Between the earth and the sea

Today I am thinking of this anecdote about Ruth Stone, a powerhouse American poet, that Elizabeth Gilbert shared in a TED Talk a few years ago:

As [Stone] was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields and she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. She said it was like a thunderous train of air and it would come barreling down at her… And when she felt it coming, ’cause it would shake the earth under her feet, she knew she had only one thing to do at that point. And that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house. She’d be getting chased by this poem. The whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page.

Stone wouldn’t always make it in time, she recalled, and would often have to relinquish the poem as it moved to “another poet.” Her story reminds me that the work of creativity is always equal parts discipline and surrender. We turn the soft earth of our hearts over and over. We sow the seeds. We water, hoe, prune, fertilize. We anticipate every variable. And at the end of it all, we wait, and perhaps, we pray. Anyone involved in any creative endeavor knows the foolishness inherent in assuming we can predict the true outcome of our efforts, as inspiration is often as fickle as the weather or the hand of God. The best we can do is simply prepare.

I’ve been thinking about this because I write a lot for no audience. I write because, perhaps like Stone, I can hear the rip of thunder that signals an idea is about to strike me and I try to find my way to the clearing. I write because I have to.

Even in those moments, when I can feel deep in the very pit of myself that I am a vessel about to receive an offering, I scarcely if ever know what the “result” will be. To me, the writing is always enough. I sit, open a document, write until the words cease to flow, and then quietly shut everything away when the whir of energy has passed. Occasionally I’ll look back on something that has come to me in one of these bursts, and I’ll think, “ah ha! This was waiting for a connection.” Ideas like friends.

Last night, I was searching for an article by adrienne maree brown about the politics of desire when I stumbled upon an homage/eulogy/love letter she wrote to Ursula K. Le Guin shortly after her passing in January of this year. brown writes:

When I needed to stand up for something, feeling alone in my dignity, you told me about the ones who walk away from a utopia dependent on someone else’s suffering.

When I lost hope in this world, you offered me a plethora of fully formed universes to learn from. You even gave me multiple options for moving between universes, both distant and parallel.

When some aspect of humanity felt beyond my comprehension or compassion, I found books you had written 20 years before that not only opened my heart, but also opened the possible in me, and generated desire for that specific difference.

When I wondered if imagination could be necessary for revolution and transformation, you said, “Yes.” You said our dreams and visions matter, they are the way we make oppression temporary.

I’ve been reading the original Earthsea trilogy that Le Guin first breathed into being in the late 1960’s. It’s a world in which, as brown puts it, a white person “imagine[s] something beyond their own supremacy.” Sometimes I think about that idea chasing Le Guin down the street in mid-century Portland, a place with a deeply disturbing investment in white supremacy both past and present. And I consider the vital importance of her decision to let the idea move through her and onto the page, perhaps because she knew that visualizing an alternate world was the first step to bringing it to life. But was it a guarantee she’d be receptive? I wonder, too, what the role of the writer is in preparing for the ideas that might be thrust upon her. That is, what, if anything, did Stone or Le Guin ask to receive?

Perhaps creative discipline looks as much like stretching the edges of one’s heart as it does being immersed in the craft. Perhaps it means cultivating the compassion and courage to ask for inspiration that moves us closer to the world we crave, the one we deserve.

Earlier today, I found the following paragraphs I wrote a few months ago. I’m sure I intended to “do” something with them, but whatever that was is unclear to me now. In light of Stone, brown, and Le Guin, I realized that my words were an example of letting inspiration flow through me, yes, but more importantly of contributing them to the chorus of those of us that still yearn for justice. And I realized that what I wrote signifies a longer, more subtle project of honing what it is I ask for, what kind of thoughts I invite from wherever they originate. After all, at the heart of all of this is the idea that nothing we create is new, not really. If one believes, as I do, that there are certain incontrovertible truths that govern and affirm human dignity, then the work of creation is merely to translate that idea through different forms.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved telling stories. My earliest days were filled with long afternoons stretching the outer limits of my imagination, my ideas taut like wool on a loom ready to be woven into something vivid and spectacular. I created vast worlds of fantasy and intrigue from within the four walls of my bedroom, or on the patch of grass that tumbled lazily down a hill in my backyard into a little man-made gulch. In the quiet but vibrant, pulsating recesses of my mind, I was many things: a singer, a soldier, a playwright draped in colorful silk, even President of the United States. I imagined what it felt like to be anyone else, and in that way I stumbled upon and cultivated the sweet gift of empathy. I extended my hand and reached out for those who would spin the threads of fantasy with me. It’s amazing what can feel so electrifyingly possible when someone says back to you, “Why yes, I can see it too.”

I’ve never lost my fantastical imagination, but the scope is much more rooted in the concrete now. I see, as clear as day in my mind’s eye, a world where women hold equitable power everywhere, from the halls of government to their own households. A world in which the people who make decisions that affect all of us look like all of us, in all our varied and beautiful hues. A world where personal experience is an asset, not a liability, and carries equal if not greater weight than a credential. A world where Black and brown children walk into school and hear, “Because of your ancestors and your families, we are all standing here today. We are forever grateful. The people who walked before you built everything–here are the keys to the kingdom.” A world where those same children run outside and gulp down great bubbles of clean air, laughing and kicking and playing in the sweet, resplendent warmth of their joy and safety. A world where being a human being is proof enough of a person’s value, where food, water, shelter, and heat are available to all without asking. A world where the abundance we have is nurtured tenderly and shared among us with unwavering generosity. A world where we commit to the hard work of loving each other and of honoring our planet. A world where rest and sleep come easily after a day’s effort or toil. A world brimming with compassion, pleasure, mercy, and ingenuity.

