Introduced by Michaela Coel, the singer reflects on the duality of dark and light, good and bad, growth and loss that he’s experienced this year.
Blazer by FENG CHEN WANG
Blazer by FENG CHEN WANG
Introduction by Michaela Coel
Moses will tell you we saw each other for the first time after months of texting and missing each other in various cities around the world. He’ll tell you that the first thing we did was go to a fancy film premiere in London before he interviewed me for his album græ, that we spoke for hours that evening. This is not true. Moses doesn’t remember the first time we met. He seems to have conveniently forgotten all the magnificent and embarrassing details. I relish in those, so shall share them.
We first met on an app, or I’ll say, “The Internet”. Finding men to connect with on ‘the internet’ let alone black men is like going to Mahiki in Mayfair looking for a brother to talk diaspora politics with; largely impossible. But there we were. We’d text on and off, falling in and out of touch as people tend to do when connecting on “The Internet”.
A few months later I was invited to see him in concert at Islington Assembly Hall, this was the first time I’d heard his music, or seen him beyond the 6 photos he selected for his online profile. A dark stage, a dark figure, a face, voice, a body contorting with instruments, with the air, it took me a while to adjust to seeing and hearing something I’d not seen before. This was not a man, this was a spirit, his artistry seemed impossible.
I found a reason to text him after but don’t think I ever told him I’d seen him in concert, I wouldn’t have known how to comment on it, it seemed too magnificent to talk with him directly about. So privately I became obsessed with his music. I know the album Aromanticism so intensely that I decided for a period of time that I myself was aromantic. I had done the same in the past with Janelle Monáe’s Archandroid; taking her artistry in until, like any true fan, it was no longer only Janelle I saw and heard, it was myself.
(LEFT) Coat by DUNHILL (RIGHT) Trousers by BERTHOLD.
Coat by DUNHILL Trousers by BERTHOLD.
Half a year later I had nervously flown to LA for a private premiere of Janelle Monáe’s sci-fi movie Dirty Computer. I walked into the theatre and in the centre of the middle row was Moses, arms folded, legs crossed, smiling, but guarded. We celebrated with Janelle late into the night, I didn’t speak to him, Moses, I didn’t know what to say- he’s one of those people, a cloud of magnificence hangs over him and those like me shrivel in its passing. He doesn’t remember this, but I now know that with Moses, if you’re not gonna come correct- meaning authentic, transparent, truthful, it’s probably better to be forgotten by him anyway.
For some reason Moses asked to interview me for his forthcoming album græ, I was happy to be associated with him in any way possible so jumped at the chance. We met up where his memory begins; at a fancy film premiere in London. He’d just gotten off a plane in London from a 24 hour trip to Lisbon and had a small suitcase with him. I also had luggage with me having come from a writing sabbatical in the countryside, we were both dishevelled and smelly. We talked for hours after the premiere. With a cheeky smile, he quizzed me about being a first-generation immigrant from Ghana, about sex, gender, romance, identity- we shared a disinterest in gender lines, and binaries; aware of the masculine and feminine energies we harboured, seeing ourselves as spirits before ‘man’ and ‘woman’. We recognised a mutual androgyny, I relished in knowing that not only had I seen myself in Moses, but that he may see himself in me too. We went to eat that night, many nights after that we’d go to eat. Whenever we share the same soil we find a moment to share a table, and eat. I sit under his cloud of magnificence, and with his arms and legs folded into one another he gives me his world across a table, and accepts the truth of mine with a curiosity and intrigue.
There’s a boutique plant shop in my neighbourhood, on a thin road with limited street parking. As lockdown began, I decided to fill my house with flora, in an effort to keep something alive other than myself. I’d turn my abode into a solarium or greenhouse, the air freshly oxidised by quirky greenery and cheap pottery. But I found the shop closed, for months on end, and that was excuse enough to abandon my performative dream of colouring my green thumb in. The shop finally opened up as the city turned auburn with autumn, and I went to fetch plants for a friend who’d fled city living. They told me how even though they’d closed their tiny shop for safety, business had been booming. They had started delivering to people’s homes. Turns out I wasn’t the only genius with the bright idea to get plants. Their sales tripled mid-crisis.
In recent conversations, I have found stories like that of the plant shop surprisingly common. Whilst many experienced a year of surmountable loss, many also experienced a year of new growth. Some found fiscal growth in the debris of a crashing economy; others found the absence of industry altogether made way for a more sustainable way of life. Suddenly left with gaps in our schedules, many of us finally had the time to imagine what life could be like without the necessity of constant labour. Or at least we learned to labour in ways that weren’t at odds with the salve of home. Instead of living to work, we were suddenly working on living.
And yet, whenever I asked anyone that perfunctory greeting, ‘How are you?’, for months it felt mandatory to shift one’s weight, kick up some dust, and mutter something about how terrible the world was. And if your answer dared to arrive at ‘good’, that goodness had better be paired with a disclaimer I’m good despite the stench of death in the air’, or ‘I’m having a nice day even though I watched a couple videos of Black people’s murder’, or ‘I’ve begun to meditate for the first time and hate myself a little bit less’. The reality — if you work constantly, like me, or have limited brain capacity, like I claim to — it already felt impossible to stay afloat.
