Essay: Homecoming – my return to my Southern roots

I feel most Southern when revisiting my childhood. Back when I pronounced strawberry like skrawberry without guilt or guile. Back when I never questioned crunk music, choosing instead to inhabit the chaos. 2000s South Carolina – the setting for my kid self – gave me that freedom. I found it in the tree vines I would climb, in the roller rinks I would stumble-skate around, in the aluminum foil grills I wore to emulate rappers’ diamond fronts. For a while, I lost sight of that Southern-ness. I thought I had to exorcise it to accommodate my New York City dreams. But a series of homecomings – three musical experiences, courtesy of Black Southern artists – encouraged me to love my country soils. They reintroduced me to that little brown skin girl who talked smack and lived joyously, telling me to hold her close and never let go. 

Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella performance marked my first homecoming. The megastar and her troupe of Brown talent presented a beaming display of Black joy, a jubilance I recalled from my younger years. Celebrating the vibrant culture of historically Black colleges and universities, Beychella reminded a White world colorblind to our golden grace that Blackness was majesty, not a tragedy. Beyoncé’s grand entrance perfectly captured that regal power. Twirling to face a camera, she sparkled in a crystal cape embroidered with a portrait of Egyptian queen Nefertiti. In witnessing such splendor, I thought about one Halloween in the first grade. I had dressed up as Cinderella – Disney had yet to consider a Princess Tiana – but it was not the shimmer on my blue gown that gifted me Black girl magic. My magic came from me. It manifested in the way I carried my cascading skirt to strut across the hall, in the way I waved my silver star-tipped wand to cast a spell of my own design. I also saw myself in the step tradition that Beyoncé enacted on the Coachella stage. Her steppers, the Bug-A-Boos, seemed like fireworks: a burst of brilliance and scattered sound. Their showmanship and humor brought to mind my childhood friend’s choreography. Outside my house, Jay taught me steps she learned from her mother, who had pledged a sorority in college. Beneath a dark sky, our feet commanded the concrete. We put our hearts into our heels, creating a joyful noise that shook the stars awake. 

“Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik,” the 1994 debut album of rap group OutKast, also felt like home. It was the earthiest creation I ever encountered: a gumbo of funk, filth and fire. A major part of the project’s earth is its unapologetic approach to sexuality. The record “Funky Ride,” an erotica on wheels and wax, shamelessly indulges in sensual pleasure. A woman is even heard moaning behind the velvety voice of a male singer, who coaxes her to “feel your spirits fly.” In this eargasmic world, the feeling is as fundamental as the five elements. The Atlanta duo’s ownership of what the older women in my life called “being fresh” – or openly expressing sexuality, typically at a young age – transported me back to elementary school. In those days, boys who were insolently indifferent to the presence of teachers would smack girls on their behinds in the classroom. Smirks on their faces, they refused to wait for surreptitious opportunities on the playground or bus.

In terms of visual odes to earth, the music videos for OutKast’s album honor the Atlanta landscape as much as the cityscape. In the video for “Git Up, Git Out,” trees dominate certain frames, grounding the rappers in their rural realities. OutKast’s inclusion of these features expressed their reverence for the rustic communities that nurtured them. South Carolina’s country surroundings also cultivated me. At my maternal grandmother’s house, I would dance around a tree-covered backyard, treating the stumps at my feet like thrones. Just like the Atlanta earth informed Andre 3000 and Big Boi’s artistry, my birthplace’s earth fueled my fantasies.

My most electric homecoming came when I first heard rapper Megan Thee Stallion, the spice of my experience. Her music sets ablaze the stereotype of Southern hospitality and represents unfriendly Black hotties like me who usually greeted strangers with scowls. Braggadocio, though, is the supreme characteristic of spice, and Megan oozes it on all of her records. The self-congratulatory “Cocky AF” is a prime example. Over bass loud enough to make a car quake, the rapper says, “Bitch, I look good and you know that.” It is a simple, ego-shattering line delivered with a king’s confidence and a pimp’s contempt. Rhyme was also my medium for channeling swaggering spirits. Years ago, I conjured a verse about enviable sneakers that began with the lines, “Got no new kicks? / Yeah, I bet you wish you want this.” Megan’s art thus spoke to a six-year-old version of me. The me who based her banter on a desire to outwit and out-stunt. The me who recited Bow Wow’s “You ain’t fresh azimiz” like the hook was holy scripture. It is true that my flames had dwindled when I got to high school and, later, college. But the sizzling sounds of a Hot Girl reignited the spice that had been burning in me since birth.

From now until forever, I hold my Southern-ness tight. A Southern-ness expressed with loud and proud joy. A Southern-ness comprising earth and spice. I still sing in the house, turning my mirth into music like Beychella trumpeted Black joy. I also continue my childish habit of blowing on dandelions aged into white wisps. When I watch the flowers send my wishes dancing in the wind, I think of OutKast and their interactions with Georgia’s earth. And although I do not rap smart-mouthed freestyles evocative of Megan Thee Stallion anymore, I do write my Southern slickness into free verse poems about hot girls and ghetto boys. It took some time, some soul-searching, and some soul food. But I finally made it back home. 

Zeniya Cooley, a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions writer.

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