Jessica Felicity Kasiama shares a personal essay about the power of musical storytelling.
“If you ask me why representation is important, I will tell you that on days I don’t feel pretty, I hear the sweet voice of Missy [Elliot] singing to me: pop that pop that jiggle that fat / don’t stop, get it til your clothes get wet...I will tell you that right now there are a million Black girls just waiting to see someone who looks like them.”
These are the words of Ashlee Haze, a poet and spoken word artist based in Atlanta, GA. The excerpt is pulled from her 2015 poem “For Coloured Girls (The Missy Elliot Poem)” which was sampled on “By Ourselves,” the opening track on Freetown Sound. This is an album by Blood Orange, which is Devonté Hynes’ stage name. It’s a letter of appreciation and a spirited nod to Missy Elliott for empowering the poet through her music and her feminist message.
Hynes addresses a similar message of empowerment. Freetown Sound is both an investigation of a personal history and an investigation of roots. “[It’s an] album [for] everyone told they’re not Black enough, too Black, too queer, not queer the right way,” wrote Hynes in an Instagram post in 2016.
As I listen to Hynes’ soft and triumphant voice, I understand something that’s impossible to confront most days. When faced with oppressive forces, expression tends to become insincere, performative and fearful. It becomes difficult to articulate the nuances of one’s identity, and difficult to claim oneself when considered an invalid as a whole. Postcolonial art forms are unapologetic, obscure and are remedies that bring me to the crux of myself and challenge those who misrepresent and silence my narrative.
“I STILL SEE SANDRA’S SMILE.”
“Sandra’s Smile” on Freetown Sound by Blood Orange.
I live in my emotions. They are the raw and disgusting states of consciousnesses that slice through my body as a response to being alive. They often manifest in my own space, unheard and unseen. When I choose to make my emotions visible, they arrive in mutilated bodies as a way of catering to my surroundings. Feeling is a challenging pursuit: it is vulnerable and especially tiring when you are seen as a void. Words get caught in my throat when trying to explain how it feels to exist in the world as a young Black woman and to be seen as only this. My soul sinks when articulating how it feels to be a person. I know that I am limited, I fear that I am not allowed to feel everything.
Responding to the death of Sandra Bland, feminist author Roxane Gay wrote in The New York Times, “Because Sandra Bland was driving while Black, because she was not subservient in the manner this trooper preferred, a routine traffic stop became a death sentence.” Despite her mistreatment, Bland wasn’t allowed to protest. Her emotions were censored. This is a chilling example of fearing to express one’s emotions, but it holds a heavy truth: there are limitations placed upon you and those limitations are informed by your identity.
“Closed our eyes for a while / but I still see Sandra’s smile.”
“Sandra’s Smile,” a song from Hynes’ Freetown Sound, hits every note of my discomfort as I feel myself becoming overwrought and troubled remembering Bland’s story. Everything in me unravels as I stare at a photo of her prior to the incident, glowing and bright. I can feel a sea of emotions bubbling beneath my skin, but I hold tight to what I know about the ways of the world and slip back into what is expected of me.
“LET ME WALK TO THE TOP OF THE BIG NIGHT SKY.”
“First love/late spring” on Bury Me At Makeout Creek by Mitski.
Oppression has always been the disease: expression is the treatment that soothes me and coaxes my truths out. In a 2016 interview with The Line of Best Fit, an independent music website, musician Mitski Miyawaki explained:
“I write personal stories about relationships, and living in this world and being a human being…but I happen to live in a world which views me as an Asian American. So my experiences are tainted by that, even if I’m not conscious of it. Someone said ‘the personal is political,’ where it seems like me just being honest about my experiences as a human being and as a person translates as being political about being an Asian American person. I’m not in this to be political or a social activist, it just happens that my being honest is a very political thing.”
I remember when I lay on my bedroom floor, arms stretched out and decorated in pools of fading light from the window. I was unlearning the lessons that taught me I had to be silent. I was falling in love with myself and unlearning old ways of living inwardly. I watched the sun argue with time as it traded places with the night, against a cloudy pink backdrop. For a moment, everything was warm and I belonged to it: the present — the freedom of a summer’s night.
I was tangled in music playing from a shattered iPod. I lay still as Miyawaki sang,“Wild women don't get the blues / but I find that lately I’ve been crying like a tall child.” I recognized myself in the gentle breeze of her song, an articulation of my depression.
Miyawaki is a storyteller. She creates her own worlds through her work and affirms the worlds of others. When discussing editing with The Line of Best Fit, she observed that her lyrics “are unedited, or raw feelings,” and focuses more on composition and structure. Miyawaki says she shares herself with her listeners, knowing how she may be perceived. The lyrics pour from the Japanese American, singer-songwriter in a dreamy rock style. Emotions are noisy, sharp and unprepared. Miyawaki is a person who feels sensations and brings them to life. She’s a woman, crawling past patriarchal surveillance, so she may be herself.
Like the night spent on my bedroom floor, as the song began to slip away, I curled into a ball and realized the power in my vulnerability and empathy as a listener. Years spent with my eyes hypnotized by glossy magazine pages that tried to tell me how I should be were years wasted. I do not regret my growth, but as I stared at the moon bobbing in the sky, I understood that my feelings were genuine. As a writer, I understood that they were meant to be received in their truest forms.
“BUT IN OUR DARKEST HOURS, I STUMBLED ON A SECRET POWER.”
“Writer in the dark” on Melodrama by Lorde.
Ella Yelich-O’Connor creates art that stands tall. Yelich-O’Connor, more commonly referred to as Lorde, recently released her sophomore album Melodrama. The album is a self-examination and a documentation of the colours and conflicts of her youth. As she sings in “The Louvre,” with a “megaphone to [her] chest,” Lorde authors an intimate and supernatural peek into her beating heart. I am electrified by her lyrics and her kaleidoscopic-like storytelling. I feel myself at the party in Sober, with “liquor wet lime” caught between my teeth. I know her intensity all too well, the terror in her tone as she sings her way through Writer in the Dark and justifies the heat we feel in passion that is too often misunderstood as disorder. Lorde finds poetry in being young and destroyed, when you’re trying to collect the pieces of yourself. Female emotion is empowering. It isn’t frivolous or an object to delegitimize. Melodrama speaks to an audience of individuals. Lorde speaks to the liabilities; the outliers who bury their emotions.
I am possessed by my feelings. They are alive and important. I have been wilting and blooming on Earth for 20 years beneath the sickening and syrupy heat of suppression. When music comes forward and floods me with solidarity, it becomes easy to see that we are the authors of our own stories. I am reminded of how much it hurts to jam my spirit into a small container, hidden away from everything out of shame and fear. Everything stands still and I become tender and open, absorbing the songs that sink beneath my bones and invite my soul to claim its place. Hear yourself feel in the songs that speak to you and never forget to just be you.