(LEFT) Trousers by BERTHOLD.(RIGHT) Vest by CAVALI and trousers by BERTHOLD.
Trousers by BERTHOLD. Vest by CAVALI and trousers by BERTHOLD.
Sure, I’ve experienced loss this year. I released a girthy double album in May, called græ, at what felt like the height of the pandemic. I was in Berlin beginning my most illustrious press tour yet when the carpet was pulled out from beneath me and my band. I roamed the deserted hotel halls that weekend in March as, every hour, my calendar haemorrhaged travel dates, interviews and debut television performances. ‘Spain is undergoing lockdown; Italy has pulled the TV gig; Amsterdam cancelled; the French journalists don’t feel safe; if you don’t fly home tomorrow the borders will shut and you will be trapped abroad’. It was like watching one of those 90s/early-00s disaster movies, and I was a budget Will Smith. So we packed up and rushed home. And that was it. I lost a museum exhibit, a visual album, and a world tour that included a run through Asia, a stint at the Sydney Opera House, and a symphonic performance in London. Events I had been planning for a couple of years whilst making græ evaporated in the span of two weeks. This was gonna be my moment. It was devastating.
Or at least, that’s what I would learn to parrot in the slew of home interviews that followed. From the comfort of my bed or couch or dishwashing, devilishly unclothed, I would lean into the loss and how terrible it all was. How awful to have lost everything but my friends and family. But hey, at least when my album flopped I would have an excuse other than ‘It just wasn’t that good’.
But I wasn’t sad. ‘Sadness’ was too thin to blanket me. As I sat and catalogued all the things I’d lost this year, it was stunning that the list was entirely material. I had been working so hard for so long at establishing a career that there had been little time to work on my own interiority. Having it all ripped away made me have to face myself for the first time, face the fear that I wasn’t particularly good or pure or interesting beyond my talent. Sitting alone in front of the faint din of my laptop screen, I found myself in a crisis of being. All of my self-worth was tied up in accomplishments. I had to ask myself: ‘How did I measure self-love? If I wasn’t working, was I worthy of it? If I wasn’t crossing items off my career bucket list, what was the point of my life?’
I learned to stop complaining (not entirely, just less), and be grateful for my health. Grateful for the foresight I’d had to move out of Los Angeles to the North Carolina mountains two years prior. Because of my schedule, I had never been home for longer than a month since moving to this new town. Now I could finally ride my bike, watch the seasons change, learn who my neighbours were, and figure out just how much water is needed to grow tomatoes. I became determined to become as healthy and as hot as possible. And for the first time ever I had the time to do it.
Weeks after my quest for house plants failed, my next-door neighbour agreed to come over in the middle of the Black Lives Matter protests to help me build a garden in my backyard. As cities burned, I dug a rectangular hole in the ground, getting fresh soil beneath my fingernails, learning about roots and seedlings. Sowing life amidst so much destruction felt like a miniature protest of its own. My neighbour talked about her family’s reckoning with racial justice as we shovelled, and I had to keep from wondering how much white guilt she had, or if helping me garden was an act of reparations. I decided to tease out the good, like squeezing the juice from a morning lemon. It didn’t matter. I had found joy.
I found how much I needed everything to just… stop. The traveling, the touring, the emails, the sessions, the crippling expectation to stay productive, running around a hamster wheel on black and white piano keys. I needed to abandon the urgency to record and release a new album every two years between shows. As I watched opportunities slip away, I had to release the reflex to fight to keep them. Sometimes to lose something is to be free of it. I needed to be free.
Trousers by BERTHOLD. Vest by CAVALI and trousers by BERTHOLD.
Which feels selfish to say. It’s hard to admit I needed this moment without feeling like I’m saying ‘I needed a worldwide pandemic’. So I joined the pity parade, retweeting and regramming and regurgitating stories about the end of the world. We must keep up the facade of fatality in order to not seem insensitive or aloof. But it can get in your bones, that somber jig, if you’re not weary of the permeating effect of promenading pain.
And yet I think that loss is part of the natural order of the universe. There must be darkness in order for light to have meaning. All pain is porous, like a decrepit ceiling with holes that let little manicured lazer beams of sunlight in. I like to think those sunbeams are the joy and if you roll around on the floor enough maybe you can shower in it.
Society’s arranged marriage to flattened narratives causes us to look at this year’s turmoil with limited dimensionality. One of the trickle-down effects of capitalism is the cultural tendency to box everything into neatly quantifiable packages.
