Growing up as a gay Asian in a historically Caucasian and blatantly conservative community (mind you, a student brandished a gigantic Trump banner throughout the hallways the day after the 2016 presidential election), I could never afford the luxury of “being myself” at school. Classrooms taught by teachers with brazen religious ties have always felt like mine fields with a suffocating air of stifled self-expression, broken friendships have become part of a naive past after failing the “test” of coming out, and my sexuality has been weaponized as an insult and a joke — just more fodder to feed into the cis-hetero patriarchy.
These social pressures, on top of the daunting AP’s and collegiate significance of junior year, have not made me especially excited for the first day of school. This article is not being written to garner pity though; we all have to cope with stress. For me, music has always been therapeutic, evoking some emotion — joy, nostalgia, remorse — for empathy or distraction. But there are those special moments when the relationship between artist and audience becomes more than an escape, when a song is perfectly tailored for you and you alone, creating personal resonance in each second.
Instead of some superficial sing-along to the Billboard Hot 100, a profound and tangible connection is formed, and the first time I found that was when I listened to “Jewelry” by Blood Orange (aka Dev Hynes) from his upcoming album “Negro Swan.”
His realistic depiction of mental health and self-acceptance, contrasting aplomb with struggles of unremitting anxiety (“Still proud, best of my abilities/ But still I think about an exit”), creates an intimacy and tenderness rarely found in the Trump era of elitism and rancor.
Students nationwide might be comforted by the fact that they aren’t alone in their stress, dreading the sleep-deprived mornings and late-night cram sessions of the upcoming school year, and the lyricism has life-affirming and refreshing meaning at a time when mental health is barely de-stigmatized and warrants more coverage. Janet Mock’s opening interlude for “Jewelry,” however, is what distinguished the track as a cornerstone to the soundtrack guiding my life:
So, like, my favorite images are the ones where someone who isn’t supposed to be there, who’s, like, in a space — a space where we were not ever welcomed in, where we were not invited. Yet we walk in, and we show all the way up. People try to put us down by saying, “She’s doing the most,” or, “He’s way too much.” But, like, why would we want to do the least?
Highlighted by droning synths and a fluttering saxophone melody, the words superficially have the nonchalance of hallway small talk; but as Mock approaches the camera with a focused, self-assured gaze, empowerment shines through. There’s a bold simplicity with imperfections that make the sentences seem less sterile. Each word carries a genuine faith that the marginalized were made to surmount and succeed, and I can almost see Mock rooting for me as I approach the foyer of my school.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t dictated by the fear of discrimination, and “Jewelry” has reminded me that life isn’t about formulaic pop hooks and abiding by what negative possibilities could happen. Hatred will always be there, especially for the LGBTQ community, but we have the power to act in spite of that and live with the reins in our hands.
So do what you want to do: “Relax your hair, tuck your shirt, put your glasses on, [and] play your guitar.”