Review: Norman F-cking Rockwell

Years and years ago, I used to publish music reviews on this blog. They were usually my most engaged-with posts, albeit before “engagement” was as much of a buzzword as it is now. But the reason I posted those reviews was not for engagement purposes. I was at an important moment in my life, passing from teenage-hood into adulthood, and a lot of albums that were released spoke to me directly at that juncture in my life. And so, in lieu of being able to do much else, I wrote through my feelings. In the process, I got other people to listen to the music I listened to.

Now, Lana Del Rey doesn’t really need exposure. But I have needed to write through my feelings about her music for years. I wrote my college application essays to Born to Die and Lana Del Ray (catch the spelling) A.K.A. Lizzy Grant; refused to listen to Ultraviolence during a tumultuous summer after my freshman year of college; blossomed through Honeymoon; finally went back to Ultraviolence and mourned; exulted in Lust for Life; and relived it all over again through Norman Fucking Rockwell.

I love Lana Del Rey. I used to not at all; around the time she released Blue Jeans, I thought she was emblematic of everything wrong with the world. I thought she romanticized abuse, engaged in dangerous nostalgia for Americana (“I belong in the 50s!!”), and was just generally not talented.

And then I listened to Video Games. Or maybe it was Born to Die. Or maybe it was Blue Jeans. I can’t recall what I listened to first because I had instantly devoured her entire discography. And I got it. I intuited what she was trying to do, the artist she was trying to be, the themes she was trying to explore, and I saw the spite that was threaded through her work. I felt a kinship with her spite. Yes, the character of Lana Del Rey was mired in abuse and darkness and she thought she was loving it, but we were invited to live in the wrongness of it all with her, and through living in it, were exposed to the lushness and neons and filters that allow you to think, just enough to make it real, that “Maybe this (the pain, the abuse, the darkness) isn’t so bad.”

That’s the genius of Lana Del Rey. She doesn’t write music for the lowest common denominator to consume thoughtlessly: she wants to invite you into the nostalgia with her and learn, with her, that it’s terrifyingly easy to excuse toxicity when it’s couched in beauty.

Simultaneously, she is unapologetically feminine. She engages in the usual tropes: jealousy, cattiness, ruthless ambition, the Virgin, the Whore, the helplessly devoted girlfriend… and then she subverts it with tenderness, with moments of light and escape. In those moments, you realize. The femininity, Lana’s content, is not the issue: the problem is in the negative space. Implied to be kitty-corner from Lana’s music is the toxic masculinity, the patriarchy that makes Blanche DuBois – fragile, afraid, mentally ill – so much more villainous than Stanley Kowalski – a rapist, a misogynist, a wife-beater. We lionize Marlon Brandos at the expense of the Marylin Monroes. Lana Del Rey’s early music was uncomfortable because it was a reflection of our own proclivities.

It was lazy and simplistic of me to blame Lana Del Rey for romanticizing abuse; just as it’s lazy and simplistic and dangerous of us to blame the victims of abusive relationships for not leaving their partners.

Maybe this isn’t actually a review of Lana’s latest album. I’ve been growing and evolving with Lana since Born to Die. To be here with her, occupying the world of Norman Fucking Rockwell, is to luxuriate in the person I have become, to reflect – with tenderness where it should go (towards me) and spite where it should go (to those who have hurt me). And it feels like a homecoming.

Norman Fucking Rockwell is not painless. It forces you to lock eyes with the person you used to be, the places you used to inhabit. It exposes the pretenses of your past, reminds you that the wounds you used to have are still a part of you. But it loves you unconditionally. It shows you where you are now, and nods to the people who are there with you. It tells you it’s okay to hide for a little while so you can get back to the growth promised you. It reminds you that there are walls to lean against when you can’t stand on your own. It tells you that hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like you to have – but you have it. And, most importantly for me, it tells you it’s okay to ask to be treated tenderly.

I always knew I loved Lana Del Rey. She has been one of my favorite artists since 2011. But I didn’t realize she was my favorite artist until I got to the end of this Billboard article ranking all the songs she’s released. As soon as I saw what #1 was, I broke down crying. I may not have agreed with all the rankings, but the name of each song brought up a memory, a feeling, an experience from the past decade of my life. The epiphany that came with the tears was undeniable in its strength.

Lana Del Rey has gone from being an object of scorn to my favorite artist. And – though I accept that this may be a reach – that is a pretty solid parallel to my own journey, from self-loathing to knowing that every day, I become a better version of myself.

Maybe Lana Del Rey didn’t teach me self-love, but she taught me to be patient with myself. Things might be rough now. But there’s always another album on the way. There’s always more tenderness to be found.

Short note: Eid blues and how to fix them

I was not excited for this Eid. For all that I was grateful to have relatives nearby in the Netherlands, I really felt the absence of all that was familiar to me. My first Eid in Boston had its bitterness undercut with new friends, an Islamic community to go to the Masjid with, and options of Eid-specific Shalwar Kameez I’d hauled across multiple seas with me. That evening, I dragged some friends to my soon-to-be-minted favorite Pakistani restaurant, and felt the emergence of a new tradition. I didn’t have the time to be homesick, because I had found another home. And that restaurant had found a new loyal patron, not that it stopped Uncle-jii from giving me crap for making him drive all the way from Brighton to Mission Hill on a delivery run…

This year, I felt my mood sour as Eid drew closer and closer. Weight restrictions necessitated leaving my heavy Pakistani clothes at home; not even my favorite kurta could make the cut. And as shallow as it sounds, Eid without clothes rings hollow when you’re already facing Eid without family, friends, food, familiarity.