In order to describe an experience, or a person, we must be able to say clearly what they are. Everyone must be marketable, communicable, and complexity just isn’t sexy. This was the core tenant of græ: exploring the isolation that comes from staking out the middle ground, or what I call the ‘Great In-Between’; claiming the void as an objective space, not just an intangible ephemerality that slips through consumers’ fingers. It’s recognising that the world is neither this nor that, and neither am I. Mainstream culture manicures everyone into neat sub-groups; minority cultures brand themselves with their identity like cattle, an understandable response to race or gender-based erasure. This is a lonely realisation: to look outside the window, see a world committed to boxes, and not be able to contort your big body into any of them. Because to refuse category is often to relinquish community.
Nothing captured the great ambivalence of being this year better than Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. After its lead character is drugged and raped, she has to come to terms with justice and the fact that she might not get it. She spirals, learning that good and evil exist on such polar extremes that they begin to resemble each other. In one episode, she finds fraternity and healing in an old primary school classmate, a disgraced white girl who once accused a Black boy of assault. In another, she expects to find racial camaraderie amongst her Black #GirlBoss publisher, only to find that the only colour her boss sees is green. (Or whatever colour money is in Britain, idk.) In a year when prison abolition became a hot topic for the first time, I May Destroy You also forced us to reckon with what it would mean to live in a society built on individual reform in place of carceral retribution. What does it mean to forgive those who have wronged us? Can we acknowledge the humanity of our oppressors? Is anyone — or anything — inherently good or bad? As a Black Immigrant-American who relocated to the deep red South, I am faced with these questions every time I go to the grocery store. I am reminded that the people who are taught to hate me have families, evidence that they are capable of love. What if we didn’t pick a side?
Blazer by FENG CHEN WANG.
Blazer by FENG CHEN WANG.
In Chelsea Girls, one of the books the shutdown afforded me time to read this year, Eileen Myles touches on the myth of essentialism: ‘You make a hole in the weave if you expect anything to be something through and through’.
So I recognise that the way we talk about this year is tied to our two-dimensional perception of identity. From how we express our gender right up to the two-party system which has robbed American political discourse of nuance. Might I propose that this year was neither good nor bad. That for some people, disease and poverty and racism were already a daily reality, not a distant catastrophe. That for many, this year was bittersweet. Some people made more money on unemployment than they did at their shitty jobs. Some were devastated. Some were stressed with having to care for family members, but it brought them closer, and at least they didn’t have to smell their co-workers’ breath. And for some, for me, this year lead to the new growth of creative pathways.
While I don’t want to fall into the forced martyrdom of saying ‘Great art will come from that one time there was a global pandemic’, I know that I have found new modes of expression in this time. Completely uninspired to make music — I’ve never gone so long without writing a song — I began to deepen my relationship with image-making. I taught myself to use a film camera a director recommended. I spent days on end in the mountains, where everything is soot and soil and society is but a faint din beneath the horizon. Unable to attend photoshoots (and refusing to participate in those ugly FaceTime/Zoom shoots that dated the spring), I began to photograph myself, first for myself, and then for magazines. I started writing film, and delved deeper into directing. I started journaling each morning. I watched an ungodly amount of film and TV, and didn’t feel bad about it. I could write it all off as ‘research’. Including that stellar two-part reunion episode of Real Housewives of Atlanta that occurred entirely on Zoom.
Trousers by BERTHOLD.
Trousers by BERTHOLD.
This pivot was important for me. Music had become so tied to metrics — to reviews, to streams, to likes and follows — that I had forgotten what it meant to make something simply for the joy of having made it. I had no hobbies, no concept of keeping something close to the chest, to sustain the spirit, to cultivate the soul. So I roll my eyes at requests from publications and companies for ‘Coping Content’. Those entities who wish to industrialise struggle into digital posts and farm my pain. ‘How are you coping with the racial climate? How are you coping with the environmental climate? How are you coping with the political climate?’ Bitch I’m not coping. I’m thriving. And I know better now than to pimp out my healing mechanisms for external consumption and popularity. I’ve found joy in sitting on my dusty front porch, drinking tea. Even found serenity on days when the sing-song chirping of birds and squirrels was underscored by a countermelody of sirens. Like the boutique plant shop, I found an abundance amidst the rubble.
The garden in my backyard boasts rosemary, thyme, tomatoes, cucumbers, and kale. Nearly all of it is now dead. I have learned that I am no gardener, and my thumb may never be as green as my eyes are when glimpsing my neighbour’s yard. Briefly, my garden was too abundant for a quarantining bachelor, producing more vegetation than I could consume alone. Now that work is picking back up, I’ve lost all capacity to keep it alive. But the knowledge of its possibility is enough. Sometimes the mere evidence of a life lived — even if all that’s left of it is scorched earth and withering vine — is enough. I look forward to trying again next spring.
I wonder if my neighbour, who has a front-row ticket to my decaying garden from her porch, thinks less of me for not being able to sustain the fruits of her labour. But I have a feeling she is pre-occupied with bigger things. I just found out she’s several months pregnant with twins. She’s cultivating new growth of her own.
Toni Blaze Ibekwe
Hila Karmand at One Represents using 111skin and Dior