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Sweet Sounds of Growing Pains

Originally published in The Tufts Observer:

“Yellow house!” It was a tradition in my mother’s white Infinity every morning for my brother and me to yell the color of one of the houses we passed by in our younger years. There was no prize, just satisfaction and a heightened sense of ego. The sounds of elementary school mornings were filled with pop music from the local Kiss 108 radio station, our chatter, and the hammering of metal as we passed by the construction site next to the train station.

As I got older, mornings became quieter. I entered middle school while my brother went away to boarding school. My mother and I sat in the car, just the two of us, consumed by our own drowsiness and the crackle of NPR through the speakers. The news broadcast took over the shrill shrieks of our childhood. “It’s 8:01. Now, the news,” Bob Oakes recited like clockwork. Then, it was always soft, classical music for the remainder of the journey.

I grew up surrounded by sounds, primarily in the form of singing, the car’s radio, my mother’s violin, and a scratched-up, decades-old, Kenny G disc played before bedtime. Car rides to Vermont meant “Electric Feel” by MGMT. Treks to New York City were always “Just Fine” by Mary J. Blige and an array of Stevie Wonder albums.

I began singing at the age of four. Singing aided the loneliness of growing up. I was often one of the very few Black children, let alone Black girls, within these predominantly white institutions. My shy demeanor added to this alienation. We were too young for affinity groups, but I could still feel the underpinnings of racism starting from kindergarten. My first choir director was a Black woman. Our songs focused on uplifting Black voices and people. I had a space that I could call mine after school and during Saturday rehearsals. Her encouragement and advocacy, even at this early stage, helped me embrace my Blackness at school and my passion for singing. Music defines every aspect of my life and traces my trajectory. Unyielding, unending, and seemingly tangled, but nonetheless, it connects the dots of my path.

In the fourth grade, Saturday rehearsals were traded in for ensemble performances at Saunders Theatre for matinees throughout the holiday season. I added Welsh Christmas songs to my newly-minted repertoire. I accepted my schedule as normal because homework in the car at night and five-hour-long rehearsals became routine for two years. Despite the long hours and nights, I still chose to do it, much to the chagrin of my fourth-grade teacher. I was able to sing on a stage and bond with both children and adults who were just as passionate about music as I was. I dove into historical pieces and treasured with my castmates the simple yet technical quality of our sound.

I once read a chapter of a book about how soundwaves stimulate plant growth. I think, in this same vein, music was a huge part of my own nourishment. I turned to singing when I was coping with the loss of a loved one, when I graduated from high school and moved into college, for creative inspiration, and as a way to reflect during quarantine. Music gave me comfort to be able to reset, renew, and tackle the challenges of growing up.

I went to high school in a storybook town, on par with the poetic musings of Robert Frost and Louisa May Alcott. It was a classically New England scene: manicured lawns peppered with white daffodils and chirping cicadas reverberated throughout the evening skies. With the looming prospect of college, high school was where I continued to participate in activities I enjoyed without realizing the significance they would ultimately have in my life. I was introduced to more musical theatre through mainstage productions. I remember listening to In The Heights for the first time. By the end, I was weeping. Even though the protagonist is from the Dominican Republic, it reminded me of my own upbringing, as I am Haitian on my father’s side and Jamaican-Panamanian on my mother’s side. I resonated with the familiarity of Caribbean culture that was produced through the influence of African drum beats in salsa and meringue pieces, the slowness of bachata, the energy of hip-hop, rap, and the cadence of speech. I felt the neighborly warmth and sense of community I was accustomed to within Caribbean immigrant communities. Through this set of songs, I was settling into my own understanding of what it means to be Caribbean-American and how it can be expressed through this cherished art form. I just never thought that this internalization would be captured from a musical theatre Spotify playlist on my high school’s main quad alongside the buzzing bees of spring.

Since coming to Tufts, I have been thankful for the connections I have made. My favorite memories include dance parties with my roommate that cut through the late-night grinds, the camaraderie and harmony created with The Ladies of Essence, and any free moments to sing in a practice room. As I sit here in my childhood bedroom, remote from campus, I can’t help but think about how lucky I am to be able to draw on such rich memories and experiences. Even given the short amount of time I have physically spent on campus, I have been able to rejoice in music alongside many people who have become my closest friends. In every facet of my life, I find that music harkens back to creating relationships and human connections. I found my voice through music. Being able to sing in a choir and formulate a concrete sense of self formed my foundation for high school, where I was able to maneuver, lead, and explore more of my identity. In college, my closest friendships have been connected through music and this mutual sense of letting go and opening up through song. In a time of isolation, I have music to thank for much of my solace. Despite the individual bubbles in which we reside, I feel the desire and the need to continue making and listening to music for the sole purpose of community and connection. In this shifting and more prominently digital era, it is necessary that we turn to something, anything, that can satiate our souls—something that can connect us all as human beings, whether it be for fulfillment, understanding, or comfort.

Music is personal and intimate in funny ways. It gives us flashbacks to that time we sang a song in the car when the weather was still warm enough to plaster a stickiness to the back of our legs. It reminds us of the tunes we played while walking up the hill to a class. Beyond that, it also has the power to bring out the emotions and sentiments we all feel but are not always able to express: sadness and grief, but also joy and tranquility. Music evokes these feelings without having to say anything in words. In this regard, music is both a human escape and a reflection of reality. For all that it is and all that it has given me, I am grateful. Grateful for all that I have sung, experienced, and consumed.


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