(This poem was written to me by my friend James, after he witnessed a particular exchange I had with my uncle at a church function. Without unpacking all of my personal history, I can say that I found it to be deeply moving and personal. If you know James personally, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. At any rate, the way these words connected to my past and present was really valuable to me, and helped to compensate for any latent awkwardness over the idea of a dude writing a poem for another dude.)
(Author’s note: the following was written as a short story, intended for submission into a competition. At the last minute, I balked, because I didn’t want to pay what I felt was an outrageous entry fee. But I selfishly kept the story to myself. Consider this post an apology.)
(Author’s note, redux: this story, by the way, is quite true, to the best of my memory.)
My music is loud, my countenance is low, and my bag is heavy.
The music I use to keep my energy up, and to repel the equally hostile glances of fear and indifference from my fellow travelers. Sadly, my history of city life has made this normal. I don’t take it personally. As the booming bass underscores the kaleidoscope of frequencies through the headphones that massage my brain, I keep my poker face handy.
I’m through the security checkpoint, and I’m ready to sit. I won’t let my posture show it quite yet, but I’ve been walking for awhile. The trip has just started, and already I feel worn out. I’m like Steve Martin in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Ideally, I’d just like to get to the gate, plug in my computer, and relax. As I trudge forth, that’s pretty much the plan.
Except, there it is.
Ever since college, I’ve always been drawn to the sight of a grand piano in public space. Something about the combination of private escape and public exhibition, I find irresistible. Maybe it’s because size of the piano shields my visage from public gaze, yet I still get to make a connection.
Or maybe it’s because I love confounding people’s expectations. Like gun owners who hackey-sack, or vegans who barbecue, I love being a hip-hop minister who also plays the piano. Every time I get to share those gifts together, the competing cultural connotations get all mashed up and spun around until they no longer divide like they’re supposed to.
I’m a veritable Kanye Tesh.
Of course, none of that is on my mind right now. I mostly just want to feel the weight of the keys, and hear the sound of grand, majestic chords echoing through the concourse.
So I discreetly lay down my carry-on, and slide onto the black cushioned bench.
I don’t really have a plan at first, I just fumble around a bit. G-major nine, A-sus over B. Plunking and noodling around. Eventually I end up in E-flat. Silently, I ask the Lord to guide my fingers. And when He does, I don’t even really recognize what I’m playing until I’m halfway into it.
What. Can. Wash.
A… way… my… sins…
A smile leaks out, as the truth sinks in.
I’m supposed to be meeting a friend at the gate, and I don’t know if I’m late or not. At the moment, I don’t care. Flight or no, this is my calling in the moment.
Oh, precious, is the flow.
Another hand joins mine.
What the… ?
I look up and see the grin of an older man. Eastern European, looks like. Though a stranger, his eyes sparkle with familiarity. He has come to join me. I slide over and give him room on the bench.
As he plunks along the upper register of the keyboard, I’m holding it down along the middle and low.
We get louder. I’m breaking out my gospel chords. He’s starting to solo a bit. What started as a stilted, tentative melody has now become a spirited, rollicking cadence. I look up, and a few people have stopped to listen.
And watch, apparently. As I scan the room, there are people in various poses and shades of professional dress, who have stopped to take in the spectacle.
We must be quite a sight, I think.
The head-bobbing fitted cap and the cackling, gleeful trench coat, grooving in awkward synchronicity. What on earth could’ve brought these two together, other than a grand piano in the middle of Portland International Airport?
Nothing but the blood, of Jesus.
We finish our musical jaunt to a smattering of scattered applause. I shake his hand, we pose for a picture, and I’m out.
* * *
At the gate, I spy my friend and fellow emcee.
“Was that you on the piano?”
I nod, sheepish.
“Sounded like there was somebody else with you.”
“Yeahh,” I stammer, not really knowing how to explain what just happened.
He looks at me, and smiles
“Next time, you should bring some of your beats.”
Now that would be cool. Maybe next time.
Right now my jam of the moment is from Korean-American emcee HeeSun Lee featuring vocalist Shanelle Gabriel, entitled “Open Your Eyes.”
There are two great attributes about this tune, essential for any song to reach Jam Of The Moment status: how it sounds, and what it says.
First, how it sounds. When it comes to smooth hip-hop mixed with R&B, it doesn’t get much butter than this… Thanks to DJX-Ray, listeners are treated to deep basslines matched with a classic relaxed boom bap drum pattern, accented with a few synth licks… all of this sets the stage for the featured main course (forgive my mixed metaphor) of assured rap flow from the Seoul-born Lee and her musical partner, Shanelle Gabriel.
Their two voices mesh well together, aided by what appears to be a dusty sample of some rare gem of a bygone era… possibly an old Burt Bacharach tune. Here I give the producer extra credit, for manipulating the sample in a way that probably retains the essence of the original, but gives it enough of a rhythmic twist in the arrangement to make it feel fresh and new. The end result is the best of both worlds, equally appropriate for a club or a coffee shop.
More important than how it sounds, though, is what it says. The message is clear for women stuck in bad relationships: you are worth more than you’re being treated. Open your eyes to what is truly happening, and allow God to set you on a path to healing and wholeness (my paraphrase).
I’m normally a bit leery of “positive music” because a lot of it is full of pseudo-spiritual self-help cliche that has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But here I’m willing to make an exception. Though there are only passing references to God, I believe there is true conviction in this song. The storytelling vibe that Lee emits in her raps is gentle enough for people to relate, but strong enough to serve as a cautionary tale. This is the perfect tune to play in the background at an after-school center or while you’re picking up kids for youth group.
Which is one reason why “Open Your Eyes” is today’s Jam Of The Moment.
Download the song here, and check out the video:
EDIT: So obviously I’m late to the party when it comes to HeeSun Lee, but catch her interview on Sean Slaughter’s Ham Sandwich Show from March of 2010, where she shares more of her story.
This song make me giddy.
Yes, absolutely giddy. I love everything about “I Feel For You.”
I love the staccato sample intro of Grandmaster Melle Mel’s voice saying, “Cha-Cha-Ch-Ch-Chaka Khan.” As an 8-year-old budding rapper, I probably repeated this phrase incessantly. (Perhaps my sister Camille can weigh in on this.)
I love the fact that the song is, let’s be honest, mostly much about sex (or at least sex appeal), and yet there is a delightfully innocent quality about them, especially compared to the over-the-top, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination lyrics from today’s R&B balladeers.
(Yes, R. Kelly. I’m talking to you.)
I love the fact that it’s so unabashedly a relic of its time, the mid-80s, when hair was big, drum machines were just becoming popular, and rapping and break dancing were these newfangled fads showing up on MTV and eventually VH1 and seen in films like “Krush Groove” and “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.”
I love imagining that, as the song found rotation on radio stations across America and hip-hop culture began slowly penetrating the consciousness of middle class America, legions of White parents began wondering exactly who Chaka Khan is and why their children would want to rock her, whatever that means.
I love the harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder.
I love the synthesizer rhythms, and the piped-in crowd noise (which was state-of-the-art audio post-production back then).
I love the fact that the song was actually written and recorded by Prince, long before it became a chart smash, and if you listen to the original you’ll see hints of the greatness that would later emerge.
I don’t even mind it on karaoke night, as long as whoever’s up there is having fun and tries not to slaughter it too badly.
As I finish this one, I’m sitting next to the one to whom this song applies for me, and she’s awesome. I feel for her… all the time.
So for that reason, Chaka Khan’s signature 80s hit is today’s jam of the moment.