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When I think about Shawty Lo, I think about my youth. “Dey Know” came out during my first year of college. It’s marching band trumpet sample feels defeaning and Shawty Lo raps over it without a sense of urgency. He’s gliding,slowly taking in the moment; his raspy, dragged out rapping is melodic and easygoing. He raps like he’s enjoying himself. In the music video for it, he does his signature dance which involves running in place, arms pumping forward as if competing in a track race. This was my introduction to Shawty Lo as a solo artist, before this moment, before this I knew him as one of the non-Fabo members of D4L: a group that was a very big part of the Snap era in Atlanta and as a result, a big part of my high school years. I loved Snap and Shawty Lo’s music in this time of my youth but I don’t have the reverence for his discography the way I do a T.I., a Jeezy or a Gucci. I have a feeling that many other people probably feel the same way, including those in charge of writing about music for culture magazines. On Wednesday September 21st, Shawty Lo was killed in a car crash on the I-285 southbound ramp to Cascade Road. For many of these publications, Shawty Lo’s death is the first time he’d ever been written about. It’s appreciated that a man who played such a vital role in Atlanta and in rap music is being remembered by people but it’s a shame that it took his death for it to happen. There is this disconnect happening where a majority of the people who will tweet or discuss Shawty Lo’s death will focus on the hit songs he made (as I’ve done), but for others he meant something more. You don’t have to be from or live in Atlanta to know it but you have to be ingrained in that scene. The Bowen Homes Carlos repped Bankhead and Atlanta to the fullest. His music meant something to that community. He was their hometown hero.

The hometown hero doesn’t get the same glory outside of their city but inside, you’re almost like royalty. And for a city so closely tied to hip-hop and current pop culture, being beloved means a lot. T.I. will always get credit for representing Bankhead in Atlanta to the fullest but Shawty Lo was right there: funding and participating in a rap group ahead of their time. Making sparse, playful party music when the more rugged street style was getting most of the respect. Even when Shawty Lo made his more street solo albums and mixtapes, there was a joyful, exuberant energy to it. The music was thrilling and caused your body to move almost in spite of itself even while Shawty Lo rapped about real gutter shit. It was beautiful and it meant a lot to me especially at the time in my life when it came out but no matter how I feel, it doesn’t match how the people of Atlanta, more specifically Bankhead, feel about this loss. For all of the success and legendary things he accomplished, he was truly theirs.

 

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Chapter 1

Gucci Mane’s happiness has become the only happiness that I can latch onto. He starts his new album, Everybody Looking, with the intro “No Sleep”. In it, he raps about being a “recovering drug addict” who “used to smoke a pound a week”. It’s hard to put into words how hearing this the first time made me feel. On it’s surface, who really cares? It’s not a hot bar or meant to be a standout line and yet it shook me where I stood all the same –because it was real. In all the pomp, circumstance and performative posturing of rap (regardless of whether or not said rapper lived the life they rap about), here was something honest and vulnerable. I knew Gucci had quit drugs during his stint in prison, but there’s a difference between quitting and admitting you had a problem. Addiction is treated as a weakness; the admission of which feels like confirming that you are indeed weak. The drugs stopped being about fun or parties, the drugs were your only rescue. The drugs were home and home was hell. So Gucci left and he told all of us his tale of survival. As I write this, I am in my late 20s: a toddler version of adulthood. Right now, the alcohol and the drugs are just supposed to be fun –escapism from the monotony and disappointment we are only recently getting accustomed to. We just want to party; we just want to touch the feathers of our youth some more before it flies out of reach. In a few years, we’ll be older and in a few more years we’ll be even older than that; we’ll have children, marriages, bigger responsibilities and less time for fun –but will that stop all the drugs and drinking? Is it so easy to break this habit that we’ve created? Some of us will quit and some won’t –as with all things, but as I stare into the bottom of this beer glass–praying that it doesn’t trigger a sickle cell attack–I wonder if maybe this home is no longer a comfort.

