If I could give a soundtrack to the beginning of December 21, 2004, it would be the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”. It was a “feeling myself” kinda day: unusually warm and sunny out, celebrating the survival of a brutal seven-class schedule with a 3.8 GPA, I was going to California the next day for Christmas, and I was at my favorite coffee spot with a perfect Snickers latte and my best girlfriends. That all shattered when my cell phone rang. I was greeted with hysterical yelling and crying.
“Hello? What’s the problem?!”
“Your Daddy’s gone,” someone sobbed.
* * *
I am unapologetically a Daddy’s girl. Daddy, like my Paw Paw, was tall, handsome, and respected. As a kid, the way I stretched my spine to stand tall like Paw Paw was the same way I stretched my spine to be tall and confident like Daddy. He was the type of cat whohipped me to the game of life. Daddy nurtured my spirit with unwavering love and my ear canal with a smorgasbord of music. Cameo. Kraftwerk. Sting. Sade (whom, on many an occasion, I was told “shoulda been your mama”). The Gap Band. The elements, Earth Wind and Fire. Prince. Funkadelic. The Isley Brothers. I consumed ‘em all and loved them all. It was Daddy, me, and our playlist against the world.
That playlist abruptly ended that outstanding Tuesday afternoon. My father died in a tree cutting accident that burned his body beyond recognition. I remember coming home to what felt like swarms of people giving their condolences, all of which I didn’t want or need because I still couldn’t fathom my father was dead.
Apparently, I was bucking southern mourning traditions. I didn’t sit silently next to my grandparents with soft tears as people patted my head, hands, and shoulders. I didn’t graciously accept the entire menu of KFC with a syrupy smile and a “thank you so much.” I didn’t change into an all-black dress with white cuffs and matching handkerchief. I demanded people leave the window shades up instead of pulling them down to indicate death in the house. Disgusted, I tried to deal with the shown attempts of support: “I’m so sorry about your father,” or “He left to soon,” and the favorite—“You are so strong for your family.” Fuck all that. “You and your condolences can kick sharp rocks up a hill barefoot,” I thought. “My best friend just died and the best you can do is ‘I’m sorry’?”
I retreated to my room in search of space to marinate. My grief nurtured an unrelenting anger from the darkest depths of my soul. I found myself cursing out my dad and his memory. How dare he leave me two weeks before my twenty-first birthday? How dare he take away his love? How dare he, how dare he, how dare he?
Desperate, I tried to find something—ANYTHING—to fill my head with thoughts other than my dead dad. Dead. Dead. Dead. I grimaced as I put a Cameo CD into my CD player for comfort. Just as quickly I removed it. I realized I couldn’t seek comfort in the music me and Daddy shared. I needed something raw, music that would hit me in my chest where only natural, involuntary muscle movements indicated I was still, technically, alive.
That night my recently acquired manfriend (and later, husband) Roy traveled from Atlanta to Albany, GA after a twelve-hour shift to attempt to console an inconsolable spirit. As we sat up late into the next morning, he shared his newly found love and the newly released T.I. album, literally and figuratively, titled Urban Legend. At the time, T.I. and I were aight. I knew who he was. After all, I was a Daddy’s girl first and a DSGG (Down South Georgia Girl) second. We first met over his verse on Atlanta R&B group Co-Ed’s remix of their joint “Roll Wit Me”. There were a few other nods here and there, like “Let’s Get Away” and other radio singles that I risked having my southern DSGG and shawty shawty cards revoked if I didn’t know about. But alas, T.I. was never in constant rotation.
This time was different. I popped that joint in and waited for an inkling of anything. I found my head slowly nodding. A spark of what felt like raw electricity seized my numb body and I felt a surge of emotion. I was angry! I was pissed! And I wanted to YELL THAT SHIT! I felt energized. I felt ready to whoop ass. I felt emotion at a moment when I thought I’d never feel anything again. Imagine that.
I continued bucking the mourning tradition, leaving the house with Urban Legend in tow and driving around Albany for hours until all visitors left my house. My grandmother, very southern and very traditional, fussed at me about hiding from view. “They just want to help,” she gently scolded. “They’re worried about you. I’m worried about you. You haven’t broke.”
Say what? Broke? Shawty, I’m hard. I don’t break. Breaking means I’ve accepted this shit. Apparently, I was expected to be down and out so that people could feel sorry for me. I couldn’t do it. I had too much pride and was not pleased with being asked to show grief. I was too tough for that and tried to hide my irritation.
“Motivation”, track two on Urban Legend, resuscitated my desire to live and was my adopted philosophy about grieving and feeling sorry for myself: “If you look me in my eyes, see I’m ready for whatever / Anything don’t kill me make me better / I ain’t dead nigga. . .” Where I couldn’t find the words to encourage myself, I looked to Tip. Dad may have been gone, but he was not out. He taught me to be a fighter. And I took that to heart. I didn’t die. He did. But his spirit motivated me to go on. His death didn’t kill me. It made me better.
