to the brim with anger at her (even though she told me we would begin to transition to embodiment/movement in our sessions). I was also ready to punch myself in the face out of anger and disgust because I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t dance while someone else watched. It was the beginning of my journey to understanding the shame I carry in my body and the trigger of being watched. Later that year, I am confronted with the question, what if you never remember what happened to you? Then I understand I need to begin with being at peace with the fact (the absolute blessing and absolute curse) that I might not ever remember exactly who harmed me, when, or how often. My body remembers, and that has to be enough to begin the process of healing.
2. Paper Planes, M.I.A. (18 years old, New York, NY) I am dancing on top of a bar in an old brownstone on 114th St. between Amsterdam & Broadway in what is formerly known as Harlem and currently colonized as Columbia University. I am a freshman in college and it’s Fall semester. I often overhear people I consider to be kids (like me) talking about drycleaning and credit limits and other things I didn’t have access to on the elevator of my freshman dorm. It is probably my second or third time being drunk in my life. The party is beach-themed and there is real sand on the floor of the brownstone occupied by a white fraternity. There is “jungle juice” being squirted out of super soakers at people as they dance. As soon as I hear Paper Planes starting up with it’s repetitive electric guitar riff, I dart from my group of 15th floor friends dancing in a circle and demand someone help hoist me onto the bar. I’m dancing to the song when the police come into the house to break up the party. It’s the most nonviolent I’ve ever seen police in my life.
3. House Every Weekend, David Zowie (24 years old, London, England) I am in Camden Town at a dark bar. Everyone’s drinking something called a ‘Stevie Wonder.’ It comes in a squat round glass with a brown sugar cube balanced in the middle by a long toothpick, served with the sugar cube set on fire. Some dude with a bald head and a gold tooth in the front (not Slick Rick) wears a brown leather jacket with shearling wool around the collar. He seems to be friends with everyone. I never figure out if he works for the club or if he’s a dope dealer. This is my second time traveling alone and my first trip ever to London. I chill on a couch with the bald dude with his gold tooth and some of his friends; they are girls my age and one guy who is a muscle meatball. All of them are messily drunk and predictably simple in the way they talk to each other about themselves and other people. I assess they are not smart enough to be a danger to me. They invite me to an after hours party and I ride in a cab with them; we pass Big Ben and the London Eye to get there. They are playing House Every Weekend when we walk into the club. It’s probably my sixth time hearing it that night between the two clubs. After two hours of declining the flirtatious advances of the bald head, I go to the bathroom and return to find that the group of people I came with are gone. I grab my coat from coat check and go outside. I see the sun rising and the group of them negotiating with a cab driver. Bald head looks mortified as I approach. I give him a good old fashioned Black American cuss out for trying to abandon me and shake him down for cab fare. He comes up with the money. I ride back to my hostel alone in my own cab, satisfied with myself that I’m safe and alone. I’m fucking proud of not taking anybody’s shit—not in America, and damn sure not in London. I wake up the next afternoon hungover to someone blasting Back to Black by Amy Winehouse. It’s her birthday.
4. Silly Love Songs, Disco Duck Dance Party (5 years old, San Francisco, CA) I am little, (maybe in kindergarten, maybe younger) dancing in the daycare at my Nana’s house. It’s my turn to choose a record on the record player and I choose the Disco Duck Dance Party sleeve with the two yellow ducks with blonde wigs dancing on the cover. When Silly Love Songs comes on, I grab arms with another small person and we spin and we spin and we spin on the carpet. The carpet has a gray roads pattern on it that is great for playing on with tiny toy cars. I pull the bottom of my shirt low and flip it over the top of the neckline to make a crop top like a hoochie mama with my belly out. It’s okay, it’s fun, it’s funny, and we all do it. Our round pale and ashy bellies under ribs showing and we can’t stop laughing at ourselves, at each other.
