Author's note: 'beyond a better hell' / talking to ghosts is a mixtap/e/ssay—a hybrid genre that brings together the mixtape and personal and scholarly essay. The project is composed with prose, lyrics, music, repurposed film, and news clips. Reading and listening to the entire project is recommended, with no recommendation for which you should do first. Listen to the music/read the prose all the way through, or let the texts interrupt each other.
078 average american town…
It's January 2020, and I'm in Sandusky. The land our grandparents owned in Southern Illinois looks unremarkable as we drive by it. It's no longer raining, but the water hasn't drained from the road. Back when we lived here, there were no street signs, or any need for them; the road was just dust and gravel.
The sky is darkening as the afternoon expires. We have a three-hour drive to Decatur ahead of us, still. But we park in front of the tavern down the street so my cousins can say hey to the owners before we walk back toward the property. Liz—who has been Grandma's neighbor for as long as I can remember—is there this early evening. She has always been patient and motherly inside the walk-up window. Her husband Herb was the opposite—curt and seemingly angry. As kids, we heard and repeated rumors about the causes of his disposition—war, we assumed.
Once, Herb made me wash my money with the hose on the side of the building before he would take it, since I had it in my sock because I didn't have pockets. Adulthood has shrunken everything. When we were children, the store seemed infinitely farther than the few steps it takes us to walk back. The hike through the field from the house was always worthwhile if we had candy money.
It's been nearly a decade since we were last here. If nothing else brings us together, a funeral will. Last time it was Grandma's; today, it's our cousin Jamal's. Jamal died, suddenly on the first day of 2020. He and I were in classes together when we were kids. He was perpetually animated, ebullient, with a sly smirk. It was no surprise to any of us that that liveliness had led him to become an admired musician. The church reserved for his funeral service was hardly big enough for the droves of people who showed up to see him off.
My brother Kris was the one who'd called to let me know about Jamal. I told him I'd make plans to come home from Virginia, and Kris decided we'd drive the last leg of the journey together. One of his sons and two of our other cousins—Devin and Ed—join our small caravan. It's been a while since I've seen them, though we exchange texts and social media messages regularly.
Standing on the nearly-flooded road in front of Grandma's land, we fall back into familiar banter, laughter evoked by memories of our milk crate basketball hoop and our failed attempts to avoid having to go to church every evening. We talk about the past and the future—how we used to play, and now, our plans for work; jobs and children; and how we shouldn't let as much time pass before we get together again. The dark drive back home is rainy. Upbeat rap music—Mozzy and Tsu Surf—is playing low, the barely audible soundtrack for our ride back north.
It's Spring Break of 2020 and the University of Virginia, where I work as a professor, locks down its campus, like many places in the country do.
A month passes, the whole world wondering how long this danger will last, when Kris calls to tell me Devin was murdered back home in Decatur. Death found us again, as it always seems to. We were just laughing and reminiscing, planning future shit. I cry for us, for Devin's seven kids, his many friends. He was only 36.
My family were the last people I'd seen face-to-face, but because of the lockdown I can't attend his funeral. My mother asks me to write 14 of the most difficult sentences I've typed—his obituary for the newspaper at home.
It's May of 2020. Protests spread across the country and the world after George Floyd's murder. There are also protests about the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, killed earlier in the year, but the video of the police officers killing Mr. Floyd strike a nerve. I break after watching it. I can't help but think, morbidly, about the macabre contingencies that make the burgeoning reckoning possible. It seems the best chance for justice for Mr. Arbery was the death of Ms. Taylor and ensuing calls for accountability, and the best chance for justice for her was the video of the officer kneeling on Mr. Floyd's neck for nearly 10 minutes.
Looking back, I'm not so sure either of the individual tragedies in isolation would resonate the way they do collectively. But grief builds like a soundtrack; it plays and plays.
I didn't attend any of the protests. I stopped watching TV. I stopped reading and writing. Death was everywhere, even in my work.