A world I believe is out there, somewhere between the earth and the sea.


Why’s it so hard to accept the party is over?

Hi. I missed my blog, so I’m posting my long-ass end-of-year music email for 2017 here. Sending love to you and yours for the year ahead.

First, a few hopes for pop music in 2018:
  • More Latinx crossover hits. I am ready for Juanes to return to his “Dámelo” roots and get Rihanna on a track. Just don’t let DJ Khaled produce.
  • Come to think of it, more Rihanna everywhere. For someone who didn’t release an album, 2017 was Rihanna’s year. I would like to see this trend continue.
  • A collaboration between Khalid and Zayn. The world needs these young men of color to be in their feelings TOGETHER.
  • More unapologetically queer pop music. Hayley Kiyoko, Halsey, Lauren Jauregui, Shura, Kehlani…it’s a good time for openly gay/bisexual pop stars to profess lady love in the mainstream. I would love to see this translate to the pop country scene too, on principle.
  • More solo female rappers getting #1’s. Cardi B was the first to top the Billboard since Lauryn Hill NINETEEN 👏🏻 FUCKING 👏🏻 YEARS 👏🏻 AGO. I am ready for Princess Nokia, Young M.A., Cardi, and literally anyone but Iggy Azalea to ascend to the heights of Top 40 success, thank you.
Anyway, on to the main event.

Favorite Albums of 2017

1. Ctrl, SZA

Sometimes an album drops and it seems like all of your friends and all of the famous people you follow on Instagram that feel like your friends got together to listen to it at the same time and forgot to invite you. That sums up my June, when SZA released Ctrl and it took me a full month to listen to it. This, despite the fact that I a) loved the song “Consideration” from Rihanna’s ANTI, on which SZA is featured, and b) wrote a blog post telling my readers (parents, tbh) to listen to the lead single, “Drew Barrymore,” back in February. I don’t know. Sometimes I just don’t have my act together.

2017 brought me a job reviewing college application essays prior to their submission. I can’t tell you how often I exhorted high school students to scrap the general in favor of the ultra-specific. Ctrl lays bare why I did so–the easiest way to connect with your audience is to speak your truth, as only you can. Everything about this album, from the beats to the lyrics to the pleading, yearning, sometimes bizarre vocals, feels so uniquely SZA. And yet, it also feels like she crawled into her listeners’ brains to mine their personal experiences for material. Lines like, “I get so lonely/I forget what I’m worth/We get so lonely/We pretend that this works/I’m so ashamed of myself/Think I need therapy,” or “Fearing not growin’ up/Keeping me up at night/Am I doing enough?/Feel like I’m wasting time,” are eminently relatable; SZA gives them shape, cadence, and rhythm unlike anyone else I’ve ever heard.

It’s worth noting, of course, that there are parts of this album that are not universal. When I listened to “20 Something,” the final track, I cried as I heard SZA’s voice come through the speakers, aching with a kind of weary fear: “Hopin’ my 20 somethings won’t end/Hopin’ to keep the rest of my friends/Prayin’ the 20 somethings don’t kill me, kill me.” In a world that continues to treat Black life with passive dismissal at best but active violence just as often, these words reverberate like a plea for the mere dignity of being allowed to age, to gain some solid footing in the world, to get to the point where you can pay for your own damn phone plan. It’s a reminder that honoring the sanctity of Black life means letting it be mundane and messy, and to do so without the threatening backdrop of violence.

I love every track on Ctrl except “Doves in the Wind” because I truly cannot stand Kendrick Lamar’s verse. Skipping that song, I listened to this album at least once a day every day for two months straight and I would do it all over again.

2. Melodrama, Lorde

Most of my memories from living in Pittsburgh center around being cold (it was the Polar Vortex and the radiator in my room only worked some of the time, after much coaxing). Every day I would yank my thick black Timbs over my feet and pray they would grip the ice on the sidewalk that descended at a merciless 30 degree angle for several blocks from my front door to the bus stop. I only fell once. That winter was the era of Beyoncé, which filtered through my ear buds on heavy rotation for months. The only other album that regularly snatched a spot on my playlist? Lorde’s Pure Heroine. It was perfectly suited to the bitter cold that seeped into every last corner of my body–somehow imagining myself among defiant teenagers counting coins on the subway in New Zealand allowed me to conjure a little bit of heat to shield me between bus transfers.

Melodrama shows us what happens when the kids pooling their money for a night out grow up, fall in love, and get dumped. But this isn’t just any old breakup album–it’s a sparkling, messy chronicle of becoming an adult through all sorts of missteps in love and lust. At one point, Lorde leans heavily into the hyperbole that befits the early days of a relationship she already knows is doomed: “Our thing progresses/I call and you come through/Blow all my friendships/To sit in hell with you/But we’re the greatest/They’ll hang us in the Louvre.” In a moment that perfectly captures the irreverence that makes this album great, she adds, “Down the back/But who cares/Still the Louvre.” Lorde knows that stepping into adulthood can feel so serious as to actually feel absurd. On Melodrama, she grapples with the tension of honoring the intensity of it all without losing her grip on reality.

3. Take Me Apart, Kelela

Kelela’s EP Hallucinogen was among my favorite non-2016 albums of 2016, and I was thus anxiously awaiting the release of her debut full-length album. I will spare you the verbosity of the prior album “reviews” here. As I aimlessly scrolled through the comments on Kelela’s video for “LMK,” the lead single from this album, I came across this perfect summary from MsLoupe: “Kelela come thru rnb goddess of the future….. she took it back to the 90s and then took us forward to 2053 AD.” That’s exactly it. Kelela manages to occupy past and future simultaneously, as though she were a shapeshifter or time traveler meant to usher us in to a brand new musical era so comforting in its familiarity. Press Rewind and you’ll be on a goddamn spaceship to a totally novel sonic universe, with Kelela at the helm.