Chapter 2

When I was younger, I fantasized about running from home; away from my family. I fantasized about my family not really being my family or my parents waking up one day and realizing that they should treat me better. Fantasy was the only thing that was mine in those days. I would never act on it –I was too scared. I thought I deserved a torturous life. In some ways I still think I deserve to be treated like that. I was raised by pain and fear; anything else would be too foreign to adapt.

Chapter 3

Much of my Christian upbringing was spent being told to avoid hell; so I wanted to go to heaven. When I closed my eyes at night though, I could never picture it. It always came out wrong or incomplete; just undesirable. Earth, as ugly as it is, was tangible. Heaven is supposed to be this perfect place and maybe perfection can’t be imagined by human brains. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I die, but hell and heaven as they’ve been constructed by mythology and religious doctrine, serve no use to me.

Chapter 4

The first person I told that story to was a woman I care about deeply. It was 4 am and we were talking over FaceTime. We stayed up together that whole night –our insomnia being put to good use. We talked about our history, our fears, our desires and our present. It was a rare, organic, beautiful moment in my life. Can Heaven top that?

Chapter 5

I learned how to be a man from watching movies. But it was women who taught me I could be something better.

Chapter 6

I have seen a few people whose writing I respect a great deal move into a new plateau in their careers. A place where, suddenly, the artists and people they were once charged with writing about are now people they either work for, with or are in some communication with. In this new stage, they have become less critical or are moving into a more traditional idea of being a “creative” and away from “simply being” a writer of culture. I can understand this: criticism is made by plenty of people who keep themselves at a distance from what they write about. Without that distance, you start to form empathy and understanding. You may not like what a particular artist does but you now know the details and the business of how they made it, how hard they worked on it, how much it means to them and you can’t bring yourself to pick it apart and linger on its flaws.

I get this and I can even accept it. What I cannot accept is this disingenuous idea of “not being a hater”: the “vibes” attitude where everyone is positive and criticism is the enemy. Worst of all, I cannot stand this dismissiveness of criticism as a worthless exercise; as just hating for hate’s sake.

Criticism is an art like any other, and you shouldn’t trust any writer who doesn’t believe so. It is an expression of what you like, what you don’t like and why; what the art in question says about its fans and detractors, the culture around it and the time period from which it has emerged. The beauty of art is in the way something created by man can affect and touch the lives of those who act as witness. The ideal is: that the criticisms about this art, whether they be positive or negative, can touch on and articulate something that wasn’t expected or readily thought about by the people who’ll read it; and in this combination of art and critique something beautiful is birthed.

I got into criticism because I didn’t have anyone to talk to about the things I loved and the things I didn’t. So instead, I wrote it all down and, by the time I had moved onto writing for an audience, I was able to have those writings challenged or added onto by others. This discourse made my writing stronger but more importantly: it was a sparring match to explain why we love what we love. A reverberation of the art by its audience.

This doesn’t exist in a “positive vibes only” world. In that world, consensus is an unquestioned thumbs up and the strongest note of disagreement is: “it’s not my thing”. The beauty of Tom Scocca’s long, tedious screed on smarm was its valiant defense of snark as the only balance in an area that continuously encourages phoniness and sycophancy for the sake of career advancement or a narcissistic avoidance of ever having your feelings hurt by a bad review. Snark is honest; grating–insufferable at times–honesty being mischaracterized as an empty attempt to antagonize. The criticism that you disregard is the same criticism that will hold the entire, messy record on how the people felt, lived, thought, loved and hated at a certain point in time –regardless of what the “consensus” became. Not all criticism is worthwhile and it will always be like that; there is as much writing to make you cringe as there is any other art that makes you do the same; yet there will also be the type of criticism so honest, biting and eloquent that it will completely change your outlook on art and writing in ways you never imagined. Regardless of which, it’s important that the record show a full story instead of a stream of disingenuous well wishing.