068 carry the flame…
Hip-hop has been part of my practice since the beginning. I've always made music. The bibliography for my life contains more rap-related media than anything else, and the things that aren't rap are only a degree or two removed from hip-hop.
During a particularly difficult time back when I lived in Illinois, I recorded my fourth album, "COLD," and wrote a novel of the same name.
One of my best friends was going to prison for a long time, and my default coping mechanisms were drinking alcohol and making music. Much of what became the first draft of the book was written while I was in an alcoholism treatment program. I combined the stories and poems that wouldn't fit within the constraints of a rap song with the lyrics of the album. One of the stories in the book was about my cousin Tony. He was one of my inspirations to write rhymes, and was killed the summer before I started high school. In the novel, he's a character in a dream. Common's "I Used to Love H.E.R." is playing in the background, and Tony is introducing an adolescent version of me to a person who is hip-hop personified.
On the album, I recorded the song I wrote to Tony while I was drunk. In Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the narrator describes how substance use, particularly smoking marijuana, changes his sense of time and the way he listens to music. It gave him the ability to go into the sounds, descending into its depths like Dante, circling around in the realms of the historical and the vanished. Only, as I spiral, I'm pulling documentaries, news, film, music, literature, and scholarship into a cypher to better hear the voices of Black folks forgotten or erased—like Tony—caught in history's netherworld. When I think of what it means to be a dope emcee, I'm thinking of the ways Ellison's narrator describes it: You help people hear around corners. You make phantoms emerge or disappear.
Listening to myself rap, on the verge of slurring and sobbing to a sampled loop of Prince's "Crazy You," more than a decade since I last had a drink of liquor, trying to document experiences from the mundane to extraordinary—joy, pain, life, loss, sadness, laughter—I'm convinced that, though there certainly are layers and levels to our hells, there's no version that is better or best. Grief is always there, and it often dictates the perspectives of my work. It's not just the deaths of loved ones or my own mortality that compels artmaking. The persistence of Black death—the way it lurks around every corner and lingers in every room—is there in the art. Its inescapable presence is sometimes there explicitly but often unnamed.
Over the next few months, I napped a lot. Sitting in front of my computer in Charlottesville, at the height of pandemic lockdown, while people were in the streets demanding recourse for past and present injustices, I was stock-still.
Time passed, and I started to feel a little better: not alright, but not all bad. Some people might call this progress, but I reject the kinds of progress narratives that ask us if the current hell we are living through is better than the hell people before us endured. Nobody wants to live in hell.
Then one night in June I jump awake, heart racing, and run into the bathroom to look at my face. I want to be sure I look like myself. Or to see if there are any outward indications that I am dying. It's nearly summer, but the seasons haven't seemed to matter, since I haven't been outside much. I've had chest pains for four straight days. Every deep breath I take borders on a wheeze, which I suspect is due to congestion that means I'm sick and don't know it. I check my heart rate on my watch. I feel my neck for my pulse. I turn on all the lights in my house.
Certain that if I go back to sleep, I won't wake up, I sit on the edge of my bed. The pain in my chest feels like a rope pulled taut between my shoulders, slowly twisting, tightening every time I move. I'm unnerved. I call a good friend to tell him I think something is wrong, that I think I need to go to the emergency room.
I get dressed, but then I start thinking that if I'm not sick, I might get myself sick by going to the ER, where sick people might be. I get back in bed. I promise myself I'll decide about seeing a doctor if I wake up in the morning.
In the doctor's office, while the technician is connecting the heart monitor machine to my skin, I suddenly realize that it's been six months since I've touched another person. I silently read the tattoos on his hands and arms to distract myself. The contacts are not as cold against my chest as I expect them to be. After the tests, the doctor tells me I've been having panic attacks, and writes me a prescription.
The medicine they gave me made me feel unnaturally fine with everything. I slept great. I had an appetite again. I began taking regular walks to the creek a mile down from my house. I agreed to defer my semester off and teach in the fall, since I won't be leaving home anytime soon. I'd planned to travel and talk about my new music, but all my events had been canceled or moved online anyway. I didn't feel anxious watching the protests on TV anymore, though they still left me concerned about everyone's health—seeing people share seemingly restricted space at a time when collective breathing feels like an act of defiance and a personal hazard. How could they breathe?
