Music as an art form is distinct from other means of expression. It exists at the intersection of prepared and performance art. After spending months with an album—sometimes years—seeing those songs performed live lets us experience a distinct aspect of that artist’s vision, which is unique to music.
Few people actually watch a great painter glide his strokes over the canvas, instead you marvel at the finished product in the arbitrary space that we've already predesignated. Dance is on the opposite end of the spectrum: it doesn’t exist without a live element. With music, we’re able to listen and contemplate in isolation and share in the live experience of that music, and that’s a beautiful thing. Sometimes you don’t truly understand an album until the artist lays it out in a shared space.
At least, that’s what happened to me last Saturday when I saw Noname live in Atlanta.
Like many, I first came across her name on Chance The Rapper's Acid Rap track list, but her reclusive nature kept her under my radar until last summer’s Telefone release. The album's juxtaposition of infancy and innocence with mortality and absurdity made it one of my favorites in 2016. If I’m being honest, though, I didn’t understand it as a whole. Of course, I understood that “Casket Pretty,” for example, was a eulogy for fallen inner city youth, and that “All I Need” was a commentary on our shortsightedness, but I didn’t draw a connection between those concepts. As I watched Noname perform her album in the kind of small, hazy venue I imagine Chicago blues developed, though, the message of her album became clear: she was preparing me for death by showing me how to live.
I’m only 23; I know I should be exploring less morbid topics. Still, there’s an existential urgency to her music I must indulge. If anything is easy to glean from Telefone, it’s that death doesn’t take a number like you do at the DMV; the opening track is about finding comfort in a person’s memory when faced with the permanence of their death.
Noname isn’t the first artist to address preparing for death. Much of Western civilization’s intellectual achievements can be traced back to Socrates, the OG of inquiry, whose mission was to teach others how to die properly. In the Phaedo, he even asserts that preparing for death is the true way to live. While Noname's stance isn’t quite that absolute and her instructions have been updated for the 21st century, Telefone is her way of expressing this same idea and I watched it play out on stage.
Noname, for the most part, performed her album chronologically—there were vodka sodas involved so the order of events is a little foggy—throwing in some guest verses to flex her newfound reach. So, just like the album, the first half is more positive than negative. “Sunny Duet,” “Diddy Bop” and “All I Need” show us the beauty of companionship and how it helps us suffer the pitfalls of existence. All three tracks are filled with Noname relaying tales of neighborhood shenanigans, comfort in a romantic partner and the complexities of living in a community successfully. She draws joy from even the simplest activities, like eating ice cream. She’s not saying we should treat nominal activities like they are more important, but that they, in fact, are more important than we realize. On “Sunny Duet," the DJ isn’t just spinning records, he’s actively worshiping.
As I’m dancing and singing along with the Chicago native, I realize I’m engaging in the very act that her music is describing by using her music. She posits that we need to find joy in the every day, and gives us space to do just that. There’s nothing inherently special about what I was doing that evening, but the music acted like a self-fulfilling prophecy and injected that event with meaning. It's not perfect; there are moments where you might “get your ass beat” and there will be a situation that’s “not how [you] want it,” but ultimately we should find happiness in the mundane activities of existence. For Noname, hanging out in a parking lot is all you need for a fulfilled life.
But she sunk into dark waters with “Casket Pretty." I noticed a visceral change in the crowd, who went from having plenty of fun dancing to an artist we love and to being reminded that people are dying in the streets every day, sometimes at the hand of their own government. I instantly felt powerless and sober. Even though the way light interacts with my pigments will probably keep me from dying at the hands of my government, I’m now reminded of the fact that I too am going to face death. This is what French philosopher Albert Camus was referring to when he said the absurd is recognizing our limits. Where do we go from here? Noname had been constructing an evening of hope and love up to this point and yet suddenly I was left with only absurdity. I was enthusiastic to hear her perform more, but the effect of “Casket Pretty” was undeniable.
As she finished up her set with a little improvisation (things in life rarely go as planned) and played her last songs, I wanted to focus on the music. Anything to throw off the heavy cloak of morbidity she draped on my shoulders. So I did. I sang that I would “live forever” despite my intellect respectfully disagreeing, and thought about the “milk and honey” my baby needed. By the time she closed her set, I had rejoined the crowd in singing, “bless the nightingale, darkness keep you well," and stopped thinking about my earlier woes. A light flashed in my mind and I started to see the whole picture Noname was giving us. I was so consumed with singing and enjoying myself in that moment that it felt like life didn’t extend beyond the walls of The Mammal Gallery. And I was happy. Despite the concerns she raised, I could still lose myself in the present moment.
I made the early motions of a smile as I realized what she’d done. She got us to exist in the present moment by pointing out the joys of life, briefly threw us into darkness, and then gently showed us we’d already been acting out the way to move beyond it.
It’s tough to face the absurdity of death, especially when it’s your own. You question the point of being brought into existence in the first place. I didn’t choose to come into a world in which all my loved ones will perish, including their memories, as Noname tells us. But she also tells us there’s a beauty to be found in our daily commute, a trip to the coffee shop, or a conversation with an old lover. Recognizing the true beauty of the mundane, and basking in that light as the moment passes, makes our final destination worth the travel. Looking back, I conceptualize the moment I realized this as one in a string of events. But at the time, it felt infinite, like that moment in Atlanta would last until the world crumbles.
In a sense, the moment you’re experiencing right now is the only one that exists. Your reality doesn’t extend beyond the boundaries of your screen as you read this. Noname can sing “darkness keep you well” and face the absurdity of life with a smile because she recognizes “the now” and tries to live forever in that.
Do I still question life? Absolutely. Is all its anxiety removed? Not even close. But for a moment, with a couple hundred friends in a beautiful city down South, all the struggles of life seemed worth it to experience what I did. The ride has to end some day, but the journey was not in vain.
Instead of cowering at the thought of my nonexistence, I can join Noname and say of death, “Fuck it, I’ll live forever.”
Photo Credit: Colin Hoefle