Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The music that defines the story of us becoming who we are.

Just keep your faith in me
don't act impatiently
you'll get where you need to be in due time

Even when things are slow
hold on and don't let go
I give you what I owe
in due time

~ Outkast

My friend Mary M. loves The Rolling Stones. She also has a deep adoration for Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and many other artists and musical genres. Music has always been a centerpiece in her home just like it is for many of us. One of her daughters plays the mandolin and her eldest grandson (who is only five, by the way) knows the Stones well enough to blow the dust off of an album and drop a nickel on top of it. Okay. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but the kid does have a true appreciation for sixties rock and roll.


I love the way music evokes such powerful memories. For Mary's grandson, Owen, the cry of Keith Richards' guitar or the throaty crooning of Mick Jagger will likely pull him into the warmest, safest time of his life. Each note will cause his heart to swell with the strongest of reflections of his grandmother sweeping the porch or his grandfather laughing in a nearby chair in his overalls. So that--the sound of The Rolling Stones--will be as intense as the smell of sage at Thanksgiving or the thick aroma of a Southern summer after a hard rain for him.

Always, alway, always.

But for his grandmother? Those Rolling Stones notes take her to different places. It likely brings her back to defining moments and coming of age experiences. Some good, some worth forgetting and others decidedly unforgettable. But the music does that. It punctuates these pivotal times--particularly when the artists' evolution happens in concert with our own.


When I was seventeen years old, my father drove me from Los Angeles all the way to Alabama to start college at Tuskegee University. Within days, my favorite shoes were covered in red clay from walking through shortcuts to the cafeteria and my west coast "summer jackets" had been tossed into a heap for they would be of no use in the humidity of an Alabama August. In addition to that, I also remember the sounds that played in my dorm room off of Walmart special boom boxes. A quirky girl on my hall had two tapes that she played non-stop. One was Bob Marley and the Wailer's greatest hits and the other was Sting's Nothing Like the Sun. To this very day, those songs transport me back to Douglass Hall in 1988.

That said, there was some other music that was very, very unique to where I was. Southern hip hop music was in its infancy then. With its heavy bass undertones and catchy chants, it filled up our ears at every party. Additionally, half way through most parties, there would be a break out point with Chicago-style "house music"--something my California ears had never heard before. New friends taught me the dances and eventually I owned my own set of Miami bass and Chi-town house mix tapes. And all of that--whenever I hear it at any party--teleports me to crowded jam sessions with sweaty co-eds moving their bodies after a week of hard work.

So all of this--the music that defines different times in my life--has always been meaningful. Even when I don't hear the songs each day, when I do, it just does something to me. Puts me in a happy place. The words pop out of my lips like legs pedaling on a bike. The dances return to my limbs and I am there again. Whether it is Rapper's Delight with us pop locking and double dutching on the corner, Run DMC with us break dancing on cardboard boxes, Salt 'n' Pepa and us gyrating our narrow hips way too suggestively to be sophomores in high school, or LL Cool J signaling that the newest set of pledges from a fraternity or sorority at Tuskegee had just completed their much anticipated initiation--music is the universal tie that binds it all together.

Medical school, 1996

From Tuskegee, I went up to Nashville for medical school. Still in the southern United States and still in the environment of a historically black college. By this time, I'd embraced the "dirty South" as a part of who I was--the music, the slang, the all of it. That foreign humidity felt normal to me and words like "y'all" were now a regular part of my everyday vernacular. But the music? That, too became something I took ownership of as well.

Let me explain: In 1994, I was sitting in the living room of my friend Jada's apartment. Her boyfriend, Felix, was visiting from Arkansas where he'd just graduated from grad school and was playing this new tape he'd recently gotten. It was like nothing I'd ever heard. That said, there was a familiarity about it. The voices were unapologetically "down South" sounding. Not in that country and western way but more the urban tongues I often overheard from the Atlanta kids I'd come to know well in college. The two people rapping over this beat did what I'd heard only East Coast and West Coast emcees do -- but never anyone else from the less "on the map" places. These artists specifically called out places in Atlanta. Streets. The MARTA train. Bus routes. In the 'hood, no less. They shouted out all of those things that weren't really shiny or pretty but were still a part of them. And they talked about those things that, during that time for hip hop music, wasn't considered sexy at all.

