FROM MADONNA TO LA INDIA
I love music. And I know that that is the equivalent of saying “I enjoy laughing.” It’s like, who the f doesn’t? But, like, I really love it. So much so that I got music notes—an eighth and double-eighth, to be obnoxiously exact—tattooed on my arm...and I can’t sing, dude. Or play an instrument. Or write music, much less read it. And I knew that I would have to endure answering those aforementioned questions from squinty-eyed strangers trying to stifle their judgement every time they saw my arm for the rest my life and. I. got. the. tattoo. anyway, guys. Why? Because I’m committed. (I mean, I want to get it removed now, but that’s only because it was poorly done and that is BESIDE the point.) But I love music, and not in the “everything but country” kind of way that only the hypest of hypebeasts can claim. (You listen to Carrie Underwood’s “So Small” and tell me you don’t feel something!) Anyway, I’ve deduced that I have my parents to thank for this.
The first time I felt racially “torn” was when I had to fill out one of those Scantron test forms in school and was prompted to select the bubble corresponding to my ethnicity. You could not select two or else the whole machine would malfunction and you would have to take the test again. Also, you’d get left back a grade and the entire school would shut down. Or so the authorities would have made your still-impressionable mind think. Point being, I didn’t take my chances. I ultimately opted for #2 (“Black”), negating my father’s father’s Bajan background and my mother’s Puerto Rican-ness— and I’d like to say that I had a powerful reasoning behind my choice, but I was a wee thing. (‘Ye shrug.)
So, “Black” I was and I remained as such for the rest of my years enrolled in New Jersey’s public schools. That is, until it was Cultural Dish Day (or, what-have-you) in class and I damn sure brought coconut bread AND piñón because I had had enough of the education system’s silencing and compartmentalization of my heritage—no, again, I don’t know, I’m sure I just assumed, YASSS, TWO DISHES WILL MAKE ME THE KEWLEST KID.
But where there was division in my parents’ innateness, in the gap grew a wholeness. Here’s what I mean.
As a child, when I wasn’t grimacing at my father’s insistence on force-feeding me jazz from saxophonists Kirk Whalum and Dave Koz (“but it’s so booo-ring”), I was cringing with embarrassment and begging my mom to turn down Madonna’s "Ray of Light" when she picked me up from school before any of my friends could hear, because “it’s so weeeird” and, ya know, Ma$e’s debut "Harlem World" had just dropped a few months earlier and I should’ve only been ingesting that, right? Exposure to other, be damned.
And yet, specifically, Lou Rawls and Dianne Reeves’ version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” from "Blue Note’s Christmas compilation Jazz to The World" is what remains embedded in my mind all these years later, come the holiday season. (Granted, as an adult, I now wholeheartedly take issue with its complete disregard for the concept of consent, but it was written in the ‘40s, guys! It was a different time!) But that LP would eventually bore itself into my Top 4 of holiday records, following only behind more of my father’s choices: "First Christmas" from gospel siblings Bebe & Cece Winans, and "Christmas Album" from the Jackson 5.
(At some point as an adolescent, I would also be gifted the famous brother band’s "Greatest Hits CD" and, like, I actually wanted it. The tides were turning.)
(Side note: Mariah Carey’s "Merry Christmas" is obviously No.1; why are you still reading this list?)
Additionally, come college, my mom’s persuading would stick and Madonna’s "Confessions on a Dance Floor" would disallow me from sitting still. And this time it would be unabashed. Plus, I’d later understand that Ray of Light was, is, and should be largely credited with bringing electronica to the mainstream. Not the Chainsmokers kind, the Grimes kind. And I only have albums from one of those artists. Just sayin.’
I also recall impatiently waiting to hear La India snarl “estúpido!” with venom on “Ese Hombre” from my mom’s "Dicen Que Soy" album, my first introduction to the salsa princess, because it was the most assuredly correct translation I could make out. And then being thrilled to learn that she could also sing in English (because I could join her!) on my dad’s "Nuyorican Soul", a compilation from house-garage producers Masters at Work, the title providing a dead giveaway of the three entities it honored. India’s song was “Runaway,” originally sung by disco’s Loleatta Hathaway (and backed by the Salsoul Orchestra), and I thought it was the funkiest damn thing that had ever moved my 11-year-old heart.
(Side note #2: Just last year, my mother gifted me with her worn vinyl of Salsoul’s 1976 "Christmas Jollies" and I was moved ... so, it’s confirmed, adulthood brings awareness. Also, I should have gotten the hint about La India’s bi-lingualism when she covered Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire” in Spanish on Soy but, again, youth.)
Eventually though, I don’t remember grimacing as my father painstakingly taught me, line by line, the lyrics to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” or Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me,” accompanied by my very own Casio keyboard—that Bossa Nova beat button was the truth and yet rarely needed—or when my mother played at nauseam Natalie Merchant’s "Tigerlily", the folk-pop singer’s first solo effort after departing from alt-rock purveyors 10,000 Maniacs. In fact, I credit the latter with my near-compulsory unconditional infatuation for any folk-tinged female. Gimme a Jenny Lewis, a Kimya Dawson, a Feist at any given moment, please.
My parents’ cultural differences haven’t warranted me a single trip to Barbados or a fluency in Spanish yet (because I’m an equal opportunist with my neglect, obviously), but it has blessed me with this grade-A eclectic ear.
And that, even if inadvertently, has provided me with a reliable and comforting familiarity—a rarity when you’ve spent your coming-of-age days trying to sew two skins into one.
For all the times I never felt fully steeped in either half of myself, this knowledge—an ironic result of such—felt reassuringly full. The twist being that the reasons for, and results of, my ambiguity would actually equip me with the ability to wax about something universal. An oddity to proud of. A sly example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. If torn, as previously mentioned, music would be the mending.
Unfortunately, the other unexpected result of all this is that my insatiability for consuming music has left me treating concert tickets like a monthly bill, a poorly-managed one—this is maybe a cry for help, guys—but, like, I can still make you a mean playlist?