4. DAMN., Kendrick Lamar

I would say that nine times out of 10, I don’t like Kendrick Lamar’s features (see: Ctrl). On his own albums, the ones where he gets to develop his ideas and flows for more than a couple measures, he much more readily achieves the greatness his reputation suggests. Sometimes an artist is so critically-acclaimed, one wonders whether praise of their newest release is just a perfunctory exercise among music critics. In Lamar’s case, after the great Grammy Heist (see what I did there) of 2014 that robbed good kid M.A.A.D. city of its win for Best Rap Album, I wouldn’t be mad if the critics were pandering. But DAMN. really is as good as everyone says it is.

Kendrick Lamar lives, breathes, and makes art in the liminal space between sin and salvation. Perhaps more than any other of his contemporaries, he lays bare the discomfort of trying to situate himself in the context of gargantuan fame without becoming a villain. DAMN. is filled with lots of clever rhymes, word plays, and flows, but where the album gains its power is in the notion that Lamar can’t simply outsmart his discomfort. The tension will always remain–it’s why “HUMBLE.” sounds like he’s flexing and effacing himself. The key for him is to continue building the connection to something bigger than than whatever promises fame appears to offer, to turn instead to God, his people, and the unrelenting demands of personal growth.

5. Aromanticism, Moses Sumney

It took me awhile to warm up to this album, held at bay for the same reason I ultimately came to love it: Moses Sumney wants to keep whoever is listening at arm’s distance. The instrumentation is often minimalist, which allows Sumney’s crisp, high, and melancholic voice to stand out in stark relief. In defiance of the lovers who would not make space for him in their lives, Sumney decided to carve that space for himself, one where his pain is given the acknowledgement it deserves. The album is bleak in a way that robs the listener of the simple narrative that being spurned by a lover makes you more resilient. Perhaps that becomes true in the end, but when you’re wading through the muck of unending rejection there is great power in asserting the full weight of your sadness. Sumney does so to chilling effect with a stunning falsetto that pierces through all the bullshit and says what we all know to be true: it stings like a motherfucker to feel like you’re not wanted.

6. American Teen, Khalid

This summer, I went to my five year college reunion and hung out with my friend’s 16-year-old daughter. After we parted ways, we tried to maintain a Snapchat streak and I failed miserably after two days because I am old and boring. Apparently 27 is the age when teens become utterly incomprehensible…or so I thought, until I found myself driving around town and belting out the words, “Yeah we’re just young, dumb, and broke, but we still got love to give” with the utmost sincerity. A 19-year-old was reflecting my exact state of mind right back to me.

Khalid blurs the line between earnestness and ennui in the way only a teenager could. That youthful blend of tenderness, hope, vulnerability, and the desire to still be cool somehow is so effective at reminding the old cynics that all any of us are trying to do is find the people that make our hearts a little less lonely, even if we stumble. Take away the smart phones and subtweets that place Khalid’s debut in the present moment, and you’ve simply got a timeless, thoughtful meditation on what it’s like to test the waters of love and romance for the first time.

7. The Nashville Sound, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Before I listened to this album, I got a text from my dad that said, “Jason has a new song about amphetamines.” I like that my dad feels like he’s on a first name basis with Jason Isbell, and that he thinks that my life is so replete with amphetamines that it was worth singling out that particular detail to nudge me to listen to the album ASAP. Indeed, the opening track “Last of My Kind” (the one with the amphetamines) hooked me for its melancholy beauty. Jason Isbell’s songwriting is always stunningly poetic, gruesome, and self-effacing; that quality, mixed with his clear, resonant vocals and enchanting guitar work, is the why he sits high on my list of favorite musicians.

Isbell has never shied away from grappling with social issues, but in his first release since last year’s election, his songwriting is that much more direct. In “White Man’s World,” he sings about racism as an existential threat to humanity not only for its inherent violence but also for the way it distorts, twists, and haunts the souls of those who benefit from it–like him. There’s no pandering or posturing here, just a clear articulation of the notion that liberation for one is tied up in liberation for all. Will it surprise anyone to learn that the first time I listened to this album, I started crying at track four, the aforementioned “White Man’s World,” and didn’t stop until the end of track six, “Anxiety”? I’m very predictable.

This isn’t my favorite of Isbell’s work, but like his other albums, there is a fascinating interplay between personal and societal pain throughout this album, with little glimmers of romance and hope or something like it mixed in. Perhaps not in style but certainly in substance, Jason Isbell is a clear inheritor of the Springsteen legacy. Maybe that’s why I love him so much.

8. MASSEDUCTION, St. Vincent

I’ll admit it: there are a lot of solo female musicians that I like more in theory than I do in practice. People like Grimes or Angel Olsen deserve a lot of praise for their multifaceted talents, even if I don’t particularly enjoy their music. St. Vincent always fell into this category for me–I thought it was badass that there was this weird, kind of spooky guitar savant making rock’n’roll records that I nonetheless didn’t want to listen to. I confess to being more interested in St. Vincent as a celesbian than a musician, which makes me feel like an asshole.

But this album hooked me. I read a review that noted it’s the poppiest of St. Vincent’s albums, but that that was less about her selling out than it was about her making pop formulas bend to her style. It’s like St. Vincent surveyed the pop landscape to pick and choose what was worth transmogrifying into a catchy, bizarre, and haunting meditation on the rock’n’roll standbys of sex and drugs (with a few bits of social commentary thrown in). I like this album because it’s unsettling and messy despite St. Vincent’s glossy technical mastery.