Atlanta? As in Georgia? What?

Yep. Not even cryptic about it. They were like "This is who we are. Love it or leave it." And us? Then twenty somethings in the south? We LOVED it. Loved the uniqueness of it, the twang of it, the everything of it. And we played it and played it and played it until the strips almost rolled off of the reels.

The name of that group was so fitting, too. "Outkast." The real word is defined as one who has been rejected by society or a social group. And a lot of us kids embraced that because, at times, we felt like outcasts, too.

By 1996, they'd had another album drop which, by then, we referred to as a "CD." Ha. This one was even more "out there." It was aptly called "ATLiens" and chronicled the process of just trying to make it with very little. I knew all of the words to that CD, too. Somehow while studying to be somebody's doctor, I figured that part out at the same time. Ha.

And with this one? The Atlanta references were even stronger and in your face. Which everyone who was from anywhere felt proud about. Not just Atlanta. Any hood anywhere. It made the Houston rappers shout out Houston and even the Cleveland rappers talk about Cleveland.

Yes. Even Cleveland. 

Here's an excerpt from one of my favorite songs from back then:

"One for the money, yes suhh, two for the show
A couple of years ago on Headland and Delowe
Was the start of somethin' good
Where me and my -- rode the MARTA, through the hood
Just tryin' ta find that hookup
Now, everyday we look up at the ceilin'
Watchin' ceilin' fans go 'round tryin ta catch that feelin'
Off instrumental, had my pencil, and plus my paper
We caught the 86 Lithonia headed to Decatur . . . . "

And these--the words to a song called "Elevators"-- spoke to us all. At least the "all of us" who were with them during that time figuratively and, by our shared down South residence, literally. Because we were the ones who were shaking our hips and bopping our heads to it while trying to move on up in our own ways. . . . just like them.


Up those Elevators to a deeee-luxe apartment in the sky. (Don't even get me started on television.)

To our parents and maybe even a lot of other people from other places it was just noise and nonsense. Maybe. But maybe not.

But to us? It was magical. 

This unusual duo--Outkast--went on to become very, very big Grammy-winning stars. They crossed over into other genres and gained tons of fans who weren't even born when we were "letting our tapes rock 'til our tapes popped" back in '94. Other albums became beloved by kids everywhere and of every hue. And still, we were all proud of them. Proud of all of it because their story was a part of ours. And we were right there with them as they came of age while we came of age, too.

What's also super cool is that a lot of those younger kids who became fans later have defining moments with this group as well. Just at different points with different meanings, you know?


So after many, many years, Outkast went on a tour that both ended and culminated with a big three-day weekend in Atlanta--wittily referred to as #ATLast and destined to be epic. Partly because this group almost never tours. And second because it was ATLANTA. So originally, there was just one show slated for September 27, 2014. It was scheduled to be in the middle of Centennial Olympic Park in the literal heart of Atlanta. Of course, it sold out immediately.

They opened up two more shows for Friday and Sunday--those sold out in minutes, too. I was at work when they went on sale so admittedly wasn't in the number.


But then as the date drew closer, I began to realize what part of my story their music told. I listened and could feel versions of what I feel when Nat King Cole sings "The Christmas Song" or The Temptations sing "Silent Night." I recognized that this would all be happening in Atlanta and reflected on all that happened in music out of Atlanta, Georgia after they emerged on the scene. I imagined me, coming of age, and even my young Grady patients who much more like Andre and Big Boi from Outkast than anyone I know.

I knew I had to figure out how to be there.

from the last rare chance I had to see them, Cleveland, OH during residency--got autographs to boot!

On a Hail Mary throw, I put it out there on Facebook (yes, I've broken down and entered Facebook--another post for another time.) And through the magic of social media, what started as me pouting about wishing I had committed to getting tickets, ended in two tickets in my hot little hand. Or rather on my hot little lap top.

