Essay: Understanding why Black artists honor the dead

Lately, I have wondered about the dead and the obligation of a Black artist.

Why do we feel compelled to sing the stories of the slain? Maybe we creatives locate profound beauty in pain or maybe spirits haunt our souls incessantly, demanding deliverance. There is more to it, though. It is the terror of our ghosts that fuels us. Their fear of not mattering, their fear of becoming buried bones and buried memories. They are terrified of the world blinking at their deaths. They are terrified of being forgotten. And since artists are humans first, we share those anxieties.

Last year, I decided to revisit Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” It consists of two songs, the first of which imparts the devastating quiet of loss. There is something about muted grief that makes it more plaintive than a fierce wail. Like at a cemetery – the intervals of silence that punctuate words spoken to a gravestone. Or like the time when I was eight and my brother, Sean, was shot. My parents had received a panicked phone call from his girlfriend, and we drove to her neighborhood. Sprawled in the middle of the road, he wore a bloodied white shirt. Frantic blue lights flashed on his body. An undemocratic convergence of red, white and blue. I must have screamed, but I only remember silence. I remember my parents arriving at the lurid scene and my eyes quietly shedding tears. After my mother and father had dashed from the car, I cursed a silent god. At such a young age, I experienced one of life’s greatest ironies: how silence is the music of chaos.

Amid this music, Lamar eulogizes two characters: a gangster who dies avenging his brother and a female sex worker who succumbs to a sexually transmitted disease. Over meditative piano and rumbling drum, Lamar narrates their lives from the first person. Their stories of rage and structural violence become our own. The narratives are familiar – hate feeding more hate, Brenda birthing more Brendas – but have we ever truly listened to them? When the characters die, the song reflects this sudden absence. For a few seconds, the listener is left with a gentle instrumental and a deafening hush. A ghostly soloist then hums, “Promise that you will sing about me/ Promise that you will sing about me.” These words entreat the eulogist to reanimate the deceased through sound. To sing the fallen back to life.

Aside from reviving spirits, mediumship also preserves relationships between the living and the dead. In the case of J. Cole’s “4 Your Eyez Only,” which recounts the life of a murdered drug dealer to his daughter, the bond is familial. Centering on James, Cole’s childhood friend who died shortly after the birth of his kid, the record chronicles the vicious cycle that routinely entraps young Black men. Like many Black eulogies, the song also conveys a crippling fear. That fear is not as much about silence as it is about the severance of James’s relationship with his daughter, Nina, due to his death. Each verse shows him clinging to a connection that street culture and systemic injustice have strained. From the afterlife, James utters, “I love you and I hope to God I don’t lose you.” Those are words that I am sure have crossed my mother’s mind when reflecting on Sean, who survived his shooting at 16, and now, at 28, faces a 10-year prison sentence. But my mother and brother’s connection does not shatter at the clank of his chains. She loves him against collect calls and orange jumpsuits, against the cold lights that gray his golden face. Theirs is a bond not easily broken.

In my sixth grade English class, my teacher introduced “Lost Count: A Love Story.” Before reading the poem, my teacher instructed students to analyze it. Many of us believed the mysterious title hinted at a fairy tale ending. Another classmate said simply, “Somebody will die in it.” We felt the weight of those words but ignored them. Minutes later, my teacher played a clip from a poetry slam. We learned from two Black boys that the poem was about gun violence in Chicago. About names and numbers. About kids that never grow up. But not about love. Sprinkled throughout the poem were memories of murdered youths. The writers painted a vivid picture of these tragic heroes. I could almost see them in their sagging denim, swaggering to class and dapping up their friends. These characters were just like the boys that sat alongside me watching the video that day. Charismatic and full of joy. Alive. Until a faceless gunman took their light away.

The teen poets pondered, “Will they ever call your death beautiful, your life a sacrifice? A love story to be jealous of?” The questions indict a society that idealizes or ignores violence. I was reminded of “Menace II Society,” a film notorious for its hyperviolence. As a child, I always wondered why movies like it were hailed as hood classics instead of modern tragedies. Why characters like O-Dog were always remembered for their ghetto glamor, not the suffering that suffocated them. When romanticizing something, you risk normalizing it, which “Lost Count: A Love Story” condemns. In writing the bitter, brutal stories of their ghosts, the teens dashed our fairy tales. They left us with nightmares in our heads and blood on our hands.

Black creatives and their ghosts represent the unsung, the unseen, the unheard. To many people in this country, we are merely brown bodies with bleak prospects. Or we exist only to service a white person’s illusions. These are the constraints that many Black people fight against. So we sing and scream the stories of our lost ones – stories that are also our own – in hopes that we matter to this world. In hopes that we are seen, listened to and remembered.

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

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