* * *
WARNING: DSGG on the Yard Taking and Taking It to the Square
Classes started back, but I didn’t. Every morning I would wake to “Motivation”: “Get on your job, nigga. . .” Roy would call me hourly with “Motivation” playing loudly in the background for inspiration.
It was a challenge just to show up and participate in my courses. I was constantly irritable and didn’t want to be bothered. Confrontation became my muse and T.I.‘s “Stand Up” became my theme music. My mental playlist had “Stand Up” on repeat. The beat, along with the lyrics, screamed “buck.”
A collaboration with the prime minister of crunk Lil Jon, “Stand Up” spoke to me because of Lil Jon’s introduction: “There’s a lot of niggas out here (uh huh) that got a lot of shit to muthafuckin’ say (yeah) / But when a nigga bring it to them niggas, they can’t stand up for what they muthufuckin’ said (naw I ain’t say that he said that) / If you got something to say my nigga, stand up for what you said, my nigga!” It really pissed me off when people would fake concern and talk shit behind my back. Taking a nod from Cedric the Entertainer, I took pleasure in heavily leaning on the wish factor—I wished somebody WOULD come at me or I wished I found out about such instances so I could unleash this newfound gangsterism. The yard, the campus, not just my body, became my square, my space for confrontation. I engaged life with a sharp edge of anger and discomfort.
* * *
Urban Legend was T.I.‘s first release after a prison bid. His third album, Urban Legendis arguably T.I.‘s breakthrough record. Often reflective of the hustle and the trap—the southern version of the corner, where illegal (drug) dealings take place—demonstrated by titles like Trap Muzik, T.I’s trap mentality was “get or get got.” I could get with that. I was dealing with my own trap: my mind and body were suffocating me from feeling and functioning.
Perhaps what is most penetrating about T.I.‘s catalog is his willingness to publicly confront and battle his inner demons and struggles. Unlike earlier releases Trap Muzik or I’m Serious, which garnered T.I. regional fame and little national attention, Urban Legend pushed T.I. to a public performance space, often battling to balance lived experience with expectations of his trap boy narrative and persona. The imbalance of public desire and private pain climaxed on wax with T.I.‘s T.I. vs. T.I.P., released in the aftermath of the violent 2007 shooting death of T.I.‘s closest friend Philant “Big Phil” Johnson.
There, T.I. battled himself by presenting a “dual” CD of two polar narratives—T.I., the accepted and celebrated rap superstar, and T.I.P., the angry and suppressed dope boy in the trap. Triggered by the pressures of corporate expectation and an inability to confront his pain in dealing with Johnson’s death, T.I.P. is “summoned” to fight T.I.‘s battles and vent his frustrations. The climactic and vicious confrontation of T.I. and T.I.P. at a mirror that shatters at the end of the skit symbolizes not only T.I.‘s inability to grieve,but the inability to find balance. Before serving another prison bid for illegal weapon charges, T.I. released Paper Trail (2008), a highly personal and introspective record that he has stated marked a significant shift in not only his life, but his music career.
At the time, however, Urban Legend spoke to me because it catered to my pseudo-schizoprhenic approach to life. I found myself, in similar fashion to T.I., creating personas that fended off any interrogation about how I wasreally doing. When I was trying to shake off my hurt and have a little fun, I played “Bring ‘Em Out”. When I was feeling a little less than spectacular and willing myself to go to class, I played “Motivation”. When I was feeling explosive and confrontational, I looked to “Stand Up”. When I was feeling introspective and pondering my next moves, I played “My Life”. Part of my healing happened because I made my own rules and grieved my own way. Urban Legend was my soundtrack.
My anger went from being on a level of one trillion to normal. I found myself mellowing out, letting life seep back into my spirit.
* * *
My father’s death quaked my being, not only because it was unexpected, but also because I’d never dealt with death so closely. I found myself holding my grieving grandparents and little brother down, aside from my own grief. In that same way, I needed a musical release that hit so hard that I remembered I was alive, I needed musical motivation to keep living my life. Perhaps Urban Legend satiated my needs because of fate. Perhaps it resonated so deeply because of the wonderful man that put it in my lap that dark and less-than-outstanding Tuesday night. Regardless, Urban Legend salved my napalmed soul and initiated the healing of unhealable wounds.
I’ve kept up with Clifford “T.I.” Harris. He’s like a play-play cousin twice removed. I most appreciate T.I. and the majority of his music for his complexity not only as a man, but as a southern black man and his willingness to present himself as a breathing conundrum. I celebrate his victories, feel for him in his time of anguish, and cuss him out when he fucks up. T.I. is a permanent favorite on my playlist because, in some far-fetched way, he gave me a blueprint for dealing with my grief, even if it was a fuck-it mentality.
This December marks the seventh year anniversary of my father’s death. And, in what has become an unquestioned ritual, I play Urban Legend as reminder of why I keep fightin’. And whose memory I’m fighting for. Motivation.