9. Fin, Syd

If Justin Bieber is the fuck boy I love to hate, Syd is the fuckboi I love to love. The world desperately needed a super gay R&B album filled with sultry slow jams and songs that are just the right mix of corny/sexy that make you roll your eyes a little even as you turn the volume up. Syd’s voice is as airy as can be, a quality she knows can disarm any love interest’s defenses when wielded with confidence. Her equal parts bravado and self-doubt make her alluring and approachable. Syd’s mastered what I like to think of as “seduction inception”–a deftness at pursuing whoever she’s chasing that’s so effective the girl will end up thinking going home together was her idea all along.

10. Drunk, Thundercat

Would I have included this album in my Top 10 were it not for the fact that it reignited my whole family’s appreciation for Michael McDonald? Yes, but that certainly helped its case. I know it’s extremely passé to use the word “groovy,” but honestly, that’s the best way to describe Thundercat’s bass lines. He settles into a groove and explores it, bringing the listener along as he carves out the landscape of each riff and each song. His vocals are at times manic, tongue-in-cheek, or resigned, and occasionally his style of singing belies the content of his lyrics, forcing a deeper listen. In a course of a single day, a person might play a bunch of video games, muse about the earth disintegrating at breakneck speed, plan a vacation, and consider the possibility of imminent death. That is to say, each day is filled with moments and ideas both big and small, and in 2017, the quotidian has expanded to encompass an almost incomprehensible amount of destruction. Thundercat places The Big Stuff in this album squarely where it belongs: right in the middle of everything else. And then he makes it sound groovy.

And the rest…

11. SweetSexySavage, Kehlani
12. Not Even Happiness, Julie Byrne
13. H.E.R., H.E.R.
14. Everybody Works, Jay Som
15. The Navigator, Hurray for the Riff Raff
16. 4:44, Jay Z
17. Rest, Charlotte Gainsbourg
18. 1992 (Deluxe), Princess Nokia
19. The Order of Time, Valerie June
20. Awaken, My Love!, Childish Gambino
21. Ash, Ibeyi
22. Plunge, Fever Ray
23. Process, Sampha
24. The Two of Us, Chloe x Halle
25. Rainbow, Kesha
26. I See You, The xx
27. Culture, Migos
28. FREE 6LACK, 6lack
29. Big Fish Theory, Vince Staples
30. Good For You, Aminé

These albums I appreciated for various reasons, but didn’t necessarily enjoy:
  • The Kid, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
  • A Crow Looked at Me, Mount Eerie
  • No Shape, Perfume Genius

Quick s/o to the disappointments, from “meh” to “utterly unlistenable”:

  • Everything Now, Arcade Fire
  • Black Origami, Jlin
  • The Ooz, King Krule (I want to know who is responsible for the massive amounts of critical acclaim this album has received because it is awful)
  • American Dream, LCD Soundsystem
  • No One Ever Really Dies, N.E.R.D.

Favorite Non-2017 Albums of 2017

  • Heavn (2016), Jamila Woods. For some reason I couldn’t get this on Tidal last year in time to include it on my list, but it’s fucking incredible.
  • ¿Dónde Están Los Ladrones? (1999), Shakira. The rest of this album could be complete garbage and it would still be great because of “Ciega, Sordomuda.” Lucky for me, the whole thing is great.
  • Court & Spark (1974), Joni Mitchell. It would be too cliché if I said Blue.
  • True (2012), Solange. This album turned five this year and it continues to bang. Plus it gave me one of my favorite music videos (and songs) of all time.

Favorite Singles of 2017

Here’s a playlist for this, uh, eclectic mix of songs.
  1. “Despacito,” Luis Fonsi feat. Daddy Yankee. What could I possibly say about the perfection that is “Despacito” that hasn’t already been said through its 16-week-run at the top of the Billboard 100 and 4.6 BILLION YouTube views?
  2. “Praying,” Kesha. There has not been a single time that I’ve heard this song that I haven’t openly wept. Kesha’s voice is gorgeous, this song is heartbreaking, and I hope that every time she sings it the demons that birthed it get a little bit weaker.
  3. “Green Light,” Lorde. If you’ve made it this far, then you know there’s nothing I love more than some messy feelings set to a catchy beat. Thanks, Lorde.
  4. “The Weekend,” SZA. I just want everyone to know that Justin Timberlake wrote this song.
  5. “Cut to the Feeling,” Carly Rae Jepsen. First, HI DAD. Second, as much as I love “Despacito,” Kevin Fallon at the Daily Beast rightly noted that CRJ should have had one of the songs of the summer but didn’t because “straight people ruin everything.” Unassailable argument.
  6. “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi B. When I die, please write, “If I see you and I don’t speak, that means I don’t fuck with you” on my tombstone.
  7. “LOVE.,” Kendrick Lamar. The combination of Zacari and Kendrick Lamar is very, very good–tender, thoughtful, and earnest. It’s K Dot at his softest and I love it.
  8. “Young, Dumb & Broke,” Khalid. Tag yourself: I am all three.
  9. “Strangers,” Halsey feat. Lauren Jauregui. Please someone tell the showrunners behind The L Word reboot to make this the theme song. Side note: it says a lot about Halsey that she rose like a phoenix from the ashes of collaborating with the Chainsmokers to make so many fucking bops this year.
  10. “I’m Better,” Missy Elliott feat. Lamb. All-time queen of futuristic hip-hop. This song would be better without Lamb imho, so here’s hoping that Missy gets a solo #1 in 2018.