Chapter 7

So much of rap music is about disappearing. Often, it involves flying off to space; in search of something new and, hopefully, better. Whether it’s Pastor Troy’s declaration, “I’m about to move to Mars y’all, the world a mess” or Kanye’s exasperation with life to the point that he’s gonna buy a spaceship “and fly, past the sky”; the world has been too much of a burden for so many rappers. Being black is hell. Being black and poor in America is worse than hell. It is filled with terror that you must learn to navigate every day; on top of this is the utter contempt towards you by everyone else in the world. For as much as black people, deservedly, commend ourselves for making something out of nothing, the nothing wears you down. Having only the slightest awareness of what your blackness represents to outside forces could drive anyone insane, make anyone miserable, cause anyone’s heart to break. Lil Wayne rapped about being a self-imposed “prisoner behind xanax bars” in order to escape the world; drugs and alcohol have always been the practical solution for escape; moving to the moon like so many rappers obsess about, remains unfeasible. This need to disappear or drown in the soothe, numbing ocean of drugs and alcohol isn’t simply borne out of a wanting to party; it’s deeper. People party because they wanna feel good and people party too much for the same reason they do anything too much: chasing a good feeling and running away from the world in the only ways they know how.

Chapter 8

What does it mean exactly to find yourself? Is it simply a case of trying to figure out who exactly you are or a fear that you already are the person you’re going to be so you have to fix yourself? Change has never bothered me, instead I worry that I haven’t changed enough. This is just who I am: the finality of that statement is terrifying enough to make me pretend that I’m still trying to find another me.

Chapter 9

When my heart beats too hard from all the pills in me, its sound is deafening. It’s rhythm is rapid and unstable; veering offbeat and threatening to jump out of my chest as though it wants to escape and feel the warmth of the sun for the first time. My heart makes me nervous because I don’t know what it’s up to. With Sickle Cell, you tend to think about the physical pummeling done to your body, but it’s my heart I worry the most about. My fear that one day my heart, exasperated from the extra work it has to do due to my misshaped blood cells will suddenly decide to quit with no two weeks notice. So it goes. I never asked to be alive and yet here I am and, as a bonus, I carry the weight of deformity. Despite all my existential worry, diseases never hurt the diseased as much as it hurts the people who choose to love them. They don’t understand it, they don’t know what it feels like and, as a result, they are terrified and guilt ridden over their own stability in comparison. I am always, seamlessly dancing between the stages of grief at all times –to the point that it feels mundane. Life’s cruelty is not special to me. I woke up today and my heart and body decided to keep working and that’s all I can ask for.

Chapter 10

If I have one true wish: I wish that my uncle’s death had frightened me away from destroying myself. Instead, I was just angry. I hated this world for what it had done to him, that it drove him to those drugs and that he felt that was his only way to maintain. And I hated myself for spiraling behind him. His death made me even more cynical–more bitter towards everything. I still fight to see the light.

Chapter 11

There’s a scene in Beyonce’s visual album, Lemonade, where the camera lingers on her deep inside the woods of Louisiana. She is surrounded by various tall and visually striking stalks; their light color in contrast to the dark bluish, moody cinematography. She is alone, with nothing but her thoughts and her emotions as the stalks are grabbed by the wind to dance. I am transfixed by this scene: by its look and Beyonce’s submergence into the unknown but comforting silence of nature; I am lost as she is and suddenly I begin to miss home.

Tallahassee is a trap: a swampy, humid prison that sucks the life out of you. The further out you get the more you are surrounded by trees and overgrown vegetation that scare you into believing that it may one day overrun the place. The actual “city” portion is dull in color and unremarkable in reality –until there’s a Florida State game or something. Some may think of this as a calm and safety, but the rest of us know we’re being held hostage here each day. Spend enough time in the jungle and you adapt to it and, taken from the ecosystem, you begin to long for it –even think you need it. I didn’t like Tallahassee until I left it. And even then, it wasn’t Tallahassee I liked but nostalgia. When I think of Tallahassee, I think about the fall: when school starts and the trees don’t change color but instead carry a peaceful, wafting backdrop to the hope and wonder that a new school year brings.