This morning, after half-heartedly putting on some makeup (yes – half-heartedly putting on make up, me, half-hearted, makeup! Me! Makeup!) and getting on the train to go to work, I resolved to get some treats for my office. Without a lamb (RIP) at hand, I had to figure out some gesture of generosity…so, chocolate and buttery biscuits it was. I said Eid Mubarak to the hijabi cashier and then uncomfortably realized there was nothing in my attire to suggest that saying it back to me was warranted. I trudged off, feeling the Eid spirit slip off me like the dupatta I didn’t have.

Woof.

At work, I announced that there were chocolates and biscuits to avail. Letting the swarm descend in my wake, I went to my desk and drank my requisite two-shots-of-espresso-black-as-my-sins coffee. The perk was needed. I suddenly recoiled with disgust at my behavior.  Sick of feeling sorry for myself, I drew up a list of reasons to be grateful, viz.:

1. You worked your butt off and persisted through a quagmire of bullshit to get to where you are. Yes, you’re away from your family/friends but it’s for a very good reason.

2) On your 3rd try, also after working your butt off, you got an impossible research grant. So now you have to do your over-ambitious original research. Scary? Yep. But that’s huge and you should be proud of yourself.

3) Albeit with some pitfalls, you’re dealing with your anxiety really well. You’re learning how to care for yourself without a therapist. Good job!

4) [redacted; you didn’t think I would share all of my reasons for gratitude, did you?]

5) *points to parents* You’re going to feel guilty about this for the rest of your life but look how MUCH they love you that you are here.

6) *POINTS AGGRESSIVELY TO THE PEACE PALACE* YOU COULD GO THERE EVERY DAY IF YOU WANTED TO AND EAT ITALIAN ICE CREAM.

7) You actually have family nearby. You could have been so much more lonely. Count your blessings.

8) The McElroys exist and so does Carly Rae Jepsen.

9) [also redacted]

10) Pakistani/new clothes aren’t the be all, end all of Eid. Steel yourself: you can always celebrate another way.

11) [which I added later] You can do proper push-ups now. Upper-body strength is just around the corner!

Point number 10 gave me pause. I could always celebrate another way. If clothes were a staple of Eid in the past, what else was? Even in Dubai, cut away from the majority of our family, we found a way to celebrate; how did we do it?

It took me longer than I care to admit to realize that the common denominator throughout my life had been music. Surely it couldn’t be as easy as all that. But it was: whether it was the infamous Lasharie family concerts that every evening would give way to, or music in the background while we waited for guests to arrive (even if the artist in question was Sting, the Patron Saint of my father), or me carefully singing around my eyeliner or over whatever food I was making for my friends that day, music was the ultimate staple of Eid. It couldn’t be that easy…

…but it was. I found a random playlist on Patari and I felt my heart immediately swell. And look, I know nostalgia for the past is usually extremely contrived and only serves to create a false impression of something that only barely was, but music is practically a family heirloom. Even my non-virtuoso self has been known to hold a tune. I could extol the virtues of Pakistani music ad infinitum, but it was what I needed, and that’s that. For all that I’ve been binge-listening to Carly Rae Jepsen lately, I needed the familiarity of a musical tradition I grew up on, that comforts me when I’m miserable, that reminds me of family in a way that not even food can.

Tomorrow, I’ll get to spend the day with my uncle and aunt in Utrecht. I’ll have little cousins to talk to and play with and whom I will promise that one day maybe they’ll get Eid money out of me. They’ll probably be in traditional clothes. I’ll probably be in jeans. But at least my makeup won’t be as half-hearted; I still have to catch up on this season of Coke Studio Pakistan, after all.

DAMN., Goddamn.

At some point I need to admit to myself that there are so many articles about music I can get published before people start getting annoyed at me. I’m no music critic; I’m not even an upstart music industry/related field major – I’m just an upstart politics student whose entire conception of life is framed by art.

Within 12 hours of To Pimp a Butterfly being released, I had the skeleton of an article ready. Who didn’t? There was so much to analyze, so much to deconstruct, so much to contextualize. With Kendrick Lamar’s latest release, DAMN., it’s different. It’s the kind of album you mull over for hours, listening and re-listening – and that’s not to say TPAB wasn’t that way. I still realize new things about it every time I do a full-album re-listen. But with DAMN., I don’t even know where to begin.

Actually, I do: we’ve been blessed.

Kendrick Lamar is the kind of artist who has every right to disappear after one album, let alone after (give or take – but, well, mostly give) four absolutely stellar pieces of art. He could have been a one-hit wonder and we still wouldn’t have been worthy. And that’s not out of some weird celebrity-worship; he is the absolute cream of the introspective-music crop. With each album, we are given a window into the mind of an artist, watching an author write their treatise, their magnum opus right in front of us.

Every time I go to a museum, I try to stop by the conservation galleries so I can catch a glimpse of conservators working on restoring art. I have yet to be successful in catching a restoration in progress. Still, I like to read every thing; I like to look at the tools, touch all the interactive aspects of the exhibit, try to envision what it must be like to be a conservator entrusted with handling – fixing – works of art. What an absolute honor – and what an honor to be able to witness that, right?

With DAMN., I feel like I’ve finally been able to catch a conservator in action. Hell, I feel like I’m watching Langston Hughes whisper the words of a nascent poem aloud to himself to see if it sounds right. And maybe that’s dramatic, but as a poet that uses her medium to strip herself completely raw, regarding DAMN. is both somber and exhilarating. But what is it about DAMN. that makes it the prime artistry that it is?

It was hard to anticipate how Kendrick would follow up TPAB, an album so intensely political that it leaves you feeling exhausted when you’re done with it; an album so intensely political that one of its singles became the anthem for an entire anti-oppression movement. That was the power of TPAB. But DAMN. didn’t need to be a manifesto – frankly, it didn’t need to be anything. But what it became was the breathless musing of a man coming down from a protest high: slumping down into your favorite couch, the feeling of taking your shoes off after a long day, the – well – depression and malaise after you’ve emptied every reserve of your adrenaline.

