Mental health and wellbeing are topics close to the tips of the tongues of many right now. Last Friday night we had the privilege of attending Grey Matters‘ Perception exhibition in Poplar and our recent No Fly on the WALL Academy workshop paid special attention to the mental health of black men. In this post, Jesse Bernard relays how music quite literally saved his life.
On November 29th, 1994, a young singer/rapper from The Bronx would go on to release her second studio album, My Life. For many, that date is mildly insignificant but Mary J. Blige would never have expected the album to have a somewhat life changing effect on a child born five years prior, some seventeen years after its release. Our lives are so far removed but a piece of art was created would eventually bring us together, despite having never once met.
Many would assume that I, the child in question, experienced a heartbreak similar to that of Mary’s. My Life is the unlikely hero, or heroine depending on your interpretation, in this story. At the time, Mary had her own battles to confront. An abusive relationship with Jodeci’s frontman K-Ci left her in a dark and vulnerable place. The singer was also suffering from clinical depression whilst also struggling with addictions. Some years later there’s an audible difference in her state of mind. In the mid-2000s, her music became joyful, her album covers conveyed light and hope, a sign that she had overcome the darkness in her life. Yet in her voice, she still carried the pain, as for people like Mary and I, it is inescapable. You just have to find ways of dealing with it.
The specific date can’t be recalled but in November 2011, somewhat fitting, My Life would come to affect me like no other. Perhaps November’s darkness transcends the weather and becomes a pathetic fallacy for many. I was in my final year of university, revelling in the fact that I was enjoying the last few months I had of student life. I had joined the MMA team of Athletic Union and to my own reckoning, become the joker of the pack in the form of self-deprecating humour. The reality and one that wasn’t even visible to myself at the time was that I was suffering from depression. It affected my sleeping pattern and I found myself going out far too often.
The wheels were set in motion years before, years before I even knew where I would end up in life. Identity was my nemesis and it was a silent killer, relentless and giving no quarter. My race, looking back, had played a major role in this series of events. Identity in the UK for BAMEs is something of particular importance. Whilst many of us are third generation and in touch with our roots, many often struggle with identity due to having two homes yet never feeling like we ‘belong’ in either.
By this point you’re probably wondering which songs on the album sparked a deep connection. Strangely enough, I had my ‘slow jams’ playlist on shuffle one day and ‘You Gotta Believe’ came on. I had listened to My Life numerous times but on that particular occasion, ‘You Gotta Believe’ struck a chord with me. Naturally, I let the song play as part of the album, which was followed by ‘Never Wanna Live Without You’. Just as miserable as the previous song, it was another that spoke to me so I figured, why not let it play through since I’m in this shitty mood? There were only five tracks on the album that encapsulated my state of mind at the time. The other three were ‘Be With You’, ‘Mary’s Joint’ and ‘Don’t Go’, each as soul-stirring as the last. ‘Never Wanna Live Without You’ was particularly poignant but also harrowing. Mary sings about an all-consuming love, presumably with K-Ci, but we’re given a personal view into the type of relationship she was in. It’s not uncommon for victims of domestic violence to feel like the relationship is worth saving despite the need for them to leave. Whilst my experience wasn’t domestic violence, I could feel the pain she was conveying.
I’d been travelling back to Hull after a brief visit home, the circumstances escape me but it wasn’t pleasant. I recall walking back from the coach station to my house, a thirty minute walk, at around 2 am. The five hour journey from London allowed me to sleep, escaping thoughts I’d have to confront on the walk home. I was accompanied by My Life, and a fox, which provided some respite from the thoughts I had distanced myself from on the coach. Fast forward a few days, I found myself no longer able to ignore what was troubling me. At the time, I was in the mindset that suicide was cowardice, why would someone like me need to contemplate such an act? The events leading up to this were an overflowing bathtub of toxic ingredients that had happened in my life up until that point, until it all came bursting through the ceiling. As I reflect on my life at twenty-five years old, much of those things were a result of hypermasculinity and a misunderstanding of my own identity as a black man.
The imagery of a bathtub isn’t accidental, it holds significant purpose in this particular account. Evidently, I didn’t go through with it but I still bear the scars. I’m reminded when I read but another account of a young man taking his own life because he was unable to reach out to those around him. Upon reflection, I discovered what it was that drove me to make that decision where under this immense pressure, I considered taking my own life. It was that effort to attain whatever it was that a young man wants to attain – success. Success, or the path to it, is crippling. One has to ask themselves, whose success are you trying to achieve? How will said success fulfill you as an individual? Lastly but probably the most pertinent, deep down, do you really want this success for yourself?
Studies have been conducted to establish the effects of music as a form of therapy. A study by Maratos, Gold, Wang and Crawford for the Cochrane Review found that four out of five of the participants experienced a significant reduction in the symptoms of depression. However with the small sample size, they admit that it is difficult to make any sort of substantial conclusion as to whether music could be a viable form of therapy. In my situation, it wasn’t so much that it reduce symptoms but merely provide some sort of relevancy. When I couldn’t communicate my feelings with my housemate, family, friends or my university, music was able to at least help me understand the experience a bit better.
As time passed and I became more comfortable with this I considered shameful, I’ve gradually told those closest to me about the situation. Like a thief being branded in ancient times, I still carried a sense of shame when I told people about my experience. At the same time with each disclosure, I was no longer fighting a sizeable current and I slowly allowed it to be. I haven’t gone into detail over what caused this period of depression and what came after. The catalysts are important to the story but this account is about the therapy rather than the what led me to seek it out to begin with. If I were to be asked where the university counselor was located or what the hotline number was, I couldn’t tell you. I’m sure this was communicated to us as freshers but why would I need such information? Men like me didn’t need to talk about my problems, especially not to a stranger. Those that know me well know that I’m never really one to talk deeply about things that affect me, save to one or two people. Perhaps this is why music therapy is considerably apt for me – I can’t often communicate how it is I’m feeling, so I let others do it for me. This is a particular aspect of my masculinity that I’m consistently working to unpack.
Music since colonialism and slavery has been a channel for black pain. When Mary sings, she evokes memories of those that came before, her music ancestry. It’s almost as if she channels Billie Holiday. Both artists came from a world of pain and found refuge in music, for black women this is especially important. As I wrote previously, our music is steeped in intergenerational pain and trauma, whether we choose to admit or not.
I seldom find myself listening to My Life nowadays. Self-therapy never ends, it occurs daily but my block of sessions, if you will, with Mary J. Blige were at an end. I revisited the album prior to writing this piece and Music will always be a part of my life. I often say to friends that I could never date someone that doesn’t appreciate music as an art and what it can do for people. On some days, it’s my refuge, on others my source of entertainment. Today as I finish writing this? It serves as a daily reminder that music, to me, will always be a source of therapy. After all, art is the embodiment of all the complexities of the human experience.
Jesse Bernard is a writer, podcaster, and social media professional from London. A freelance music journalist and self-proclaimed ‘vinyl junkie’, he is working on his first novel. Jesse is also the Fly Boyz editor at No Fly on the WALL and a workshop facilitator at the No Fly on the WALL Academy. Find him tweeting here.