5. The Good Life, Kanye West ft. T-Pain (16 years old, Aguacate, southeast of Tatumbla, Honduras) I am sixteen, going on seventeen. I am in Honduras for the summer living in a homestay and volunteering with a program called Amigos de las Americas. The program is made up of primarily rich white kids who enroll to volunteer so they can write in their college application essays that ‘they helped’ and ‘learned so much about life from poor people’. It’s the summer people touch my hair and it’s affirmed that I’m Black in a way that doesn’t feel good. It’s the summer the entire village laughs at me because I say I’m from the United States. They laugh because they assure me that there are no Black people in the United States and they think I’m out of my mind when I tell them that later that year there will, hopefully, be a Black president elected to office. I leave in late summer and never learn what they think of Barack Obama. One night in my cot as I lay suffering and scratching from scabies on my way to sleep, a rat skids underneath my already low to the ground cot. I nearly lose my shit as I’m quietly listening to my walkman play Kanye and T-Pain’s The Good Life. The walkman breaks on the floor in my shock and stays broken for the larger part of the trip. I am so happy to see my Black family when I get home. When it is time to write my personal statement for my college application, I am advised by college counselors and mentors to choose between writing about my incarcerated parent or my schizophrenic parent. Guess I didn’t need to go to Honduras after all.
6. A Rose Is Still A Rose, Aretha Franklin (7 years old, San Francisco, CA) I learn intuition by being sensitive to the pitches, tones, scents, and temperatures of our house. We get bars on our windows. The fish dies. Again. Our neighbors are a nuisance. We seem to have to share everything with them. Consequently, we know about their stealing geese from Golden Gate Park and eating them for a celebration one year because we see them two-to-a-bag waddling in our shared backyard. Carrots and peas come up through our tub drain from the pipes we share. My mother tells us to bang on the walls with her high-heeled shoes when they sing Vietnamese karaoke too late into the night for our liking. I know my mother’s every scent. She does my hair in ways I don’t like, but she tries. I’ve already begun losing hair on either side of my temples. A Rose is Still A Rose is a precursor for my mother breaking glasses or me sneaking white wine out of the box in the refrigerator by putting my head under the spout. It’s a wonder how the wine makes my chest feel hot even though it’s cold. A Rose is Still A Rose plays and my mother is having a Tupperware party with a sweet Filipina saleswoman on our black couch with the seemingly spray-painted teal and magenta colors across it. A Rose is Still a Rose is on and I’m in first grade memorizing my crush’s phone number from his emergency card. I go home to call it and hang up, call it and hang up, call it and hang up. Until his mother calls our house back via *69 and I am completely mortified when I pick up.
7. One More Time, Daft Punk (6 years old, Concord, CA) I am wearing a pink (or is it strawberry?) one-piece swimsuit at Waterworld. The water slides loom high above me. There is music playing on the loudspeaker throughout the water park. The station playing is Wild 94.9, the song is One More Time and it’s sung by robots. I’ve never heard anything like it. I am clear that this is not our music—music from our house, from our family. I’m becoming aware that our house and our music might be different than the outside world. I am curious about whose house this music belongs to. I’m curious about who this sounds like home to. I’m curious if there is an entire other world of music made by robots or other human beings that has existed outside of my knowledge. I go to sit down in my hot plastic lounge chair and flinch from the burn. Instead I choose to stand beside it and step my foot to the quick rhythm as I dry off.
8. Dontcha, The Internet (22 years old, Oakland, CA) I’m in the toothpaste aisle at Safeway on an errand for my family when she tells me she ‘loves me loves me’ over the phone. I feel like there are colors flying off of my back in the wind like Pocahontas, I’m so damn happy. I’m living at my family’s house on a couch less than a year out of college and I feel pathetic when the flirtationship ends, because I don’t even have my own bed to have a good teenage girl cry in. I cry in my car while listening to Dontcha often. Until less than a month later, my car gets broken into because I accidentally leave a nearly empty backpack peeking from under the backseat. The backpack contains my one pair of prescription glasses, a good pair of earrings, and an old letter from my flirtmate written before we parted ways. The letter had both of our names and addresses on it—it was a love note containing a fictional lesbian erotica scene starring the two of us.
12. Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, The Temptations (4 years old, San Francisco, CA) I have a small microphone in my hand that has a metal coil in it that vibrates and echoes my voice when I sing into it. My grandpa teaches me Ain’t Too Proud to Beg and the two of us take turns singing it into the microphone. He loves the way I sing “sim-puh-tee” not knowing the word ‘sympathy’ or how to pronounce it. I learn to love The Temptations. I grow to love performing. Soon I begin to have awful night terrors that wake everyone in the house while I kick and scream. My grandma goes to an herbalist to get some little red pills that have a sweet coating on them. I remember coming-to once in the light of the hallway with my grandparents on either side of me to give me a dose of the recommended herbs, but I have no recollection of my dream beforehand.
9. Push It, Rick Ross (16 years old, San Francisco, CA) I am driving my mom’s Black Isuzu with a provisional license. I have two jobs after school. Nearly all of my classes are AP classes. I want to be like the white kids I go to school with. I want to have an allowance, have a lunch prepared for me, have breakfast before I leave the house. I want to go thrift shopping and wear other people’s clothes and roll my eyes when my parents listen to talk radio and read books not required for class. Despite my trying, I feel a barrier that I can’t name or identify when trying to fit in. The cowboy boots I buy are not theirs because mine are too expensive. My sense of books or music or movies is not theirs because my sense of humor is not nuanced enough. I sit in a classroom of majority white kids and watch Do the Right Thing for the first time. It disturbs me in language I don’t have to observe white people watch my culture in rooms where we are minimally present. I wear a mask to be accepted at school but it’s not a well-constructed one. One day while walking to return an overdue film at my library, I decide that I’m going to begin selling weed despite never having smoked it myself.
I sell a teensy bag of weed to a kid at my school and it’s way too little for what he’s paid me. He sends another friend to my math class to get his money back. He thinks I’ve punked his friend but really, I don’t know what I’m doing. I drive to St. Francis Wood bumping Rick Ross’ Push It in my mama’s car to sell a petty amount of weed to another kid who doesn’t give me enough money on purpose. The following day at lunch, I come behind him in line at Mollie Stone’s and scoop up all $20 of his change. He looks at me in disbelief without protesting—he is afraid of me. I learn that people want me to play a role—a good one or a bad one. They like it when I prove them right and I have to work extra hard to prove them wrong (because they hate being wrong).
My weed-selling days last a week or two in total. That week on my way home from an after-school job downtown, I descend into the Powell Street station and there are officers with dogs harassing people and smelling their stuff. I race back up the stairs and wait for the bus with weed in a small coffee container in my backpack. In a freaked out haze, I get on the next bus, which ends up being the 9x (when what I really needed was the 9). As I notice the bus turning onto the freeway, I vow to never sell weed again, to stop trying to fit in with white people, and to never take the 9x (unless I have exhausted all other options).
10. Sweetest Taboo, Sade (26 years old, Southernmost Point Key West, Florida) I am alone, turning twenty six years old in the Florida Key. I take myself out to birthday dinner at a restaurant on the beach and eat fresh fish and key lime pie for dessert. There is a family of a mom and dad and two daughters at the table across from mine. They’re discussing a younger family member who is trans. The parents at the table are loud in their determination not to call the person by their name or respect their pronouns. The waiters come and sing Happy Birthday to me at my table of one. I drink my glass of champagne, raising it to my mouth instead of answering when the mommy jackass from the other table ask if it’s my birthday. After dinner, I go down to the beach and get in the water up to my knees. Looking out into the shining black of the water, the sky, and the moon reflecting, I listen and dance to Sweetest Taboo by Sade playing on my phone clutched in my hand. The entire trip is a get-well-soon trip to myself. I do all of the sweet things the usual me would like for the me that has been sick, depressed, dissociating, and not feeling anything. I go home to the Airbnb I’m staying at on Sugarloaf Key and I masturbate for the first time with my hands. I have an orgasm and I cry and cry and cry. Ashamed-cry, scared-cry, confused-cry, something-is-breaking-away-cry, something-is-becoming-cry, how-long-has-that-been-there-cry, why-cry, I-just-did-that-and-I’m-proud-cry, why-don’t-I-know-what-happened-to-me-cry. I don’t give up on myself. I don’t give up on interrogating and pursuing my pleasure despite it’s seemingly stitched-together relationship to shame.