Introspection. That’s what follows. As a friend noted, DAMN. is a return to Section.80, a contemplation of self, and the role of self. Kendrick positioned himself to be a messiah of sorts in To Pimp a Butterfly, but in the life of every prophet, there is a moment of doubt; a falter, a question of “Is god actually there? Do I matter? Will anyone ever stand with me?”

We caught glimpses of that in TPAB, and certainly in good kid, m.A.A.d. city, but DAMN. tackles these questions in renderings not unlike “u” or “Swimming Pools” – especially the latter with its misleadingly party-friendly vibe. I firmly believe that if you go into a Kendrick Lamar song without heavily considering that he might be talking to himself, about himself, then you have no business having an opinion about his music. Damning (hah)? Sure. But this is a rapper that means so much in today’s politically charged climate that to access him is a privilege, and we at least owe him, and ourselves, the ability to understand where he’s coming from.

“Ain’t nobody praying for me,” he declares repeatedly, and the bravado gives way to anxiety as a motif throughout the album. Kendrick Lamar has struggled with depression throughout his life, not unlike Chance the Rapper, and both young stars have been extremely public with this fact, using music as a conduit for introspection and even extrospection. The songs in this album are so raw, pained, desperately hopeful and desperately despondent at the same time. He tries to hold the world accountable, but invariably turns back at least some accountability onto himself. There are specific times in the album (the bridge in ELEMENT., the entirety of FEEL. – especially 2:50 – the intro to PRIDE., the tail-end of FEAR.) where I want to drop every thing and cry because it hits home so hard that I need it to bruise, to be sore, so that it can linger and I can remember how I felt when I first listened to DAMN. for the rest of my life.

For an otherwise not very good class, I read literary giant Chinua Achebe’s novel Anthills of the Savannah. I had read Things Fall Apart quite a few years ago, so I knew the kind of author Achebe was and I was rightfully excited about this one. It was situated in a much more contemporary context, and unfortunately, the novel ages pretty damn well. For the corresponding essay, we had to pick our favorite passage, and mine was the following:

“Do I contradict myself?” asked Walt Whitman. “Very well, I contradict myself,” he sang defiantly. “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Every artist contains multitudes. Graham Greene is a Roman Catholic, a partisan of Rome, if you like. Why then does he write so compulsively about bad, doubtful and doubting priests? Because a genuine artist, no matter what he says he believes, must feel in his blood the ultimate enmity between art and orthodoxy […] Those who would see no blot of villainy in the beloved oppressed nor grant the faintest glimmer of humanity to the hated oppressor are partisans, patriots and party-liners.

Every artist contains multitudes. It felt incredibly timely that right after reading this novel, DAMNdropped in all of its glory, in all of its contradictions: in all of its multitudes. Kendrick Lamar is that partisan of Rome; he is that genuine artist; he is myriad and beyond. I aim to memorize that quote so I can remember the lesson inherent in it: not only is to err to be human, but to contradict oneself is to be human; to be multitudinous is to be human. What other species could carry such capacity for horror, and such unmatched capacity for beauty?

Blessed.

And maybe that’s a funny thing to say when Kendrick Lamar struggles with the concept of being blessed, or not, but regardless of whether he feels like he is god-sent, god-sped, he is for me.

There are not enough words in the world to discuss all the facets of this album that I want to. I have a feeling I will be coming back to this a lot.

Until then – I’m waiting for Sunday.

The day of and those after

The thing about bombings and terrorist attacks is that, after a little while, it’s too easy to divorce an atrocity from the monotony of the day. The horror sits heavy on your skin like a too-thick cocoa-butter moisturizer, and it’s hard to let it sink in. But, with enough time and distraction, you get used to the weight.

That happened to me just this past weekend at the International Model NATO Conference where I was representing my university. After an overnight, nine-hour train ride from Boston to DC, I found myself sleepless and exhausted in a hotel room. I heard the news right as I lay down to take a power nap.

The power nap was my first mistake. I’ve never taken a good, worthwhile power nap in my life and certainly, this one was doomed the second I decided to scroll down my Twitter timeline. I follow a lot of Pakistani political and social commentators, and what was marked about that day was the despondency and profound sadness and exhaustion writ bare in those 140 or however many characters.

I’m not unused to being able to interpret that language. It usually means something Bad happened.

Heart-pounding, I went to Dawn, and sure enough, a massive explosion had torn through the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine. The number of lives taken and the name of the shrine took a second to hit me.

O lal meri pat rakhio bhala Jhulelalan

Sindhri da

Sehwan da

Sakhi Shahbaz Qalandar

Ah. Right.

Here’s the thing about Pakistanis. You can tack any Muslim label on us that you want but in our hearts, our absolute heart of hearts, we are all undeniably Sufis. We tear up listening to qawwaliyaan, we have a ferocious love for our musicians and artists, we revere poetry and dance and love itself. No matter what front the Fundos try to show you, their hearts will melt like everyone else’s over Sabri and Abida Parveen and Nusrat and Rahat.

This was a betrayal of the deepest kind. This was a betrayal of our culture, our history, our loves and lives throughout centuries of existence; more than that, it was a betrayal of 75 lives, men-women-children, who came to revel in our culture, our histories, our loves and lives throughout centuries of existence. It’s the kind of betrayal that can’t be forgiven.

We’ve all grown up listening to Dama Dam Mast Qalandar. Before I even knew all the lyrics I had an emotional connection to the qawwali. There was a visceral joy in its singing, the clapping that came along it, the family concerts that would surround the words, the often-subsequent marriage that it was contextualized in. It was important and it was necessary.