Favorite Music Videos of 2017

  1. “Despacito,” Luis Fonsi feat. Daddy Yankee. We already know everyone on God’s green earth loves this song, so there’s not much more to say here except: this video is the perfect bisexual male fantasy and no one can tell me after watching it that Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee aren’t desperately in love with each other.
  2. “Lemon,” N.E.R.D. feat. Rihanna. Does having Rihanna shave your head make you an incredible dancer? I’m not sure, but Mette Towley could convince me that’s true. She absolutely steals the show here.
  3. “Green Light,” Lorde. Lorde is the reigning queen of awkward dancing (sorry CRJ). Here, she brings her rage and resentment to life in sometimes explosive, sometimes sputtering movements over the course of an evening dedicated to hitting the town alone after a breakup.
  4. “Feelings,” Hayley Kiyoko. This video is very goofy, charming, and seductive. I love that Kiyoko directs most (all?) of her own videos, and that this one was shot in a single take. It complements the song’s notion of being such an emotional dork that you always come on too strong (#relatable).
  5. “Boys,” Charli XCX. I’m sure a lot could be said about how effectively this video does or does not subvert the male gaze, but instead I will say: Khalid with puppies! Aminé’s impish smile! Joe Jonas’ insatiable love of pancakes! Mostly boys are the worst but I like this video anyway.
  6. “New York,” St. Vincent. Annie Clark delivers exactly the type of aesthetic feast you would expect: minimalist scenes awash in bright colors and an eclectic mix of textures. Amid all of it, she looks unflinchingly into the camera with a hardened expression that somehow simultaneously hides and betrays her heartbreak.
  7. “Family Feud,” Jay Z. Part of the premise of this 8-minute, Ava Duvernay-directed video is that a multiracial group of women revises and updates the U.S. Constitution in 2050, with a grown-up Blue Ivy Carter at the helm. Even if the video didn’t feature so many of my favorite celebs, I would love it for the concept alone. Can we make Blue Ivy president, like, yesterday?
  8. “HUMBLE.,” Kendrick Lamar. After the first chorus, where Lamar exhorts his listener to “Sit down/Be Humble,” the shot pans to him sitting with his friends at a table akin to that in the Last Supper. Comparing yourself to Jesus will always be the ultimate flex.
  9. “Drew Barrymore,” SZA. What I love about this video over, say, “The Weekend,” is that it really captures the sense of SZA just being on the cusp of superstardom. It’s at once silly, grungy, and melancholic. Plus it features a cameo from the actual Drew Barrymore.
  10. “LMK,” Kelela. Another choice YouTube comment from Namir Fearce: “FUTURISTIC R&B // FAITH EVANS/JAGGED EDGE VIDEO IN 2098 A.D.”

Favorite Random Musical Moments of 2017

Favorite Concerts of 2017

  1. SZA, The Gothic Theater, Englewood, CO.
  2. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, with Frank Turner and Amanda Shires, Red Rocks Ampitheatre, Morrison, CO.
  3. Arcade Fire, Pepsi Center, Denver, CO.
  4. The Drive-By Truckers, Ogden Theater, Denver, CO.
  5. Lucero with Paper Bird, Denver Botanic Gardens, Denver, CO.
2018 resolution: go to concerts, like, at all.

White supremacy doesn’t love you

when it looked at us and saw that we were white, it said
“i love you.”
and we believed.
we wrapped ourselves in that cocoon of love
how good it felt to be so valuable, we thought.

when it looked at us and saw that we were white, it said
“i love you because you are not black.”
and we trembled if for a moment,
for now we knew love rested on all that we weren’t,
and yet we had no idea what it was that we were.
the waves lapping at that line in the sand, so firm and so fuzzy
how good it felt when the cool water splashed between our toes, we thought.

when it looked at us and saw that we were white, it said
“i love you, but do you love me? i need you to show me.”
and we sobbed and we grasped at its ankles,
admonishing ourselves for our failed devotion.
we’ll do anything, anything.
and so we entered the arena, swords sharpened and armor tight
ready to face the adversary that made our beloved question us.
imagine our surprise when the lions looked so much like us
hands feet breath face heartbeat just like us.
we must have imagined, then, the lions had swords too
but the red dust stung our eyes as we kicked up clouds of gravel
we dropped our visors and charged into the blur—
we should do anything for love, we thought.

when it looked at us and saw that we were white, it said
“i loved you once but you’re in my way.”
and we spun around to find a landscape of suffering unraveling behind us
that we had never before turned to face.
and there in the thick of it all
a gleaming marble throne
or a mausoleum, we could not tell.
we basked so long in the splendor of our beloved’s promise
we did not see that what it loved
was just beyond us
the chaos, the violence, the pain
that circled around the seat of power like a whirlpool.
and our beloved looked at us with a hand outstretched
beckoning us to ride the rising sea of bloodshed
or get tossed aside like ballast.

and we watched our brothers and sisters climb aboard
clinging still to that shaky promise of deliverance
and we had to decide
whether we believed
that what doesn’t hesitate to kill you could ever really love you.

Under the moon.

There is always something to mourn these days. In 36 hours in New Orleans this week, two Black trans women were murdered for having the audacity to proclaim to the world that their lives, on their terms, demanded to be seen, loved, and cherished. Over and over again, we fail to see, and if we finally do, we fail to love and cherish. And now that we have a federal government that acts in accordance with the belief that trans kids don’t need or deserve protection, what can we possibly do to create a world where all trans people, but especially trans women of color, live full, safe, and healthy lives?

Sometimes it feels like donating to an organization is a surface-level solution (and indeed, it’s incomplete), but considering that trans people are more than twice as likely than the general population to live in poverty, moving money is a crucial start. The Trans Women of Color Collective (TWOCC), the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and Youth Breakout (which is based in New Orleans) are three organizations I recommend familiarizing yourself with, though there are many more.

