Trying To Find A Radio

Illustration by Lilly Fenton.

What is “identity”? I’m not asking because I don’t know, but because there was a time that I didn’t. As a kid, I didn’t see myself as different, or as a minority, or as really anything. I was just a kid going about my life as kids do, not really worrying about what people thought about my skin color, or knowing why my white grandma was so unhappy with my mom’s marriage to my Panamanian dad. I knew that others faced problems because of their skin color but I didn’t really understand it. I didn’t know what identity was and I didn’t know what it meant to have one. I was normal and I was content. Then, one day, on the bus home from school, a kid with skin the same color as mine said, “Hey Iraqi.” There was a small group of kids who bullied me every day after school, but that day is the one that will stick with me forever.

“I’m not Iraqi, my dad’s Panamanian,” I replied.

“That sounds like a disease.”

It was then that the meaning of “identity” began to form in me, to be forced on me. And I immediately tried to run away from it. I leaned into my mother’s whiteness at every turn, doing everything I could to fit in. I made mostly white friends, reminded people that I was half white, and generally did my best to assimilate. Not that it ever stopped the jokes from friends about how I was Mexican or fit into Mexican stereotypes. It didn’t stop coworkers from calling me a terrorist. No matter how much I tried to run, I couldn’t escape who I was, and who everyone around me thought I was. And to everyone, I was brown. Without a solid identity for myself, they could apply whatever shade of brown they felt like hating that day.

The supposed silver lining to being a minority is having a community to rely on and bond with. There’s a shared experience in communities, experience that bonds people together and allows them to rely on each other. Identity brings people together to weather the storm. We’re all in this together.

But I never had that.

Part of why I leaned into whiteness so much was that I was thoroughly disconnected from my brownness. My dad never taught me Spanish, making it very hard to connect to half of my extended family, or to any other latinx people in my life. We moved a lot too, so I was never able to connect or even begin to fathom connecting to minority friends I made until I was at the point where I was already trying to divorce myself from my ethnicity. All the communities I’d lived in with my parents were a white majority. By the time I started trying to embrace who I was, it seemed like there was nothing there to embrace. It still feels that way, honestly. The most I could do was make token efforts at appreciating the culture my dad came from, mostly through music, but it felt hollow. I’m not from Panama. I’m not really from anywhere.

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An ultra zoomed in view of where I grew up from 10 to adulthood. Orange dots are hispanic/latinx homes, blue dots are white. You better believe I didn’t know those other orange dots nearby. via Demographics Research Group

Without a real community to support me, I turned to music to support me more than anything. My developing interest in music ran kinda parallel to my developing identity. In middle school, I listened to basically anything popular, be it rock, hip hop, R&B, pop, etc. My favorite album was whatever the most recent Now That’s What I Call Music was. One day, however, a friend wanted to look through my mp3 player and had some suggestions that would set my taste on a narrow, shitty course for years: “The rock on here is good, but you shouldn’t listen to all this black crap.” And so I dropped Ludacris and picked up Linkin Park. What the fuck was wrong with you, Nadia?

It took a long time for me to revert that damage. Coupled with my idiotic attempts at trying to be white, getting back into hip hop was a long and stupid journey, often defined by what hip hop was deemed “acceptable” by white sensibilities. I eventually made it back though, and now my taste is as disparate and weird as my sense of self. As I grew and began to think on my situation more, I drifted from music that felt relatable to my experiences as a sad teen, to music that I felt filled a void in me. The less I felt like I belonged anywhere, the more I turned to music that blocked out my cynicism, my depression, and any hopelessness about who I was. I was drawn to anything that was loud, or dense, or complicated. Anything to keep my mind occupied. Eventually, I came to realize this was hurting me more than it was helping. Sure, I felt catharsis through the noise, but I could only hide from my own thoughts for so long.

Along with this honestly kind of unhealthy use of music, I started to worry that I was losing the emotional connection I had that I valued so much in high school and college. I did listen to plenty of stuff that wasn’t meant to pummel my own brain into submission but not much of it stuck with me on a deeper level. I wondered if I had just broken that connection.

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Brick Body Kids Still Daydream

That Open Mike Eagle’s 2017 album Brick Body Kids Still Daydream wound up becoming my favorite album of that year was a pretty big surprise, to be honest. I had long been aware of him through the occasional guest verse with other rappers like Busdriver or Billy Woods, but he never really stuck out in my mind. Not that he was boring or uninteresting, it’s just where my head was at I guess. I only really started paying attention to him after hearing a verse on noise rap group Clipping’s colossal single, Something They Don’t Know. After several fun verses of seedy stories and tough talking, Open Mike Eagle casually strolls into the song with the line, “We all assorted bones thrown in a sack of flesh” and all of a sudden, I was in. Well, kind of. I heard that song in 2014 and still dragged my feet on his solo work. When I heard about how good Brick Body Kids was, I decided to finally see what an OME album really sounded like. After a few more months of feet dragging, naturally.