Pakistanis are used to being betrayed. Sometimes by our government, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes by the world. Music is almost a coping mechanism to that end. In troubled times, our music and art industries blossom angrily. Defiant international literary festivals, antagonistic and triumphant rock bands, scathing indie, the fusion genre that has become part and parcel of what it means to be a musician in early 21st Century South Asia, performing arts festivals – but you take that away from us and you get the wrath of a country that is simmering with rage and years’ worth of inconsolable sadness.

Our wrath is in coming back to the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine the very next day and ringing the morning bells. It’s in devotees arriving proudly to carry out their prayers. It’s in the dhamaals that continued despite the bombing. Daesh in Khorasan would not have this cultural victory over us.

**

Despite this tumult of emotion, I went about my day. Embassy visits, opening ceremonies, falling asleep on my own feet, I went about my day. A friend asked me if I was okay. A single friend. But that’s neither here nor there.

Eventually, thoughts of the massacre were shipped off to the backburner of my mind, unaddressed and unprocessed. A weekend followed where I pretended to be an official from a country that did not belong to me; a conference where the organizers take gleeful joy in faking crises that are often as absurd as they are horrendous; a conference where I spent more time thinking about fake dead people than I did about my very real, very dead fellow countrymen.

I trucked on. I did my best. I pushed away the creeping horror and self-awareness because I was there as part of a team. Eventually, once the bulk of my responsibility was carried out with skill and maybe some degree of reckless bravado, I found myself sitting on the floor of our hotel bathroom, crying. My roommates eventually found me and I said what I didn’t have it in me to say before: “75 people died in my country, 13 in my hometown, and I’m here, pretending I don’t give a shit about that.”

As terrible as it sounds, I needed the breakdown. I couldn’t process my grief without it. The day-to-day compartmentalization catches up to you at some point and I’m honestly lucky it happened sooner rather than later. Grief, bottled up, is more destructive than any display of anger. I was able to process the pain without too much collateral (see also: yelling at people who may or may not have deserved it) and I’m glad for that. Of course I was – I am – still sad, but I’m sad in the way that is tucked in your heart along with all the warmth and love you hold for your people. It’s the sadness that has lived like a constant ode to Pakistan from the day I realized I was one of 180 million people and a then-some diaspora. It’s the sadness that is inherent in our national anthem. It’s what makes me Pakistani for more than just my overseas citizen ID and passport.

**

I’ve been afraid of waking up lately, for fear of news that will hurt me. It’s the curse of living in Trump’s America as a non-resident alien (the fear of being put on a travel ban, namely) as well as the general sense of malaise I’ve had since this awful year began.

Evidently, I woke up this morning. I should have put it off.

I’m never prepared to see Lahore in the news. I was even less prepared to see Defence in the news, the neighborhood I was raised in. My family and I moved to Lahore when I was about two-years-old, and my earliest memories are of my beautiful house, my mamma’s marigolds, and the jaamun tree I was too afraid and bookish to climb. The bombing happened in the popular commercial area I had basically all my birthdays in and around. Not a week went by where we didn’t go shopping there, whether for groceries, or clothes, or pirated CDs. All my eid money was spent in those bookstores and toy-shops. My brother is in Lahore right now and the area is one of his haunts – I haven’t felt that sense of panicked “where-is-he-where-was-he” in years. The rush of nostalgia felt like bile in my throat.

And look – it’s 10:30am. I’ve been awake, in bed, trying to process for the past hour. I have an exam I’ve given up caring about in another hour, and a class after that. Invariably, I will forget about Lahore – about Y-block and Defence – and wonder why I’m so sad. Invariably, it will hit me when I least expect it and I’ll probably end up crying on someone’s couch or in a bathroom somewhere. Invariably, it will happen again.

This isn’t my first rodeo. But somewhere in the stubborn dancing, showing up to class despite my better judgment, and even in my forgetful laughter, there is resistance.

At least, I hope there is.

O lal meri, o lal meri

Long note: honest despair

I realize my last few blog posts have been a little more depressing than I usually put out. I try and imbue optimism in everything I write, because there’s enough sadness going around without me adding to it. And yet, here I am.

I forced myself to take a social media hiatus after some encouragement from friends. There is such a thing as too much engagement, and I had overextended my capacity to that end. That…was a sucky realization to say the least. I always thought of myself – forced the view of myself – as being impervious to emotional exhaustion. I feel, therefore I am, and I am lucky to be around so why ever stop feeling? If I want to give my life to some sort of public service, then I need to be able to power through the fatigue, muster every ounce of energy and positivity in me and somehow add to humanity’s global reserves of drive and perseverance.

Perseverance. Fortitude. Resilience.

Resilience.

Is there such a thing as being too resilient? is a question I’ve asked of Pakistan as a whole many times before. I look at when this debate first began – the night of the APS massacre – and wonder why it took that long for me to begin considering that question. As was at my emotional worst – and also at my angriest. The emotional wreckage felt welcome because of my physical distance from Pakistan. It felt like I was doing something if I was in so much pain – that there was a connection that mattered so much that it bruised no matter how far I was from home. It was comforting and despite the despair that still itched at my heart, it helped me heal.

At some point, we need to break down our shell and allow ourselves to feel the heft of lives lost and lives scattered, of normalcy shattered and routine decimated. We risk losing our humanity and capacity to empathize and mourn if we don’t let our walls down; we risk losing the opportunity to recharge.

I think I have let myself feel too much. I think I pushed myself to take in so much sorrow that I burnt myself out. Sometimes when I’m alone and I let myself be vulnerable, I cry for myself, for my family, for families I do not know, for people who have cried like I have. I cry for my own little microcosmic problems, and I cry at the sheer scale of the chaos I cannot even begin to comprehend.

