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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.

 

asap-yams-1

I didn’t appreciate A$AP Yams while he was alive. I wish I had. I wish I could pretend I stanned for his tumblr and that he became my internet guru like a number of kids who showed up to Yams day in NYC on MLK Monday (a full year after his death) or the ones who celebrated him all over social media. The truth is, I found him to be a pretty cool makeshift record exec who was funny on twitter.

In death, his life came out in full color through people’s reflections on him. He’d touched so many people in so many different ways: through music, through everyday New York living and through social media –all at the young age of 26. He was an internet phenom –the real “pretty muthafucka” who stayed Coogi down to the socks. His tumblr site RealNiggaTumblr blew up by being expertly curated, cared for and unapologetically nerdy about rap music and he parlayed that into a platform for his artist A$AP Rocky that eventually lead to a $3 million record deal. He was a brilliant and hilarious hip-hop nerd that embodied early 90s Puff Daddy’s ingenuity and cunning; and he was also lost in a debilitating drug habit.

Yams wasn’t shy about his drug use or about wanting to quit. He entered rehab in July 2014 with the plan to kick the habit for good. I imagine he gave his all to fight the urges to use heavily again, but life will ruin your plans often. And so it goes: a young, charismatic and talented self-created mogul was taken from the world too soon thanks to drugs –or at least seemingly, thanks to drugs. Drugs are certainly the easiest scapegoats in stories like this; ultimately though, for many, they’re just a release mechanism for a hard world that crushes its inhabitants. Yams had demons and he had pain that he wanted to cope with –he also liked to party hard and the two things often coalesced until he had nothing left. And so, like that, Yams aka Eastside Stevie aka The Puerto Rican R. Kelly was gone, and all we have left is our memories to propel him into an internet martyrdom.

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I lost my uncle January 2013. His name was Samuel. I remember when my sister called to tell me. I was crashing on my friend’s couch, saving money for an apartment I was getting the next month. I was alone, and when my sister told me that he’d passed, I felt even more alone. It’s a curious thing feeling self-centered in the face of a death in the family: you feel bad for the immediate family and the deceased’s siblings and relatives, but you also feel bad for yourself. What am I gonna do without this person in my life? The truth is, my uncle probably felt more peace after death than he’d felt in the past few years prior.

In the summer of 2011: I  graduated college, I was dating a girl I liked a lot and I’d just gotten a job offer in Maryland –about an hour outside of Washington, D.C.. I had gone up there one weekend with my mom to look at apartments. It was a nice break from being stuck in Tallahassee all summer dying of heat. My mom was proud of me and supportive of this big adult move, but she was worried about me. While we were driving around the Hanover area, my mom talked to me about depression and falling into addiction. We’d never talked about my own depression before –she was a Christian woman who felt it was a matter of feelings and circumstances, not a disease. Despite this, she knew enough about her son to know he was prone to volatility.

And so, she told me about my uncle. She told me what happened when he retired from the company he’d spent 20+ years as a faithful employee. She told me about the retirement fund that ran out, the bills that kept piling up, the wife who suddenly had to do all of the work, the kids who still needed money for college and the things he could no longer do for his family as a retired worker. She told me about the alcohol and drugs that began to take over his life, the control he lost, and the money that was spent on his habit. She told me about how he used my cousin’s college money to buy alcohol and about how he finally pushed his family away once and for all. She told me about the people in his life who tried to reach him and help him to no avail. He didn’t want their help because he was ashamed, but more than that because he was sick.

A year and a half later, I stood frozen in my friend’s apartment as I got the news that he had overdosed. They found him, alone and already dead. He was gone and all I could think about was the retirement that started him on this journey like the first domino being pushed over to cause a ripple effect. I should’ve thought about the substance abuse that killed him–that’s what I was supposed to do, like everyone else–but instead I thought about the job he gave his life to doing and the spare change he got in return. I thought about that same fate for myself and others when our time comes to retire from a job that doesn’t love us… and I thought about his brother, my father. Drugs and alcohol took my uncle’s life and yet the bitterest part is that drugs and alcohol was a temporary relief for his pain and his demons.

