In My Headphones, words

Aretha Awakening

It was in the early dawn when I first felt the power of Aretha Franklin’s voice. It came trembling out from my fingertips and shaking through my knees. It washed over my sins like faith.

Her mighty vocals possessed such strength, her gospel seemed to lift the weight of God into my headphones. So I listened with complete absorption, on a westbound train to a day’s work, far from the comfort of my man’s loving arms.

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Two of her albums in particular, 1968’s Aretha Now and 1970’s Spirit In the Dark, translate womanhood in a way that is neither sexualized, marginalized or inflated. Instead, these songs highlight the sensitive details in temporal activities; such as putting on makeup, going out to eat, or just feeling lonely at home.

The more I listened the more her tracks became saturated with my own experience as a young Black woman in love. I began to hear my own longings and loss in Aretha Franklin.

In just under 30 minutes, Aretha Now establishes a sound at the intersections of blues, gospel, and pop. The two leading singles from the album, “Think” and “Say A Little Prayer” illustrate this intersection the most.

“Think” opens the album with an attitude that declares her disillusionment towards the efforts of a lover. She howls with the rage of a woman scorned. She is not only claiming autonomy over her body, spirit, and mind, she is asserting an equal standing of power in the relationship, themes heavily suggested by lady blues singers. Her rallying cry for Freedom, is an anthem parallel to the liberating aspects of the Sexual Revolution throughout the 1960s.

Following “Think,” “Say A Little Prayer”” shifts the album’s entire sound with a softer tone, demonstrating how she can command her vocals from firm to tender vibrations. Her outward displays of frustration become intimate revelries of love. Although this track is a cover of a Dionne Warwick single, Aretha’s delivery–accompanied by the choral vocals of the Sweet Inspirations–illuminates the loyalty and faith found in love.

On Spirit In the Dark, Aretha displays a more mature expression of womanhood, one that juxtaposes the sunny and bright bulb of Aretha Now with darker shadows and blues. On “Don’t Play That Song” and “Spirit In the Dark,” Aretha summons this sultry magnetism with refined skill.

The piano melody on “Don’t Play That Song” holds as much gravity as her vocals. Instead of depicting the woman in heartbreak as weak, or succumbing to anguish, Aretha lifts above that misery and expels the forces that seek to drag her. She reclaims her power to grieve, instead of allowing it to inflict her own outlook.

The slow draw in “Spirit in the Dark” is sensual and strikes like a match. The sway of the beat combined with the organ begins like a religious hymn, but it’s low growl turns into a praise full of dance and rhythm. This track shakes and shimmies like rock and roll, and releases like an exhale.

Although the aforementioned songs are some of the most popular in her repertoire, my favorite (and underrated) picks from these albums are “Hello Sunshine” and “Try Matty’s.” On “Hello Sunshine,” Aretha welcomes the spring while her vocals reach for their ultimate might and grasp for the heavens. “Try Matty’s” is amazing for its portrait of a woman expressing her affection for her local lowdown juke joint.

Both Aretha Now and Spirit In the Dark reveal a multitude of love’s grace and complexities. From fury to frustration to grace and glory, these tracks illustrate all the faces of a love affair. The mastery of her vocals, combined with the fact that Aretha wrote many of these tracks herself, proves exactly why she’s the Queen of Soul. Aretha Franklin captures the freedom of the Black woman.

– Tyler

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Vibe Journal, words

Hot Fun

End of the spring and here she comes back…

 

“Don’t stay lost for too long,” was the first piece of advice from my Grandma after my college graduation. She pursed her dark lips and poked her heavy Southern hands into my shoulder. Her eyes, deep and wide as the Delta,  burned the fear into my skull.

Well, it’s been a year since Grandma’s forewarning, and unless you have a full-time offer for a position in your field immediately after college, getting lost is inevitable. Instead of running off to Europe [like the literal lost she was referring to], I got lost in Los Angeles and made it my home again. I found a part-time job at a cupcake bakery, and searched for myself in books and television shows. The months breezed by like spring, and I relinquished much of my writing to scribbles in personal journals, and letting my creative inhibitions surmount my passion.

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Gen X hearthrob Ethan Hawke in “Reality Bites”

However, when the world turned for summer, a newfound confidence glittered on the horizon. I now find myself in awe of myself, my strengths, and the weaknesses I’m still overcoming. It’s been a slow and undulating process of landing in the murky banks of adulthood, and now that I am here, I finally feel at peace with the little personalities in my creative control room. Thus, beginning a new chapter of this blog.

Much of this transition has to do with locating myself on a spectrum of empowering art movements. My womanhood is currently experiencing a tectonic shift of perspective, as I read through Angela Davis’s incredible book on Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. Like many of the newly freed black women in the postslavery era whom the blues were addressed to, I’m finding my cultural identity in a shared female collective consciousness.

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Gertrude “Ma” Rainey

Davis uses the artistry, performances, and recordings of songs by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday to show how black women elevated themselves to be proud, assertive, and independent, while protesting themes like male dominance and a racialized and gendered social structure. The way Davis articulates the authority of these oft overlooked women of the blues is so empowering it draws on the sweep of modern feminine movements. The blueswomen and jazz lady she highlights, are the Beyonces of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s (respectively).