And when I’m not crying, I try to fight a battle I’m not sure I picked wisely. We are all guilty of that. We pick fights out of self-righteousness in an attempt to feel vindicated, to feel any sort of productivity in the face of helplessness. We try to educate and inform, when we are the ones who want so desperately to be sat down and educated and informed. We project our own confusion, hurt, chaos of mind and heart onto others and I’m not sure if that heals anything.

And what we all need right now is to heal. Whether the wounds are global, local, personal, we need healing and kindness. Taking part in the “right” discourse can only help so much.

I suppose that’s what I’m tired of. I used to think that argument was the basis of all knowledge, and I still do believe that, but an argument requires some desire to find understanding. The dialogue I attempted to engage in was for the wrong reasons. And so I never truly let myself heal. I just held myself together with spit and gum and pretended I had recharged.

None of us really let ourselves recharge. We have forced ourself to always be “on” and ready to engage.

Screw engaging.

We have outsourced interaction unto words that are cold and impersonal.

I turned the pursuit of kindness into a game of skirmishes that I decided to ascribe intellectual properties unto.

We are – I am – so busy talking that we forget how to really feel, when our guard is down, we are broken and raw. That’s no way to recharge. You do not heal a wound by exposing it to the elements when it needs to be tended to overtime.

I’m tired, and that’s okay, but I need to do something about the fact that I exhausted all of my facilities in self-destructive perseverance.

Being too resilient is a bad thing.

At the time of writing this, I feel smaller and more helpless than I ever have. I don’t think that’s an uncommon sentiment lately, regardless of where you’re from. I find myself turning to art, music, writing but at the time of finishing this draft, an artistic Giant has been assassinated in Pakistan, and rather than taking the time to mourn him, I see my countrymen sharing videos and pictures of his ruined body. There is nothing sacred left about the horrors we as a world are facing. We have monotonized what should be held as unusual and unwelcome, for whatever reason (I have my own theories as to that).

I don’t really have a solution to my own despair, but maybe that’s the point.

Maybe there is no point, but maybe the point is loving fearlessly, whether that’s yourself or others.

There is some comfort in platitude.

Shame and retrospect

I don’t like admitting to it but I was frankly far more imbued in the Western than I was in the local growing up in Pakistan. American cartoons, British books, English music – hell, even Japanese media – were a staple of my early life far more so than my own culture or the immediacy of my surroundings. There’s obvious advantages to that of course: I grew up a globalized person with a great deal of general knowledge and trivia about the world around me, and (it has to be said) my English skills wouldn’t be as accomplished as they are if I hadn’t been so invested in Western media.

And that isn’t to imply that an appreciation of Pakistani culture has to exist in a vacuum – my own parents are testaments otherwise, being the widely learned yet rooted people they are – but it does shame me that for many years of my life I almost, almost looked down upon my culture for being paindoo¹. I didn’t pay attention in Urdu class and considered it a frankly useless subject and that’s a bloody misfortune, one that I will regret for the rest of my life. So much beautiful text ignored, so many stories and little quirks of the language that I went without understanding the nuances of…

Until, of course, I left Pakistan and felt that deep cultural void in me, the nostalgia that comes as punishment for the formerly disparaging displaced. That’s when I opened myself up to the history of my country, to its present, and to the possibility of a future back in it. I still have a huge gap in my understanding of it (small, silly things like gun control in Pakistan or public administration services, policy things).  But that attempt to understand changed me. It continues to change me as I learn more and more about my homeland and heritage. Nothing hits me quite as viscerally as its music and poetry, and through those channels I’ve been able to build upon my fluency in Urdu and hopefully guide it in a direction that can be beautiful, not just utilitarian.

Frankly, the day I realized I was taking my dad’s suggestions of taking my politics back home seriously was when I realized I was, mentally, back home. Now it’s just a matter of actually going back home.

I’ve come a long way from the girl who used to feel like a stranger in a shalwar kameez and scoffed at braided hair.  The universe has a way of turning you on your head – and my suddenly braided head is full of foreign service studies in Pakistan and echoes of Sunn Ve Balori.

From K-Dot to Kunta: the New Fate of Kendrick Lamar

First published in the Northeastern University Political Review

Photo by John Francis Peters for the New York Times

Compton, California has birthed its fair share of artists who have gone on to make a mark in the rap and hip hop industry, but it’s Dr. Dre’s protege, Kendrick Lamar who has taken the industry by storm. Formerly known as K-Dot,  the rapper’s Section.80, and good kid, m.A.A.d city have all been critically acclaimed. good kid, M.A.A.d city was dubbed an instant classic by many, and the album went platinum. According fellow singer-songwriter and producer Erykah Badu, good kid is, “…an album that not only tells a compelling story, but a near-definitive one of a specific time and place, offering a window on the varying complexities of turn-of-the-century Compton.”[1] An important observation; like most rappers, Lamar waxes lyrical about his upbringing, his hometown – struggling Compton – and his desire to,  in the words of the character playing his mother at a skit at the end of “Real,” “Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton.” These words, taking into consideration the current context of race relations in the United States, are extremely powerful.