I don’t feel that anymore when I go back to visit. I feel like a stranger; as though everything I’d ever known and seen never happened. It was more than the new things built: the roads felt strange, the sun shined in a way unfamiliar to my gaze and the city was haunted by so many memories that there was nowhere left to find solace –not even in those trees and bushes. It was then, when I no longer felt like I had a home to go to and that my safety net was gone, could I finally move on with my life.

Chapter 12

I spend most of my time at my day job drawing doodles and writing. Very little of it is meaningful, it’s just reflex. The same reflex I had as a kid when I didn’t want to be in school or church. I am still looking to escape; desperately hoping to stumble into some sort of ease.

 

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I am in a room in my parent’s house. For brevity purposes, I’ll call it my room but it is not really mine and it was imperative of my parents to remind me of this at opportune times. This room is my home and my prison; a safe space at one moment and hell in another. It is fall, school has been in session for a few weeks and it is a dry, humid night in Tallahassee, Florida. I am writing in a composition notebook furiously, illegibly and incoherently: it is all earnest, dramatic emotion and self-indulgence in the way only teenagers can be. The world was out to get me and my only weapon were my words and my only support was the loud, fast, aggressively emotional emocore music that I’d been obsessed with.

When you’re a kid all you want is escape. Everyone and everything around you is dismissive towards you and ultimately interested in teaching you how to comply and how to follow orders. I grew up in a town that alternated between too humid and raining, where hanging out in an empty parking lot with friends was a reasonably good Saturday night and where the only thing that will ever matter in this life is what was happening at that very moment as far as we were concerned. I listened to a lot of rap but for all of rap’s brutal honesty, nothing I was exposed to identified with my embarrassing, navel-gazing immature ideas of being heartbroken as a teenager. At least not yet, that would come later, but at first it was all white sensitive males making power pop and punk-lite records about nostalgia, past mistakes and Salinger.

Emo is full-stop white dude tunnel vision and self-aggrandizement. It is almost comically open about feeling every kind of feeling and treating them all like scripture. It is self-involved in a way that is irresistible to a teenager that cannot see outside of themselves and to an adult that wants to remind themselves of those self-involved days every so often. You never forget the records you first obsessed over. The CDs you wear out until they can’t be played anymore, the lyrics you memorized like it was bible study, the way they made you feel every time they came one. I feel no shame in being obsessed with any of it. It all served a purpose. I knew every cringeworthy word on those Taking Back Sunday songs, I had my mental dictionary updated for every new Dashboard Confessional song I heard and I gleefully jumped into The Cure wormhole and wrapped myself in its esoteric grandiose.

A popular theme in a lot of this music (and music in general) is death. The ultimate go-to for every pedestrian poet: death is a game in this context and an excuse to bloviate in hyperbolic terms the tragedy of one’s own existence. Not to say that everyone is doing it for that purpose: depression is rampant in art and death is a valid focus and is capable of being used for genuine introspection. It’s also so tried and true that every artist thinks they can make death sound revolutionary. The ultimate protest to an unjust, ugly world. Sunny Day Real Estate made it sound like such a seductive choice and Nirvana made it feel like a sweet relief.

BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28: A man stops and yells at officers as they make their way through the crowd to help a person who needed medical attention near the intersection of West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue as protestors walk for Freddie Gray on West North Avenue and protest around the city in Baltimore, MD on Tuesday April 28, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

BALTIMORE, MD – APRIL 28: A man stops and yells at officers as they make their way through the crowd to help a person who needed medical attention near the intersection of West North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue as protestors walk for Freddie Gray on West North Avenue and protest around the city in Baltimore, MD on Tuesday April 28, 2015. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The romanticization of death is a luxury and a privilege. It’s easy to fetishize and create a fantasy out of death when it’s not a real part of your life. In rap music, death is either expressed through hopelessness about the situation and life that you’ve been cursed with or it’s a tool used to shield the fear you walk with every day. What’s more gangster than convincing people you aren’t scared to die? It’s a lie of course, but you hold that front in the face of an unforgiving world. Death is at your front door and it can consume you or you can use it against others. The bands I obsessed over in that room didn’t know death in that way. Some of them were depressed and some knew what loss was, but by and large, death was foreign. It was foreign to me too: as a black kid in the suburbs, I got the sane luxury of finding the romance in death, using my depression not to search inward, but to make myself the hero of my own tragedy.