I don’t really know what I was expecting. From his verse that I was familiar with, I knew him as very willing to be funny, conversational, and irreverent all within the space of a verse. There’s plenty of that to be found in Brick Body Kids, but I was caught off guard right from the start. It opens with a gentle beat and a softly rap-sung tale of Legendary Iron Hood, a troubled superhero who serves as an allegorical figure for the struggles Eagle had growing up in the Robert Taylor Home, a place I hadn’t heard much about but would soon grow intimately familiar with.

The Robert Taylor Homes were a public housing project built in Chicago – one of many – meant to aid a growing population of families living in poverty. Such housing was enticing to the thousands of poor black families of Chicago, and because of this, the Chicago Housing Authority caved to demands to keep the projects away from white areas, further intensifying segregation in the city. With young men unable to find jobs because of the racism of private establishments and the willful negligence of the city government, they found themselves turning to selling drugs to make ends meet. Due to a brutal police force focused on fighting and imprisoning drug dealers and users by any means, violent gangs began to spread throughout the projects to protect themselves and their trade, to the detriment of the residents’ safety. The projects became a closed system of poverty and crime, created and sustained by government indifference, and the only thing that government was willing to do about it was tear them down.

Some families, the ones who were willing and able to “clean up,” were given free homes next to affluent white neighbors, who bought their homes due to the proximity of a popular Chicago district. Many other families were simply relocated to other housing projects, though the reduction in projects meant they couldn’t take everyone. The rest, if they couldn’t find relatives or friends willing to take them in, simply disappeared. Where many of the Robert Taylor Homes buildings once stood is now a large empty field, ostensibly reserved for use by businesses, though the land remains unwanted and unused.

It’s through this context that Open Mike Eagle wrote and recorded Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. On my initial listen, just wanting to hear some good music, I had a great time. Eagle’s vocals and lyrics are warm and thoughtful, and the music backing him up has a wide range of sounds, while still sounding like a cohesive whole. I found myself returning to it over and over, liking it more with every listen. Mike’s voice didn’t just feel warm, it felt friendly and inviting, even as he talked about things that were honestly pretty depressing. The album started feeling less like a piece of music and more like a gentle fire, a perfect place to stay warm and vent, share tales with friends. A line from “Hymnal” was fun to sing along to but gradually embedded itself in my heart: “Sing it like a church song, like an old-time prayer from a dead man written on a notebook.” The song explores taking refuge from the hard times through music and in creation, and stuck with me immediately. From there, the entire album began to take on a huge emotional significance to me, even though most of it was about something I could barely comprehend, let alone relate to.

At this point it’s become one of my all time favorite albums, and the first to instill me with so much emotion since high school. But unlike previous albums, whose themes tended to resonate with me through my experiences with depression and loneliness, this one felt more like a window into a world that I could never experience. I found myself wondering why I connected to it so strongly. The closest thing I can come up with is that there’s a kind of comfort I can find in the stories of other people struggling through their own experience of a country that sees them not as a living, breathing human being, but as a problem to be solved.

In the closing track, “My Auntie’s Building,” when Eagle rapped “They say America fights fair / but they won’t demolish your timeshare,” his anger and his sadness reached deep into my heart. Throughout Brick Body Kids, he builds up these projects as a real, complicated place, with memories far beyond the crime that publicly defined them. His empathy stretches from the church-goers to the drug dealers; from the bored kids to the depressed uncles. Everyone was trying to make the best of a situation American society forced them into, and even then it wasn’t enough. The album ends with wailing guitars and distorted noise as the Robert Taylor Homes are not just destroyed, but murdered. In that moment I feel every horrible comment, every look of suspicion, and every moment of alienation that I’ve ever had to endure.

During the past decade I’ve met more latinx people who share the feelings that I do, my wife included. We don’t have the exact same feelings or experiences, and it’s worlds away from being a community, but I know I’m not alone in my loneliness, so to speak. Open Mike Eagle’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream fits into that in its own way too. It’s music that brings a different struggle right into my own home, laying it all out bare for me to hear and feel. It’s not as if empathy and solidarity are remotely new concepts to me, but this album instilled a new feeling in me.  I’ve spent much of my life hoping to find something that I might never have, but this album helped me find comfort through the struggles of others. We’re all out here fighting different fights, but we’re never fighting alone. The past few years have been increasingly foregrounding the systems in place that try to crush us, from state-assisted gentrification to racist immigration policies that both reward self-hate and assimilation, but even being separated, we’re all pushing together. We just need to see that. We just need to see each other.

1024px-BLACK_RESIDENTS_ON_ONE_OF_THE_BALCONIES_OF_THE_ROBERT_TAYLOR_HOMES,_A_LOW_INCOME_HIGHRISE_APARTMENT_BUILDING_IN..._-_NARA_-_556175

Black Residents On One of the balconies of the Robert Taylor Homes (1973) John H. White, CC-BY-SA-3.0