That brings us to his most recent release To Pimp a Butterfly, an intentional reference to To Kill a Mockingbird – appropriate, given the racially-charged content of the album. The anticipation was cultivated almost tenderly, with singles dropped periodically and the release date left unannounced until three weeks before the official launch date – March 23rd. The first single released off the album was “i,” divisive in that it deviates from the dark, cinematic undertones of Lamar’s usual fare. The single is inundated with confidence and optimism, self-love that can only be forged in the smithy of racial empowerment. Undeniably funky, it foreshadowed the jazziness that plays Atlas to Kendrick Lamar’s world in Butterfly. The second single off the album was a divergence from the uplifting message of the first, a track called “The Blacker the Berry” presumably in response to the controversial Azealia Banks’ criticism over Lamar’s comments regarding Ferguson.[2] Addressing the looting and violent rioting that some protesters following the grand jury decision were accused of, Lamar emphasized the importance of black self-respect: “[change] don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting — it starts from within.”[3]

“The Blacker the Berry” is scathing, and Lamar is as accusatory of America’s institutionalized racism as he is of himself, spitting, “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015” and weaving the theme of hypocrisy throughout the song. He explores his identity as a black man, struggling with the label of African-American, his African heritage, speaking to the “institutionalized manipulations and lies” perpetuated by the system, demanding the listener admit, “You hate me, don’t you? You hate my people […]” Anti-black slurs ricochet: “I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.” At the very end of the song, he turns the mirror back towards himself, recalling his own history of gang violence – almost lambasting himself. “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, when gangbanging made me kill a ni**a blacker than me? Hypocrite!”

The explosive last line is unapologetically difficult to swallow, and Lamar has no intention of making Butterfly easy to swallow. Layers upon layers of historically black musicality in every song; a cacophony, if not for the masterful way in which brass, wind and bass weave together.

The third single released, “King Kunta,” was quickly overshadowed by the arrival of something far bigger than it: the album itself. Accidentally released March 15 on iTunes, it was fully released on March 16th, taking many fans by surprise and setting a Spotify record with 9.6 million streams in a day.[4] Right off the bat, with “Wesley’s Theory,” you are taken on a ride akin to Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne: a celebration of black excellence, as Jay-Z would put it, “opulence, decadence.” A critic called Butterfly “[…] black insomuch as the album is a cosmic slop of nearly every musical movement that we Negroes have founded on this continent.”[5] The album opens with a sample of “Every Ni**er is a Star” by Boris Gardiner, and features George Clinton of the Parliaments, an avowed inspiration.[6] “King Kunta” is deceptively evocative beneath unabashed rhythm – Kendrick Lamar often refers to himself as “King Kendrick” but in this subversion he relates to Kunta Kinte, a Gambian slave who had the front part of his foot cut off as punishment for trying to escape slavery in the burgeoning United States. The next few tracks follow with similar funkadelic allusions to the race conversation that will proliferate the latter part of the album; but the arrival of “u” radically changes everything and jolts a new perspective into “i.” The outro to “These Walls” preludes “u,” with a spoken word piece by Lamar that transitions one song into the next throughout the album:

I remember you was conflicted

Misusing your influence

Sometimes I did the same

Abusing my power full of resentment

Resentment that turned into a deep depression

Found myself screaming in a hotel room…

“u,” appropriately, begins with Lamar screaming and repeating “Loving you is complicated” ten times in a frantic voice. “Complicated—” an Atlantic piece submits, “not impossible, not difficult, but complicated. Everything in Lamar’s world is complicated, probably because everything in the real world is.”[7] He stumbles through the song, crying, drinking, eviscerating himself with cruelty: he wasn’t there for his sister, he wasn’t there for his city, he wasn’t even there for his friend Chad while he died in a hospital bed save for a Facetime call.[8] The last lines in the song are jarring: “And if I told your secrets/The world’ll know money can’t stop a suicidal weakness” and lead into the cautiously optimistic “Alright” with Kendrick singing against a broken, brassy backdrop, “I’m f*cked up/homie, you f*cked up/but if God got us/then we gon’ be alright.”

Not enough can be said about the juxtaposition of “u” against “i,” but it is necessary to know that these existential questions are a pivotal part of the black experience. Kanye West explored these questions in Yeezus, and Watch the Throne is a twelve-song testament; Frank Ocean alludes to it in “Swim Good” (referenced by Kendrick in “These Walls”), Janelle Monae actively preaches against it in The Electric Lady.[9] Even the September-released “i” receives a facelift inButterfly. It gets stripped down to seem like it’s being performed live, but retains its optimism until a fight breaks out in the crowd. Kendrick stops immediately, exclaiming “Not on my time – not on my time!” and demands of the crowd, “How many ni**as we done lost, bro, this year alone?” He continues, trying to silence the arguing and instill a sense of camaraderie amongst them with an a capella verse and a lesson in linguistics: “N-E-G-U-S, definition: Royalty; King Royalty.” Instead of the “n” word – the turn of tongue that has damned so many black people to slavery, and that renders many, like Oprah who condemns the use of the “n” word, uncomfortable – he encourages the use of this word of black excellence, validating Oprah and offering an olive branch in the form of a word that only has empowering connotations.[10]

“Kendrick Lamar, by far, realest Negus alive.”

There is no way to dissect, discuss and lampshade every single track on this album under a word limit. But the last track of the album demands a paragraph of its own.

Tupac “2Pac” Shakur is regarded by many as being the most influential rapper of all time; Lamar has repeatedly mentioned 2Pac as one of his greatest influences, and it stands to reason.[11] 2Pac’s legacy is controversial but it is undeniable. His music is influenced by his family’s Black Panther notoriety, including his step-aunt Assata Shakur, the first woman to be added to the FBI’s most wanted list.[12] “Mortal Man” is to this album what “Real” was for good kid: putting lessons learnt throughout the album into perspective, to realize oneself in the grand scheme of things. Kendrick Lamar asks of the listener, “When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?” citing all the ways in which he could get in trouble over the course of his lifetime: being framed for crimes he did not commit, arrested on exaggerated charges to fit the agenda of institutionalized racism. Not unlikely scenarios given the backdrop of continued, arguably escalated, police brutality against black people and people of color. He invokes the legacy of Nelson Mandela, a man jailed for more than two decades for his commitment against apartheid – it’s not just homage, it is a statement of intent, a promise to fight the good fight, working for justice and peace. It is a bold promise, and one that he obviously wants to be held to. But it is the outro of the song that leaves the most lasting impression. He starts reciting the poem that has laced one song to another in its totality. Blackness must unite to prevail; blackness must forget the colors of gangs; blackness must forgive itself and reject the evils of “Lucy” – Lucifer, who has haunted Kendrick through his career. “If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us/But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, maybe I’m just another ni**a.”