The past couple of years have been a hard one for this country and for Black people especially. There is news of black people being murdered by the state, by self-proclaimed vigilantes and by each other at a constant rate. A couple years ago, a gunmen unloaded at an elementary school and we as a country decided this was a price worth paying if it meant no regulation on our guns. A couple months back, 9 people lost their lives inside of a church; it was supposed to be their safe space and under the protection of God. There have been too many deaths to name and many more will probably come.

In the midst of this, one of the things making my skin crawl is the casualness with which we share videos of Black men, women and children being murdered on camera as though it’s the latest viral cat video. The news of murdered Americans is already becoming numbing to us and now we’re trying to make ourselves numb to the actual sight of their death. When this is not happening then the lives and bodies of these once alive, loved human beings are being used as mascots for the agendas of various people for both good and bad reasons. Whether it was intended, their death is now romanticized in service to something bigger. So it goes.

There is no romance in death: there is only the fact of it and the inevitability that we will all be there. As I’ve gotten older my thought process has grown but so has my depression. I look back and reflect on the boy in that room who couldn’t wait to escape from it all with fondness and I roll my eyes at his self-obsession and his fixation on death as being beautiful and poetic. He doesn’t know better; that’s usually how all the best romances happen.

Here’s the thing.

I’m obsessed with death almost to a fault. This is mostly due to my serious fear of it and my lack of real understanding about how you can exist and then not exist for a way longer time. With that being said, I lost a relative this week. What happened doesn’t matter and we didn’t get to be as close as I would’ve liked but that’s the tragic undertone of life I guess. As someone who obsesses over pop culture, there were two pieces of entertainment that pervaded my mind this week–as they always do when I think of death: Sufjan Stevens songs and Synecdoche, New York.

Released in 2008, Synecdoche, New York marked the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, the absurdist manic writer behind such films as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. The film follows the life of Caden Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he spirals ever closer to depression and death while losing loved ones and trying to use a MacArthur Fellowship to fund the greatest living and breathing theatre piece ever made.

When the film was first released it was incredibly polarizing. People celebrated its embrace of the despair in life while others find it to eager to be the grimmest portrayal of reality. Truth be told, both views are right. it’s an often times overwhelming piece of art on life and death that borders on depression porn; it’s messy, exhausting and relentless in its presentation and, upon first viewing it, I really wasn’t sure how to feel about it–I was pretty sure I didn’t love it though. Then a strange thing happened: I kept thinking about it. It was on my mind heavily for a long time after viewing and I eventually bought it on dvd and watched it again. This is when I realized that I did love it–and still love it. What this says about me, I’m not sure but what I do know is that, for all it’s rough edges, Synecdoche makes for a wonderful thesis on death. It’s relentlessness is a great asset to it as well. If you can watch Cotard’s life crash in oblivion until his death and still walk away even feeling a little bit better about your own mortality then I think some real personal progress is made. Knowing what I know about my relative who passed I remember why I was so turned off by the movie in the beginning. As much as I hate the sappy redemption story, I feel that an extreme opposite story is no better–but it is more realistic. Maybe shit doesn’t get as bad as it did for Cotard but it does get bad, and no amount of happy endings can gloss over the abysmal affair that is death. I may never get over my qualms about death but I do have an almost child-like appreciation for life.

So R.I.P to my loved one, I’ll remember you for how you were and I hope that you’ve found true peace.

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