I don't remember my conversation with the Good Morning America producer. The segment about reckoning with America's racist past on college campuses was a monumental step for my work and for the students who have been persistently challenging the university we have in common. But I was distracted by the threadlike line that seemed to barely separate life and death. She asked if the protests gave me hope, if this was progress, finally. But I was intently focused on my breathing. My composure was a prescription-assisted façade. Some people might call this progress.
074 all-time greats…
When I finally left my home after quarantine, it was October 2020. I had to drive to the vinyl record production plant about an hour northwest of Charlottesville to pick up the copies of my new album "i used to love to dream" from the warehouse. I could've paid to have them shipped, but I decided to drive because I couldn't shake the heaviness of perpetual mourning.
One of my friends and colleagues had suffered a sudden, massive heart attack and died. Just days before I got the news of Ryan's death, we were on the phone talking about songs we planned to make and a conference he was helping coordinate. And now he was gone.
Ryan was one of the first folks I met after moving to Charlottesville in 2017. He was a brilliant and kindhearted musician interested in similar questions about history, voice, and music. After white nationalists staged their deadly rally that same summer, Ryan was part of a small group with whom I attended the counter-demonstration around the Robert E. Lee statue, and we became close, often hiking, playing basketball, and making music together. He worked with me on the album I recorded that summer and the one that followed in 2018.
The release of my album should have felt different—joyful maybe, or at least relief—but it didn't. With discomfiting certainty, the past spills into the present.
Perhaps I'd take the time to record my disembodied voice speaking those words someday for Ryan, as I did for Tony, and for Devin, and for the countless other named and unnamed I talk to nightly. After all, a rapper is often a ghost talking to other ghosts.
I drove to the record factory with my windows down. "Furious," a song we made that first summer, blared through the speakers.
Unfortunately, the contents of "i used to love to dream"—its ruminations on my hometown, Decatur, and "local" manifestations of America's legacy of racism—remain relevant. Regardless of who occupies the White House, the conditions of so many seem to only range from hell to better hell.
When I went to cast my vote that November, people were protesting, like they had been week in week out in some part of the country since March. This time it was in Chicago and Philadelphia. Waukegan police killed Marcellis Stinnette and wounded Tafara Williams, and Philadelphia officers killed Walter Wallace, Jr. on video, which I still can't bring myself to watch. Two weeks after the election, the Brevard County Sheriff's Office released video of the shooting of two Cocoa, Florida, teenagers—Angelo Crooms and Sincere Pierce—by Deputy Jafet Santiago-Miranda.
The present isn't a mere echo of the past, but anaphoric repeating, rhyming, improvising on a theme. What we call history is the groove. I make music in that groove.
In January 2021 I go on leave. I set an auto-reply message to university emails. I write every day, and then go outside to walk. I haven't named it yet, but I've started my next album. I've started talking to ghosts.
066 every day…
I'm consistently flummoxed when I'm asked if I think we have made progress—if there's some hope that because of the reckonings over that summer, the attention to injustice now, we might glean something like a silver lining from this "new normal."
There's certainly great value in getting better and being better. I'm thankful that I can talk openly with my friends, and I try to find and relish moments of joy when they come. I work, and I make music, and I do what I must to make it from day to day. But I won't call it "a new normal." There's nothing normal about it, and I won't allow myself to commit that act in language. I refuse to accept this current hell. I don't believe in the concept of better hells.
"Better than yesterday" might be a start, but it's not nearly enough. The normal I will accept for my tomorrows, whenever they come—if they come—is beyond surviving; more abundant and hospitable than being heard, seen, or recognized as human; is life with, not life despite. I wish for a peaceful sleep tonight. Tomorrow, to breathe will be better, but my hope is for something far beyond breath, somewhere in the grooves.
I want us to reconcile our pasts and presents so our futures might be something vastly different. A knob tuned somewhere between then and now might help us hear it.
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