Paper crumples, and you can almost visualize Lamar looking up with an almost sheepish look on his face, “Sh*t and that’s all I wrote.” The outro quickly establishes itself as a conversation between two people: Kendrick Lamar and his idol, Tupac Shakur. The late Shakur’s words are taken from his 1994 interview with a Swedish radio station, but it doesn’t seem like a conversation with a ghost. He may as well have been talking to Dr. Dre with the familiarity and slight awe that is in Lamar’s voice.[13] They contemplate poverty, impending revolution, the future of black youth: and isn’t it natural for a 27 year-old black man against the background of Ferguson, “I Can’t Breathe,” and #BlackLivesMatter to be asking such questions of his idol? Butterfly is an album for disenfranchised youth of color struggling to find a voice in a society that purports to be post-racial and is anything but.

Perhaps Kendrick Lamar is a butterfly, and his discography is his evolution. Section.80 wove together a setting for the story of Kendrick’s Compton; good kid, m.A.A.d city was a memoir, one teeming with his experience of racism and exploring vice along the way; but To Pimp a Butterfly is bigger than Compton: it’s America. It’s Kendrick Lamar exploring his role as a black man with a voice that is becoming increasingly influential; it is the narrative of a man terrified and insecure of the temptation that surrounds him in his new-found fame, and – and perhaps most importantly – it is the manifesto of an apostle. In his words, Lamar is doing “god’s work” on earth; how timely, this album, given what is essentially the reinvocation of the civil rights movement.[14] If to To Pimp a Butterfly is a “75-minute story of “survivor’s guilt” that finds some sort of resolution at the end, the question must be begged: what is next for Kendrick Lamar?[15] Activism has always manifested itself through multiple mediums and Lamar joins the ever-increasing number of black artists that have anointed themselves activists. Will he work through musicianship? Or will he step out from behind the curtain of artistry and take the helm of the resurging civil rights movement? Continue reading “From K-Dot to Kunta: the New Fate of Kendrick Lamar”

Assorted thoughts over winter break

There’s been so much happening that it’s easier to make a big post filled with a lot of little things than one large disjointed post. I’ve been in Dubai for the past couple weeks and am slated to be back in Boston around 2:30pm EST on the 2nd of January. I legitimately cannot believe it’s almost 2014, but I say that every year. Anyway.

i. I feel a little guilty for being so excited to go back to Boston, for referring to it as “home” after three and a half months of being there; but my heart is an easy thing to capture, and I leave bits and pieces of it wherever I go, a trail of breadcrumbs to follow back if I am ever lost. Certainly, the trail back to Boston is littered with the lion’s share of breadcrumbs – in fact, it is beginning to rival Lahore for hosting the largest piece of my heart. It’s easy for me to make homes wherever I go. The geography matters some, sure (Boston has college, Lahore has roots, Dubai has family, all have friends) but what home is, is familiarity. Dubai, while I know the formal details of the city, never felt familiar. I was here for a while, and I othered it (certainly, I did not allow myself to feel at home here, and that is my fault) and othered myself within it. Boston, however, I let seep into my being like a lover and even if I didn’t know how to formally navigate it, it was steeped in a nostalgia that I still do not entirely understand. Sure, Dubai has my family, and I love my family deeply…but I have always been independent, fiercely independent, and I have been just the slightest bit restless ever since I realized how the world holds all those years ago. Boston puts that restlessness at ease. I am independent, but still comfortable. Boston took my heart, sort of like a down-payment for my future there. And while the niggling sensation of guilt holds true, it’s my home now.

ii. Resolution is a Bad Word. There’s far too much baggage that comes with That Particular Word, one that evokes memories of forgotten promises and failed goals. You make resolutions with the expectation that all you’ve resolved is going to go to shit by February. So I’ve decided to eschew the word – I will, instead, use a much kinder, softer word, an easy word, a word like “goals.” Resolutions is hard, like a drill sergeant screaming “MAGGOT” at you all the time, watching you with beady eyes that expect you to fail. I’m not about that life. Any goals I set for myself are going to be called just that: goals. Less commitment, more breathing room, and less of a feeling of impending failure. (That being said, I refuse to bore people with my goals for 2014. You’re welcome to comment with your goals for the new year, however! I’d love to hear them!)

iii. Empty notebooks are a testament to my tumultuous identity as a writer. I have bought countless notebooks in the hopes that I will fill them up with writing – poetry, prose, essays, grocery lists, plot ideas, character sketches, etc. And yet, eventually, they are forgotten, abandoned at some corner of my desk, in a closet, the drawer where Things Go To Die. Still, notebooks have a magnetic appeal for me. Leatherbound, recycled paper, maps and cartographic wonders, adorned in creamy lace, hand-embroidered, they beckon my aesthetic and writerly sensibilities alike thither. I cannot seem to stop letting notebooks down, though, and even though I have been carrying around my most recent notebook (black, hard cover, spiral bound; simple, compact, doomed) wherever I go, I’m afraid it will share the same fate as my previous ventures into organizing my thoughts. I’m envious of people who have actually been able to retain years and years of writing in complete journals – and if you’re one of those people, really, be proud of yourself. I wish I had your patience and dedication, but I am as flaky as my commitment to writing is (and also needlessly hard on myself) so allow me, stranger, to live vicariously through you.