His name was Samuel. Samuel like in the bible. The story of Samuel is that at a young age he realized that he could talk to God, his name translates to “God has heard”. The cynic in me wishes God had talked to my uncle and helped to save him, yet there’s another part of me that wonders whether or not God did talk to him in his last moments and really did save him the only way God could. I couldn’t tell you which one of these makes me feel better. Maybe none of it is supposed to.

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I don’t know that I’ve ever found any value in “the cautionary tale”. The idea of using the bad things that happen to people as a map for how to better live my own life has never worked for me –less because of its self-centeredness and more because of my own incompetence. My mother told me about my uncle because she wanted to use it as a cautionary tale before I stepped into the real world, but it didn’t work the way she wanted it to. I wasn’t scared away from drugs and especially not from alcohol, instead I was scared of working. I was afraid to give my soul, my youth and my energy to a faceless corporation that had already determined my worth to be close to nil.

Having a 9-5 job hasn’t done much for me except to see why my uncle tried to find peace in a bottle. Other than the occasional joint and maybe taking 1 or 2 pain pills when I’m not actually hurting, I’ve never been much for drugs, but alcohol–a substance that 6 years ago I never thought I’d touch–became the only constant in a time when things seemed to only get worse for me. I was out of a job sooner than I ever expected, I’d lost the only girl I’d ever loved, I’d lost friends and I was miles and miles away from anyone familiar to me. Drinking calmed my nerves until it became my only recourse –spending weekends getting swimming pools full of liquor and then diving in it. It’s then that I knew I was beginning to spiral (self-awareness might be my greatest strength in circumstances like this).

We use all sorts of things to fill the hole in our lives. We all want a little peace in a world that feels too hard to cope with. Sometimes the things we do to escape can become addictions and those addictions can kill us. I didn’t understand drug and alcohol addiction until it made its way into my family. It’s easy to blame the victims for their own problems and get on a pedestal about falling to weakness and routinely poisoning your body with things that are known to do harm but fuck anyone who thinks like that. Self-righteousness is just as addictive as any drug but without the deathly side effects. People will turn to anything to escape from a harsh reality. Addiction is not an overnight creation but a steady building mountain that fills a missing void for awhile before it engulfs an entire life until there’s nothing left.

I wish the drugs hadn’t been the only solution to so many people’s pain. It shouldn’t have to be this way, but it happens enough that a real conversation should happen beyond pointless finger-wagging and “afterschool special” sermonizing. I think about my uncle all the time: I think about the sweet man that I used to talk to on the phone. I wish Yams was alive, along with Pimp C and Whitney Houston and so many others lost to addiction. My one hope more than anything though is that in their dying moments, they felt free from their demons.

I know you think you’re bound for better things but you aren’t. This is it for you. You’ve achieved the most success you will ever achieve in your life.

Congratulations I guess? It’s sort of an accomplishment. The next time will be going through the five stages of grief. In a misguided use of your energy, you’re going to work hard to convince yourself that the tiny voice in your head that tells you to give up on your dreams and give in to the desire to eat Rice Krispie Treats shirtless on your couch is wrong. You’ll spend a lot of time in the Denial and Bargaining stage, you’ll tell yourself that you’re one step away, one song away, one good game away, one job application away, whatever; the truth is: this is it. You are already the best that you will ever be.

You will beg God or The Universe or whoever for guidance, a blessing, a miracle or anything but it will not come. The Universe will instead tell you that you should be happy where you are. Because this is your peak.

Is it shitty? Sure. A reality check is not here to coddle you like a newborn baby, it’s here to drop you on your head and blame you for falling. Knowing that you’ve peaked is not a good feeling because you’re never happy with wherever you peaked. We’re all full of ourselves and think that we deserve better than whatever we have going on at the moment.We don’t get what we want though: we reach our ceiling and then we gather ourselves together and build a life for ourselves while we wait to die. I think it’s the waiting that kills me most.

This is your peak: late nights spent in the fetal position, condescending supervisors, a family you only kinda like and so, so much alcohol. All the liquor and drugs you will consume just to disguise the pain that comes with reaching your peak will almost certainly be the highlight of the rest of your time here. In time, you might even get married and have children; children that you can use as the totems for all of your broken dreams and wishes. You will beat them down and crush their spirit all in the hopes that they can accomplish what you never could and maybe get a house out of the deal or whatever.

I’ll be honest, I don’t feel like finishing this essay. I got no fight in my left. I’ve already peaked and none of this matters.

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