Less often now does it feel like there’s much to celebrate, but this week there was a little something. A $1.5 million movie about a queer Black boy navigating the constraints of masculinity, the ravages of poverty and trauma, and the fragile but fruitful possibility of loving another person took home the Academy Award for Best Picture (and Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay). Moonlight  is the first movie with an all-Black cast and the first movie centered on the experience of a queer person to win the top prize. I don’t want to overstate what this win means in terms of “progress” in Hollywood, but I do believe that getting closer to a world in which pop culture tells the story of the U.S. as it actually is, and not solely how it exists in the white racial imaginary, is an important and necessary step toward artistic justice.

You can rent or buy Moonlight on Amazon if it’s not currently playing in a theater near you.

And now, onward.


Trying a different format this week, cribbed from all my favorite newsletters. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Attention liberals: free speech doesn’t entitle you a platform, especially when that platform is giant and lucrative. When tolerance is a paradox. Mapping the Appalachian Trail, using Black literature. Warsan Shire and Beyoncé are the artistic superheroes we need. Behind every great woman is…another woman. Oceti Sakowin camp comes down, but Standing Rock still stands. Civics needs a serious comeback, and what it means to take education into your own hands. White men do not use their power for good, but they do use it for: manufacturing terror, exploiting social malaise, and monopolizing the internet. Inhumanity depends on ordinary Americans. Marriage will not cure wealth disparities for families of color. Planned Parenthood–and women’s health in general–is in great peril. The dark edge of reason. “I was a Muslim in trump’s White House.”


If you’ve never really “gotten” Prince, Anil Dash has you covered.

My mom learned about Gil Scott Heron this week. His whole body of work is relevant as ever, but this week we were struck in particular by “Whitey On the Moon.”


The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater pays homage to Moonlight.

I really liked the Netflix reboot of “One Day at a Time” and cried multiple times while watching it, though that is also true of my experience seeing commercials for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” so take everything I say with a grain of salt.

Until next time.


To breathe free.

This post has been a little while coming. Like many of us, I suspect, I’ve been filled with a frenetic, unfocused energy for the past few weeks. It feels like trying to put out a house fire with a bucket, except the house is the whole world and the bucket is a thimble. Sometimes I consider, if it feels this exhausting to merely keep abreast of the news coming down the pike, what will it feel like when everything truly begins to unravel? For so many people, living in the United States is and always has been a constant unraveling. Where do they turn when the spinning gets out of control? What does shelter from the storm look like, and how can we build more safe harbors where the huddled masses yearning to breathe free (to breathe at all) show up at the door with nothing to prove, no one to answer to? Where being human is always already enough?

I’ve long considered the work of social justice to be two-fold. Fight the bitter, divisive violence of oppression, and build structures that support the kind of world we actually want to inhabit. It seems to me that much of the new left has been focused for too long on the first line of defense, though not without reason. The opposition is steady, patient, and singularly focused on one goal: the consolidation of power and resources in the hands of the few by whatever means necessary. They are not interested in building or creation. Destruction is faster, cheaper, and more effective because it leaves the rest of us scrambling to claim whatever piece of the wreckage provides some semblance of security, of familiarity. It keeps us distracted from the long slog of putting together something new. As the adage goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it sure did burn in one (well, six).

A good friend of mine recently sent me a tarot deck. I’ve had my tarot read several times in the past, but I’d never tried my hand at reading the cards myself until a few days ago. The book she sent to accompany the deck suggested diving in, familiarizing oneself with the cards, and getting comfortable with the storytelling that comprises the heart of tarot’s utility. As I was playing around with the cards for the first time, I asked the question weighing most heavily on my mind: what do I need to foster, nurture, and encourage to face the new political reality?

The first card, Seven of Cups (reversed), signifies anxiety in the face of a powerful adversary. Looking at the card, I saw chalices brimming with all sorts of things, some positive and some negative, upturned and spilling their contents as an onlooker merely beholds the spectacle from the shadows. It was a perfect metaphor for my general mental state — overwhelmed by the onslaught of horrible federal policies and state-sponsored violence, and unsure where to place myself in the context of the efforts to resist.

That’s where The Magician comes in. In this context, magic is less about illusion and more about that wonderful alchemy of creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts. How do we make the best use of our emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical power as individuals, and come together to build collective power? The Magician calls for adaptability, cunning, wit, and concerted effort to translate ideas into reality. This is the card that demands that we build, even and especially when the world is turned upside down.

The Hermit (reversed) reminds us of the value of stepping back from the endless, out of control news spiral, to the extent that we can, to reaffirm and recommit to what we believe in. To me, when reversed, The Hermit looks like he’s staring directly into his lantern, rather than past it to the path ahead. This suggests a need to focus anew on what guides us, whether the tools we use to propel ourselves forward are up to the task. What is the promise that lights our way to a better future? Does it need rekindling? It’s not lost on me that The Hermit bears striking resemblance to Lady Liberty, and her promise is currently being torn asunder. Now more than ever is a time to summon our greatest assets to make magic together, guided by the notion that the world we envision, where everyone breathes free, is a beacon and not a mirage.


Did you know that the Bronx–home to 1.4 million people–doesn’t have any bookstores? This Afrolatina is trying to fix that, and she needs donations to make it happen.


In times of distress, I often turn to writers to make sense of the mess we find ourselves in. Language is a powerful tool for laying bare the stark realities of oppression and inequality, while simultaneously creating new possibilities for being in community with one another and plotting a road map for the journey that lies ahead. A lot of the pieces I’ve linked to this week consider the role of language, lip service, and words-into-action in the context of regimes new and old, and how we might get ourselves on the same page to forge onward.

Lessons on language from Eastern Europe, during the pre- and post-Soviet eras:

On giving a lucrative platform to white supremacists under the guise of “free speech”:

On being forced to leave, and come to, the United States:

On talking about what we’re really talking about:

And finally, #BlackWomenDidThat:


If you’ve been waiting for the featured artist on Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” to drop his LP (!), the day has arrived. Time to listen to Sampha’s Process.