JoLai was a part of that thread and she is a firm believer in the YOLO approach--that is, "you only live once." She knew what a fan I was and also understands exactly what I mean about the music that defines eras in our lives. She put straight into a comment: "If you can get the VIP ticket at that price, I will get for you. I want you to go that bad. #yolo!" 

How could I refuse that? Answer: I could not.

But what made it even better? The person who joined me was my friend Jada--the same one whose couch I sat criss cross applesauce on when I first heard that first tape. And guess who dropped us off at the concert? Her now husband of nearly 20 years, Felix. And guess how we got home? You guessed it. The MARTA.


It was Jada's birthday the day we went to the concert. And we walked lockstep just like it was the old days at Meharry Medical College when we were first year students partnering on a cadaver in the gross anatomy lab. And that music? All of it? It was perfect. Nostalgic and the soundtrack to a rich story that is still being told.

We stood outdoors under the Atlanta skyline and amongst the energy of many, many ATLiens young and old on the final day of what will likely be their final tour. It felt epic because . . . well. . .it was. But mostly, because I let myself feel it. Feel the music, feel the time and place, feel the meaning of that friendship of twenty-plus years and remember what it felt like to sit with that same girl watching ceiling fans go 'round and trying to catch that feeling. . . .

Yeah, man.

I don't know what will be Mary's grandson Owen's Outkast. I can't begin to even guess what will be Isaiah and Zachary's Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan either. But what I do know is that there will be one. Or two. Or better yet, many more just like we have. And that music will play in the backgrounds on their mental iPods. . . .building a foundation of memories for them to safety retreat to through the magic of headphones and standing room only concerts in the park.


"Peace up"

"A-town down"

Thanks for an EPIC adventure, Jada. Then and now.

Happy Tuesday. You can find me in the A!

Now playing on my mental iPod. . . .one of my favorites featuring Outkast's homeboy (prominently featured all over that '94 debut) an unknown highschooler named Cee-Lo Green. Talent is everywhere. . .so many diamonds gleaming all around us, right? Don't sleep on ANYONE from ANYWHERE.

What is some of the music that defines the story of who you are? Which artists take you to sacred places?


  1. Well, dang. Thanks, sweetie. You're right about me and my music and there is so much more, as you know. My first year in college was about Joni Mitchell's "Blue" and a lot of classical. Vivaldi, Bach, Beethoven. I hated it though, when my roommate played her beloved John Denver albums. Hated that. James Taylor, Carly Simon, all of those songs of theirs sends me right back. Bette Midler's "The Divine Ms. M." And I think of certain people giving me certain music. The roommate who gave me Laura Nyro. The boyfriend who gave me "The Band."
    Music is magic. Music is a wonder. Music makes it easier to bear to be a human sometimes.
    Beautiful post.

    1. Love it and can imagine it all. Hugs to you today.

  2. And are you going to go see the Hendrix movie with Andre in it?

    1. You already know the deal. You can see how Jimi inspires Dre already. It's gonna be epic and I will be in the house.

  3. WOW!!! This took me back to the 1st time I heard OutKast....great memories...aaahhhh music, the soundtrack of my life....

    Dee in San Diego

  4. Love, love, love this post. Music is so defining in our lives and can transport us back to a time and place. I'm always amazed at how many of the words I can remember to a song I haven't heard in years. Also, how the musical play list changes. Now that I live in Tanzania, it's African music that defines my experience, from the distinctive guitar and beat of Congolese music, the beautiful melodies of the West African kora to the Tanzanian brand of bongo flava (a mix of hip hop and RnB). So now it's Lady Jaydee, Diamond Platnumz, Sona Jobarteh and Mad Ice that are my soundtrack :)

    1. Lesley, how cool is that? Those sounds will be the soundtrack of this chapter of your story indeed. Love the mental image of your shaking to that bongo lava!

  5. Love me some Outkast. The soundtrack of my college years, though was Steve Winwood's Back in the High Life. Always takes me back every time I listen to it!


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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