iv. This blog has received a considerable influx of followers and I can’t help but feel a kind of performance anxiety every time I write a post; I feel like nothing can live up to the post that brought everyone here in the first place, but at the same time, I don’t want to sacrifice frequency. It’s a weird area to navigate, and I’m still trying to figure it out. More to the point, I’m a little scared this blog is becoming too introspection-heavy with not enough societal/political stuff. I’ll figure that out.

v. Sometimes I miss fashion and fashion illustration so much that it hurts, and I’m filled with this deep longing for brassy, sultry music, cold nights, fairy lights, red lipstick and long walks.

vi. I wish I could play an instrument.

vii. There is so much pain and hurt in the world. Bad news comes in threes. I wish I could kiss away the horror – instead, I want to make my existence one that honors those in constant hurt. As silly as it sounds, I want my existence to be as reassuring as a mother’s kiss, my words a poetry, a salve for broken hands. It may be an audacious ambition, but what do we have if not audacity and hope?

viii. I have learnt to not count down to dates, and live in the present instead. It is the greatest gift I could have given myself.

ix. Time to get used to writing 2014, I guess.

Things that made me, me

I’ve been doing a lot of lists lately, I know, but – maybe this is a side effect of studying and exam time – but I feel the need to organize my thoughts. I promise, this site won’t become neihaliststhis!

I’ve been meaning to make a post about this, actually, but I never really knew how. That’s my issue with things that have had a profound impact on me: how do you find the right words? Which is why I couldn’t talk about TEDxWinchester or graduation. I feel like no matter what I write, it won’t do my actual feelings justice. But, well, without further ado, a list of books, TV shows, bands etc that made me who I am today!

  • The Powerpuff Girls. Really, what more do I need to say? Bubbles was my favorite and she still is, but I’ve grown to have a strong appreciation of all three girls. Sure, they all had distinctly different personalities that fit certain tropes (the blonde, the bossy smart leader, the tough girl) but they functioned as a team. But mostly Bubbles.
  • Xena: Warrior Princess. The funniest part is, I don’t remember watching the show. I was a little thing back then, but I know how obsessed I was with Xena and Gabrielle and how I pretended to be Xena myself. Back then, my feminism was pretty much “GIRL POWER!” and YEAH, SWORDS, FIGHTING, KARATE, I’M TOUGH AND I LIKE PINK and- …yeah, it’s pretty much the same still, but with additional marxism. Anyway, yeah, Xena. 
  • Digimon: The amount of tears I have shed over this show. Nothing more needs to be said.
  • Growing up in Lahore but, like, that takes up a post of its own.
  • …I don’t know when I started loving the color pink. All I know is there was never a time I didn’t love it, never a time where I liked a color more than pink. I was always proud about it too. And I still am. And I can, with confidence, say that the color pink itself made me the person I am today. 
  • The Cranberries! Man, I grew up listening to this band, singing Delilah at the top of my lungs, trying to match Dolores’ intensity – even now, I’m not tired of this band. Just a couple hours ago I was listening to all the music I haven’t heard in years and wanted to cry from the sheer nostalgia I felt. I remembered each and every song and it was such a good feeling.
  • Meg Cabot books! Especially The Princess Diaries and the Mediator series. I think reading these books during my preteen years made all the difference – they’re the reason I have such a self-deprecating sense of humor and why I don’t take myself seriously. Hell, Meg Cabot is the reason my writing style is the way it is – personal and feminine and pretty unapologetic, if I do say so myself.
  • Tamora Pierce. Specifically, the Song of the Lioness quartet. To be honest, this deserves a post of its own but I remember when I was studying in Pakistan, my school held a massive annual book fair. My mother – as the woman who helped turn me into the avid reader that I am today – would take breaks out of her busy schedule as a teacher in the same school to sift through the books (with the trained eye of an expert reader). Invariably, by the time she was done, she would have more books than her arms could support, but the beam on her face was worth the strain on her arms.

    In the car ride back home, she and I would pour over the books she had bought. She always bought separate books for me as well, but I was interested in hers too. One of the books she got had a beautiful sword printed across the cover; the other – from the same series, I gathered – had the face of a black cat.

    I don’t remember when I decided to pick up the first book, but I did. And I was in love instantly. Probably the most formative series of my childhood, and definitely the most read. I was always a very “girl power!” kind of kid, as I said before, and I think I often felt a void in my life when it came to finding strong, female protagonists that weren’t just obsessed with romance. Don’t get me wrong – I love romance! I’m hopeless when it comes to it. But there was something to be said about a woman who could handle a sword or a gun with ease. I immediately fell in love with Alanna, all her flaws, her stubborn tenacity, the tenderness she fought so hard to hide… Interestingly, all it did was encourage me not to stifle myself. And it motivated me to defy every single stereotype. I’m proud to say that I haven’t changed that mentality to date.

There’s so much more I could talk about. Frankly, I’m amazed I managed to articulate what I have so far. Of course, this isn’t all that has influenced me but at 3am, it’s all I can come up where. I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a part 2, but we’ll see.

Wow. This post is huge. I apologize.

Music Playlist: by – sorta – popular demand

So a couple of people in school said it’d be neat if I had some of my favorite music up on the blog. Now while I really, really don’t want to subject you all to the horror of autoplaying music, I’ve embedded a playlist on the side bar!

 

I’ll be adding stuff to it as I go but there you have it! It averages about…two songs per artist – though again, I might add more because MUSIC – and covers a variety of genres.

This is possibly the most pretentious post I’ve ever put up on this blog. I am in no way suggesting you guys HAVE TO LIKE MY TASTE IN MUSIC because you’re under no such contract. But. Yeah. Music.

Enjoy!