The Other Passengers: Life, Art & The Fear of Being Forgotten
Fear. I could feel it crawl across my fingertips every time she squeezed my hand. My mother hates heights, hates airplanes, probably hates the Wright Brothers, but here she is, soaring through the clouds in a mechanical bird that’s violently Harlem shaking. It's the kind of earthquake in the sky that makes you despise a window seat because the wing starts to appear fragile, you hear the sound of metal grinding as if it's seconds away from falling apart, gravity’s unforgiving law laughs in your ear and all you can do is squeeze a hand, pray, and try not to scream.
The day before, completely by accident, I came across a song by Rockie Fresh and something he rapped stuck with me. “They say you only get remembered when you got a name / 7 others died with Aaliyah on the plane I don't know nobody else / should them niggas feel the shame.”
Every year Aaliyah is honored on her day of birth and the anniversary of her death. The mourning, reminiscing and celebrating of her short life is a yearly ritual that I can remember since the tragic plane crash. What I never thought about was the other passengers that also died alongside her. They entered the world through a woman’s womb and exited on a crashed plane that weighed too much. They had names, families and careers. A quick Google search will help you find out the basics but they weren’t famous, and they aren’t remembered in the same light. Looking out the trembling window, I thought about all that I have done and all that I have yet to do, in this plane full of passengers, would I be remembered if we nosedive to our doom?
The night Phife Dawg died, I remember walking into my apartment and the TV just happened to be on ESPN. Scott Van Pelt was in the middle of a tribute. The way he spoke of Phife, you could tell he was more than just a rap artist to him. The connection was deeper than just enjoyable songs. I witnessed it with Rob Sheffield and David Bowie, Questlove and Prince, Rob Kenner and Afeni, feeling the enormous impact of a person's life through the eyes of others. That’s a lasting mark on this world that can never be erased. The closing of their caskets, the burning of their ashes, the end of their lives was a revival, a rebirth of appreciation.
In death, first comes grievance and then celebration of all they achieved and accomplished throughout their lives. No matter how many flowers they give you alive it doesn’t even come close to the bouquet of roses that will be laid at your feet the day you’re laid to rest. It's almost impossible to witness how they're embraced after death and not strive to create the kind of art that will have a similar impact. The greatest opportunity that art offers an artist is the possibility of immortality. All the writers that inspired me to write were dead long before I picked up a pen, some even before I took my first breath, but you see their books in school, read their quotes on Tumblr pages, see their style in modern scribes. Timelessness is the final victory.
It's the last part of Rockie’s quote that bothers me most. The seven other passengers that died in the crash may not be celebrated in public forums but they live on through the family and friends that hold them dear. Maybe they never dropped a classic album or made it to the top of Billboard charts, but the worth of a life isn’t measured in accolades. There’s no shame in living your life to the fullest and not being famous, they aren’t lesser because Aaliyah was a superstar. There’s terrible artists who happen to be famous that will be talked about long after they’re gone, and plenty of great ones that never succeeded in a commercial space that will be forgotten like the cooks and teachers and doctors and construction workers who impact lives every day but aren’t doing it on a world stage. When they die it won’t be a trending topic, there won’t be a hashtag, but there will be grieving and celebration, just away from the all-seeing eye of public.
Fear. I can feel it crawling across my skin when I think of death knocking on my door one day. I don't know when, I don't know how, you never know until he knocks and it’s too late. The fear that keeps me up at night isn’t the fear of death, but the questioning of my worth as a writer. When social media is away from your eyes, friends are away from your ears, and you stare at yourself, stare at your work and wonder, “What are you worth?” That's the truest moment. More than money, more than fame, more than any accomplishment or accolade, how will I age in the days after I'm gone, that’s the question I’m afraid to face.
Everyone is in a plane that will eventually crash, and on the day I pass I’ll be remembered as a man and a writer, judged for the quality of character and the quality of my work. Pageviews, followers, famous associates, everything we spend days chasing, everything that strokes the ego, none of that will matter, but the work will. The people I made human connections with will. I won’t be here to try and convince any judge or jury of what I believe I deserve. None of us will. And that's both haunting and tranquil. Given enough time, we will all become the other passengers.
By Yoh, aka The Grim Adventures of Yoh and Nathan, aka @Yoh31.