Also, this is all coming to me at a time when black artists like Kanye West and Beyonce are shaping our generation’s consciousness. Instagram queens like Rihanna, Zendaya, sensitiveblackpersonAmandla Stenberg, and Beyonce encapsulate the black woman’s crusade to preside over modern media. With projects as famous as “Lemonade” or as focused as the Art Hoe Collective strengthening the demand to be heard and taken seriously, there is so much raw inspiration in the beauty of the black woman.

Say, I wished I had me a heaven of my own

Say, I wished I had me a heaven of my own

I’d give all those poor girls a long old happy home

(lyrics from Bessie Smith’s Work House Blues)

And the drag of summer heat gives way to these goddamn sunsets. Life in LA can seem like a series of traffic patterns and Curb Your Enthusiasm skits, and yet, the world spins madly on. The important thing is to soak in the sweet stuff every now and then, roll down the windows, and smell the magnolias.

Thank you for reading.

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Photo by Michael Kagan

–Tyler

 

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Vibe Journal, words

Patriotically, New England

Dear New England,

Here you have me in my third winter ever. I am 20 years old. I spent my first 17 revolutions around the sun without one single flurry falling from the sky. Yes, I am one of those West Coast transplants prone to complaining about the crummy weather. But in this moment, wrapped in your nor’easter blanket, I come as a child of your capital in cheers of the Superbowl victory.

Nonetheless, you might be disappointed to hear that I almost missed the game. After a weekend-stupor of friends on fuzzy couches and funny conversations, I didn’t feel like watching football was the way to wrap up my first quiet Sunday evening. I was in a thick robe after a bubble bath. The brittle and bitter outdoors seemed far removed from the hiss of my radiators. I couldn’t leave my apartment. But the stakes were too high for me to slump since it was the Patriots in a controversial pit against Seattle’s Seahawks. I called Kristie to hear the status of our friend of a friend’s Superbowl party.

(She isn’t going—it’s 10 degrees with a blizzard on the way.) Not only was my Colombian-born friend disillusioned by the thought of diving headfirst into the tundra, she was also disillusioned at the championship itself.

“Babe,” she reproached, “you really want to watch football?”

“Well…yeah,” I said with little conviction. “It’s like the World Cup of American football, and our city’s going to the championship!”

For the first time in my life I stood up for a sports team—even if it was in the flattest of tone—my pride slipped off my tongue and dripped in your favor. I wanted the Pats to win. I just had to see how good your boys played out on the field.

The B line to Boston College is crowded with Patriots fan returning home after the game. Commonwealth Ave, and Blandford St.

The B line to Boston College is crowded with Patriots fan returning home after the game. Commonwealth Ave, and Blandford St.

“People are spilling out of the bars and drinking rounds of pitchers and screaming everywhere Kristie! We should watch the game.” I couldn’t find the common language between us to evoke the emotional toll this game had on Boston’s very fabric. There was no hope with the Colombian.

After a quick assessment of my Superbowl situation, I was charged with the motivation to finally escape my robe. The game was starting soon and I was still alone in my cozy apartment. I remembered the loose plans that dangled with two other friends to watch the Superbowl without a location or a mission planned. I reviewed my possessions: No beer, no food.

“Come over and watch the Superbowl?! Brews and dogs!” I texted my two girlfriends. Fifteen minutes they broke through my lie and trudged their way into my living room with Jack Daniels and icy Subway sandwiches.

The cable to my cable was missing an end-piece, and for minutes I wrestled through the right amount of pressure to pick up my reception. When Tom Brady’s chiseled chin graced the frame on my flatscreen HD TV, I knew I had arrived. Still no beer, but I had the whiskey’s tingling sensation and the putrid smell of fast food subs to appetize the entertaining festivities. We swooned over Brady. He was a Michelangelo vision; sweaty and focused for victory like New England’s, “David” warrior. Along with the players, the plays themselves were beautiful executions of a precisely eloquent rhythm. Your boys played good—I didn’t need my boyfriend there to translate how—I just watched some damn good ball. I absorbed the triumph of Malcolm Butler’s winning interception! We won!

Two girls run and scream as they run into another group of friends around us. She wears Tom Brady's winning jersey.

Two girls run and scream as they run into another group of friends around us. She wears Tom Brady’s winning jersey.

The initial excitement from the game intensified when we discovered that school was closed Monday for a snow day. The Pats won and there would be no school. It felt like home.

When I left for college, I traded a golden winter for a frigid whiteout. But after three years of being three hours ahead and fifty degrees below my native temperament, cheering for the Pats in the Superbowl lifted my bicoastal bias. I lulled in the warmth of your hospitable spirit and found solace at the beginning of a blizzard. Or maybe it was the whiskey. Or maybe it’s because I got to see both the Patriots and the Red Sox win the championships. Or…whiskey.

Well—whatever it is that keeps me from a frozen heart, it’s not your nature.

My Superbowl troopers, Lexie & Tori, standing in the middle of Commonwealth Avenue as the Prudential Center glows Patriot colors in the background.

My Superbowl troopers, Lexie & Tori, standing in the middle of Commonwealth Avenue as the Prudential Center glows Patriot colors in the background.

Sincerely,

TB.

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