11. Get it Together, India Arie (19 years old, New York, NY) I make a mixed CD and mail it to my mother. She is in rehab in San Francisco and I am in college, a world apart in New York City. Maybe I am a sophomore, maybe I am a junior. I have finally come out of denial about my mother’s drug use. I call her one day and I’m furious about her lying to me. And I’m furious at my family for lying to me. I’m furious for the whole world acting like everything is okay. I’m furious that she stole my money, lied about it and sold my guitar before I could learn to play it. I’m furious that she put my sisters through hell. I’m furious because I am ashamed. I’m furious because I’m afraid. I’m afraid of addiction. I’m afraid she’ll never shake it. I’m afraid my sisters will live in shame because of it. I’m afraid I will be addicted. I’m afraid nothing will ever be okay again. My mother enrolls in detox and then enrolls in rehab. She stays there. She lives there for six months before transitioning to a halfway house. While she’s in rehab, I send her a mixed CD with Get it Together by India Arie on it. I’m walking between one class and the next when she calls to tell me that she’s three months sober and really enjoys the CD I made her. I’m grateful she’s sober. I’m furious. I’m hopelessly confused and sorry and fucking sad. And I can’t tell her anything except “congratulations” with a full throat, out of fear of breaking her sobriety.
12. We Belong Together, Mariah Carey (16 years old, San Francisco, CA) I am sixteen in the passenger’s seat of my grandpa’s Ford Expedition as we drive with a car full of grandkids to the movies. He loved Mariah Carey’s We Belong Together since he first heard it and has insisted my grandmother put it on a cd for him—ALL. EIGHTEEN. TRACKS. I seem to be the only one tired of it, all of the other kids get a kick out of belting it out again when it comes on deck the next time. Later this year my grandpa gets the truck washed and detailed and insists that I take my driver’s license test in it. Everyone else is lined up behind me for their license test appointment at the DMV in tiny cars. When I pass the test, my grandpa kisses me on the head and I realize that he is showing me confidence and pride in my ability. I feel special and capable and trusted. When he says, “I knew you would do it!” I realize I knew I would too.
13. The Storm is Over Now, Kirk Franklin (14 years old, Phoenix, AZ) I am in the backseat of my great aunt’s Cadillac in Arizona after meeting her for the second time in my life. I’ve just come from seeing my paternal grandfather die from cancer the day after meeting him in the hospice center for the first time. In his sickness, he sent for my sister and me to come from California. He wanted to meet us before he died. That night, my great aunt armed with silver-purple hair and a hug big enough for my sister and me to fit in at once, drives us to the hospice center directly from the airport. When we walk into the room, my grandfather has a large knot at the top of his bald head and he is barely responsive to us. But he closes his eyes tight or nods very slightly as my great aunt talks to him loudly, letting him know his grandbabies are there. I meet my all of my aunts and great aunts for the first time. I meet all these people who look like me. Early early the next morning, we get a call notifying us that my grandfather has died. When we go to see his lifeless body in the hospice center, I don’t remember who prays with us around him. When we head back, The Storm is Over Now plays in the car, and I cry because it’s an awfully timely song. The sky opens up after raining and the light comes through like a slice. We all agree that it’s confirmation he’s been accepted into heaven.
14. Deep in the Bottom, Black Coffee (27 years old, San Francisco, CA) I am on-time to therapy. I walk over from work. When my therapist asks if I have music to move to, I select the therapy playlist I’ve been practicing to. Deep in the Bottom comes on the speakers. I begin moving around the room. My hips and back want to be rolled, I let them. My feet want to keep time. My chest wants to expand and contract. My neck rolls and tries to loosen. I think to myself that half of the work is choosing music that I can’t help but move to. The other half is reminding myself that I am not in danger. I remind myself that this is the work. I try to keep my head up as I move. I try to catch my own eye in the mirror when I can bear to. I try to let the self-deprecating thoughts pass. I remind myself that reclaiming intimacy through movement, eye contact, physical touch, walking without bracing all of my organs—all of it, is a healing practice. Today I move and dance like I never have before. I dance like everybody's watching and I don’t care.
Tanea Lunsford Lynx is a fourth generation Black San Franciscan on both sides. She is currently at work on her first novel. She has more than 10 years of experience as a performing artist, curator, activist and educator in San Francisco.