If you love The Internet but were secretly yearning for a solo album, that day has also arrived. Check out SYD’s Fin.

If you thought “Consideration” was the sleeper hit on Rihanna’s ANTI, then put on SZA’s newest single, “Drew Barrymore.”


In 1988, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played a concert in East Berlin to a crowd of approximately 300,000 people. Springsteen delivered a shaky speech in German calling for the wall to come down, 16 months before it actually happened. Then, as now, there is no place for walls between countries, families, people. Here, they perform Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.”

Nationalism Is Strange and Unnatural, a graphic essay by Thi Bui

And because we could all use some comic relief, crank up your oven and get your Totinos ready.

Until next time, y’all.

In search of a different kind of power.

It happened. I wish I could say that I’m hopeful, but history tells me otherwise. We are not immune to the exploitation of our fears. We are not always so discerning as to parse fact from fiction, especially when the fiction soothes our egos and makes us feel powerful.

We need to find new ways of becoming powerful. If you’re white, like me, I recommend looking in your hometown or your state for the Black and Native women leaders who have been fighting against the worst of state-sanctioned violence for centuries, and then taking your cues from them. Trust me, they’re there. I encourage you to reach out to your friends and families to do the same.

For so long, white folks have only felt power through grinding our boots on the necks of people of color. But power gained through subjugation is an illusion (why else would so many of us continue to feel so impotent?), and it’s our duty to break that illusion. It is our duty to find power in humility, in serving the movement for collective liberation. This is about standing up to a president, yes, but also to the violent history that birthed him and made his hostile takeover possible. It is about standing up against the apparatuses that enable state and/or corporate violence and surveillance against people of color, from the prison-industrial complex to pipelines.

What could be more powerful than disrupting and dismantling the systems that do not serve all of us, and thus cannot truly serve any of us? What could be more powerful than heeding the call of our sisters and brothers on the front lines and saying, “Enough is enough. We are long past due for justice, and now we will take it”? What could be more powerful than building a world where everyone belongs?


“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”


I never did like Aristotle much, but I have thought about this quote often as I’ve considered what it means to engage in activism or, more broadly, to refuse to collude with systems of oppression. It sounds inane, but the world we live in is held together by billions of small actions every day, most of which feel second nature to us. We have laws and institutions and social norms that dictate our actions, like where we live and who we socialize with and what kind of work we do, and these are steeped in notions of white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, etc. These systems, while institutionalized, would not function if we forged new pathways for action, built new habits rooted in justice, equity, and democratic participation. We can make the world we want to live in by practicing it, every day.

Sarah Kendzior is an expert on authoritarian states, and she rightly predicted the Nectarine Nazi‘s rise when others were casting him aside as a laughable candidate, incapable of winning the presidency. I suggest you heed her words on how to be your own lighthouse so that when it gets harder–and it will get harder–you remember what that safe harbor world you wish we lived in looks like and how to get yourself there.

Community organizer @prisonculture has been sharing invaluable advice for those of us who might be newer to activism, or anyone feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead. She recommends choosing 1-2 causes you’re committed to and working as hard as you can on those issues, be they the environment, abortion rights, health care, prison abolition, immigration, etc. There will always be calls to mobilize around issues that might fall outside of your specific area of focus, but are still important to you, and we should remain poised to respond to emergency situations as needed. But if we all have our issues and we commit to fighting, and we commit to encouraging our loved ones to fight for their issues too, we might stand a chance of winning after all.

If you’re looking for guidelines on how to actually do activism and what it looks like, here are a few resources:

  • I’ve posted it before, but the Indivisible Guide is a great blueprint for putting pressure on your senators/representatives. It was written by several former congressional staffers and draws from the disruptive tactics the Tea Party used to stymie President Obama’s agenda (though the guide’s authors disavow, you know, the awful hatefulness of the Tea Party).
  • Here, another former congressional staffer offers advice on how to get your elected officials to listen to you.
  • The folks at Stay Woke/Campaign Zero, including DeRay McKesson and Johnetta Elzie, both organizers in the Movement for Black Lives, have released a Resistance Manual that allows you to track specific issues in the Minute Maid Mussolini policy agenda and includes some state specific resources.
  • Most importantly, keep showing up. Once you’ve decided what issues you care most about, find the people and organizations in your community that are working on those issues. Pay attention to who is in leadership positions–are they white? Male? Cisgender? If you fall into one or more of those categories, consider how you might seek out leaders of color, particularly women and trans/non-binary people, to whom you can offer support. Don’t expect a warm or welcome reception, but listen and show up. Remember that the world we live in requires a lack of trust between communities. Practice being trustworthy to create a world where we can actually rely on each other.
  • Finally, here’s a plug for a concrete action you can take today. While millions of people were out in the streets on Saturday for the Women’s March, several women and girls were unable to attend because they are currently incarcerated, many of whom for defending themselves against domestic abuse. Consider buying a gift from this wishlist to let those women and girls know they’re not forgotten, that part of marching in the streets means carrying them with us.


On how quickly institutions and politicians can fall:

On creating an action plan:

On the  53% of white women who voted for the Tangerine Terror, and their sisters who didn’t stop them:

Speaking of cognitive dissonance:

On calling it as you see it:

On telling better stories:

On protecting our digital communities and online information:


To Black women. Angela Peoples in conversation with Brooke Obie (not actually a recording).

To Bryan Stevenson, an attorney who fights against the death penalty and mass incarceration, in conversation with Paul Holdengraber.

