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Why a Playlist?

In college at Arizona I had a roommate who was a talented musician. As a poor guitarist myself, I justified my lack of ability by simply thinking that some people are good at music and others aren't. This guy was also double majoring in English and philosophy, making language his currency. I hadn't paid that much attention when listening to music previously, ignored song lyrics, context, instrumentation, rhythm, all the constituent components. I just liked it or I didn't. Late one night he'd been listening to Eminem and could not stop telling me how linguistically fascinating it was that Em used [expletive] as five different parts of speech in one song, I think it was The Way I Am. I was trying to go to sleep at the time, so it was, literally, a wake up call about five feet from my face to pay more attention.


The next year I went to Tanzania. Bongo Flava, a mix of reggae and hip-hop with its heartbeat in Dar es Salaam, was big across east Africa. My colleagues made us mix CDs, introducing me to Professor Jay, Juma Nature, Lady Dee, and others who were blending pop and protest music. Listening to music was a more fun and social way to study Swahili, sitting around trying to decode phrases and asking the teams I was working with. So by that time I was paying attention -- the music had some use in bringing people together.


Hardly a surprise that the next evolution came while I lived in China, about a year later. A Seattleite taking a gap year before college was a national championship-winning Ultimate player, which was good pretext for hanging out because I missed throwing the Frisbee. He primarily introduced me to the Seattle scene: Blue Scholars, and the two others on their label at the time, Gabriel Teodros and Common Market. He filled in the local references I didn't understand in the lyrics, talked about seeing shows, that kind of thing. It dawned on me that his interest had deepened his ties to his home city. He was proud as could be of growing up there and found music that amplified that.


So over the course of two years I started listening to understand rather than hear, I opened up to music as a social attractor, and I found someone who'd fastened part of his identity to vinyl. I started doing the same. When lonely I'd turn on Bongo Flava to think back to my teaching days, or Every Last One (Common Market) to get motivated to work harder at school. That was the first song I ever learned the full lyrics to, hooked by the lines:

It's our intent to reimplement modesty

Demanding self-respect be the market's hottest commodity

Regulate the wealth and decimate extreme poverty

And educate the kids with every dollar from the lottery

We 'bout to change the mentality

Of Old World savagery into a new reality

One where teachers and lawyers will trade salaries

And liquor stores are razed to make way for art galleries.


I'd been the recipient of a ton of privilege in life and wanted college to position me to give back, to change something big to make our world more equitable. I didn't know how, just that I wanted to do it. So I gobbled up this guy saying we should switch teacher and lawyer salaries, elevating virtue, and calling the masses for change.


That's around the time when music became my crutch. I studied a lot. Hip-hop and rap tracks motivated me, blasting them before sitting down to books as my equivalent of Chariots of Fire. These artists were speaking truth to power and talking about the world like it is so that we could wake up and fix it.


Every phase of my life since then got a different set of tracks associated with it. And musical touchstones helped transport me out of crappy mindsets and crappy places, which I frequented for a while there. That's another story.


Probably three quarters of the first draft of Rewriting Stella -- back when I thought the title would be Annals of the Afroasiatic Pioneers -- was written while listening to the same two playlists, end to end. I couldn't write while hearing many lyrics, so they were mostly electronic music. The moment I put on headphones and cued any of those tracks I immediately stepped back into the place of the narrative. It was natural to make a few oblique song references here and there, since I now associated processing the world with music and the characters were out there processing the world.


In volume three that hit a whole new level. I wanted a character able to guide Stella through this new, uncertain universe where everybody was confused about truth and fiction, right and wrong, and how they should respond most productively to a toxic political situation. The solution was a person who ported these musically-inherited stories of the streets with him at all times as an anchor to his own reality. The hip-hop canon acted as his compass through this uncertainty. Stella benefited from seeing that, being near it, to evolve her thinking on where true power comes from. The more I looked for relevant lyrics and songs, the more I found. Keeping it to 83 tracks was a challenge. Cade became the most natural character to spin into existence, because he'd been beside me as a ghost for fifteen years.

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