To the most appropriate track of our times, “Fuck donald trump” by Og Swaggerdick. Or maybe you want to listen to a version by Billy Da Kidd? The Sikc One? Rich $PIXX feat. Play n Skillz?

Or to the track that is permanently etched in our hearts, no matter what happened on January 20, 2017.


Sarah Kendzior tells us how to understand trump’s power plays.

Omg little kids in China recreating “Honor to Us All” from Mulan. A sweet salve for weary hearts.

Until next time, y’all.

Keep getting up when you hit the ground.

This week has been painful. You know by now, of course, that the Senate met under cover of night to vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act along party lines (with the exception of Rand Paul, R-KY). Protests in support of the ACA have been popping up across the country, including here in Colorado, where roughly 600,000 people will lose coverage gained through the state exchange and Medicaid expansion, key hallmarks of the federal law. The fear over how to pay for your medical bills, especially when you have a preexisting condition, is what economic anxiety looks like (despite what you may have heard).


I suggest you find a protest in your city or town, flood your elected officials’ phones with calls in support of the ACA, and show up at in-person district events to let your senators and representatives know we won’t be returning to a time when people with preexisting conditions couldn’t get health care (looking at you, Mike Coffman).

We are staring down the inauguration of a deeply loathsome man. It is worse than any horror movie. We will have to fight and resist every day he sits in office, and likely for many years and lifetimes to come. Let’s start with a march, and then carry on from there. As you know, the Women’s March on Washington is expected to draw up to 250,000 women to the National Mall next Saturday, January 21, to mobilize in support of gender, racial, and economic justice (meet the women who are organizing the march). If you can’t make it to D.C., there are dozens of Sister Marches being organized across the country. Please go!


I’m about seven pages into Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, love of my life. My reading pace has slowed since finishing In the Darkroom, which I mentioned last week, in large part because I’m still reeling from that book’s discussion of the rise of Hungarian fascism/nationalism that’s now firmly taking hold in the country’s parliament.

One of the key components of Hungarian identity, as Faludi describes it, is the constant postulating of Hungary as a historical loser, rendered impotent and maimed after the Treaty of Trianon. That notion of perpetual victimhood leaves Hungarians to reach into the past to crystallize a mythic, nostalgic, “true” Hungarian identity, based in Magyar ethnicity, that prospered before outside forces (read, Jews and immigrants) supposedly contributed to the country’s economic decline in the 20th century. The deep anti-Semitism and hostility to Syrian refugees that pervade Hungary’s current sociopolitical landscape suggest a chilling return to the country’s fascist past, where the project of Making Hungary Great (Again?) was carried out largely through ethnic cleansing. The simplest way to cast your country as a winner? Get rid of everyone you deem a loser.

Which leads me back to Springsteen. If you’ve heard even one Bruce Springsteen song, then you’ve heard a kind of homegrown lore about the blue-collar white Americans who are just trying to make ends meet, do right by their families, and have little bit of fun. These are the types of people, we’re told, voted for trump after getting fed up with feeling like losers. Nevermind, of course, that trump represents the billionaire elite that orchestrate and profit from the white working-class’s continued economic despair. White elites have spent centuries stoking such pervasive racial animus in this country that it doesn’t sting white folks to lose to a white billionaire. It stings to lose–or think you’re losing–compared to someone who isn’t white.

What’s always gotten me about Springsteen is that embedded in the mythology of the down-on-his-luck everyman are clear villains: the shrugging VA liaison; the ruthless factory foreman; a corrupt and vengeful judiciary; hell, even American militarism itself. Springsteen has always used his music to empathize with the people he grew up around, and even to reckon with his own past, but he does so without scapegoating the people of color who often fare much worse in real life than the antiheroes of his vast body of work.

All this is to say, if you’re trying to win, you better be sure who your real enemies are.

Here’s some more stuff to read this week if you, like me, want to be extremely sad:

On the fracturing of the 20th century’s global geopolitical structures:

On the incoming regime’s conflicts of interest:

On the depressing parade of clowns that are the cabinet confirmation hearings:

On the questions feminism should make us ask:

On the too-little-too-late stance of the established left:

On a Sisyphean struggle against police brutality:

And finally, on why we can’t go back:

  • Abortion’s Deadly DIY Past Could Be Its Future by Rebecca Traister.

    “That the right wing’s focus is not simply opposition to abortion but also reducing women’s access to contraception gives away the game: Theirs is an effort to keep women from making decisions about when, if, and under what circumstances to have children, and thereby to keep them from exerting agency over their families, their work, their partnerships, their sex lives, and their bodies. That the restrictions on access most profoundly affect those with the fewest resources means that abortion is not just about women’s equality; it is at the very heart of economic and racial inequality.”


If you’ve spent every day since November 8th needing to give yourself a mirror pep-talk: Never Give Up” by Sia.

If you’ve sworn off man-children for 2017 and also forever: A double-feature of “Guys My Age” and “Fuqboi” by Hey Violet.

If you’re ready to stick it to someone who doesn’t appreciate you: Tired of Talking” by Léon.

If you’re all about embracing your imperfections and are also a little bit of a Francophile: Tilted” by Christine and the Queens.

If you wish you had caught the first half of the Formation World Tour: Sugar Symphony EP by Chloe x Halle.


I’m going to go see Hidden Figures this week. Maybe you will too!

Amita Swadhin Testifies Against Jeff Sessions, reminds the world that far too many children continue to suffer from abuse with little to no structural support from the state.

Shea Diamond sings an a cappella version of “I Am Her” in front of a backdrop featuring Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. I’m not crying, you’re crying.

You should absolutely watch the trailer for I Am Not Your Negro, constructed from James Baldwin’s writings and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.

Jeanine Michna-Bales takes us Along the Old Underground Railroad, One Photo at a Time.


Until next time, y’all.