Every morning, I wake up surrounded by people who don’t understand me. People who have contexts so utterly different from mine, I often wonder if the gap is worth bridging. Maybe this is the result of learning a new set of names, starting stunted small talk, remembering to eat, or decoding a public transit system with four green lines. Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above, which has triggered introvert hangovers rendering every person I walk past or sit next to into grainy pixels on a motion sickness-inducing rollercoaster. That’s life, though: nameless faces orbiting the same streets with their forces of gravity and magnetism.
In the context of my recent cross country uprooting, my understanding of creativity is being tested. Every song or creative endeavor is now a proving ground for discomfitingly selfless empathy. Recently, this thought invoked the memory of “Lesley,” a standout track from UK rapper DAVE’s spring-released album Psychodrama. This 12-minute story stars DAVE, who comes across Lesley on a public subway. Her story is spun out over five verses, starting with a new relationship that spirals, unspooling domestic abuse, pregnancy, infidelity, and loneliness.
It’s a story wielded with something most don’t generally default to—empathy. Not the easy kind reserved for people we already love or easily identify with, but the harsh, selfless kind that requires our intentional undoing and vulnerability.
The catch: Lesley isn’t real. She’s a composite of all the people DAVE has watched suffer through domestic violence, with the last verse proving the plaintive cry of the track. The narrative the song builds requires a willingness to approach pain with an open mind, but more importantly, an open heart. Sometimes it’s easier to accept other people’s pain when we’ve been loosened up by proximity to similar stories.
DAVE’s open-hearted approach to the world around him rings true in Raphael Saadiq’s fifth studio album Jimmy Lee, released on August 23. The R&B veteran uses the album, named after his brother who died of an overdose, to speak to the ubiquitous “Jimmy Lee”—a symbol for those whose voices survive in tales of life and often tragically of death. By voicing these outcasts, Saadiq allows the wall shattering effects of proximity to change his talent into that of an empathetic advocate.
Soul and R&B often find purpose in love and lovelessness. Their context is usually wrapped up in pain and protest of some kind. Stevie Wonder looked outside of the States and returned to work with a focus that gave us his all-time classic double album, Songs in the Key of Life, featuring “Black Man” and “Village Ghetto Land.” Marvin Gaye wrote from his Vietnam veteran brother’s perspective and delivered What’s Going On. Raphael Saadiq replayed his life—watching brothers, cousins, friends, and other family members die—and delivered Jimmy Lee.
Saadiq birthed Jimmy Lee on the opposite side of the “coke and drug dealer raps” we’ve come to celebrate in hip-hop. The entire project is cast under the shade of addiction, struggle, and early, avoidable, death. On Jimmy Lee, Saadiq’s voice frequently isn’t his own; it stands in as the outcry of searching sinners on “Sinner’s Prayer,” morphs into that of a repentant lover on “So Ready,” and is laced with earnest strain on “Rikers Island”—where he dips beneath the temptation of cloying preachiness and surfaces in a pool of reverence, taking an honest look at scared boys sitting in courtrooms.
“While the family sits and prays / hoping judge and jury / that all 12 will vote their way.” —Raphael Saadiq (“Rikers Island”)
Saadiq is a better listener than me, or at least that’s the feeling I get as I listen to him recount feelings collected from engaging so many different people. The best listeners aren’t just silent and attentive; they ask questions and participate in your stories. By the time you’re done talking, they’ve incorporated whatever bit of yourself you were willing to share into their bank of memories. The most intentional listeners create large networks of anecdotes. Empathy is best served not as a tool for hoarding other people’s stories, but the ability to engage and connect experiences requires good listening and examination.
Take “DUCKWORTH.,” the closing track on Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album DAMN. The story Lamar shares is almost his own: the lives of his manager Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith and his father are forever wrapped around a KFC. An extra biscuit here, an extra 10pc there. A cautionary tale celebrates drive but also manages to describe the sinking pit he was living in plainly. Kendrick invites the image of a devoted parent, and a lineage tracking from the poverty and hardship of Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes to a new kind in Compton.
Somehow, Kendrick ties together these two distinct lives, including commentary about the power of our singular decisions. A decision to spare a life allowed the fostering of one; one who would later tell the story of the entire ordeal.
Kendrick litters his oeuvre with deeply empathetic reflections, the likes of which garner comparisons to some of the artists mentioned alongside Raphael Saadiq. Kendrick’s willingness to listen and share the perspectives he’s sought is present and loud on untitled unmastered. selection “Untitled 08 | 09.06.2014” and good kid, m.A.A.d city highlight “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.”
Part of living in a community is tending to a garden of other people’s stories and picking the appropriate flowers when they’re in bloom—like Kendrick picking stories to fill “Sing About Me.” Then again, maybe gardening is just a grand act of deflection: casting the glance away from ourselves, so we don’t have to consider our imperfections.
We tie our stewardship of other people’s stories to our capacity for self-examining selflessness. Most of us—knowingly or unknowingly—live in a peace derived from a comfortable distance from the pain existing outside of ourselves. I’m not sure extending a careful listening ear always offers peace, but the interchange of stories isn’t always about good feelings. Sometimes, in the speed of the world, a slow moment to think is enough, but maybe I’m just preaching self-affirming introvert doctrine now.
Every conversation and attempt at creativity is a rebellious act of empathy. The best writing knows how to communicate with and through the ideas, subjects, or characters on the page. The best songs evoke toiling spirits, transmuted into lyrics sung and notes played. I needed to learn of DAVE’s willingness to listen to the people lining life’s periphery, Raphael Saadiq’s ability to collect and distill so many different stories, and Kendrick’s perceptive eye.
These lessons aren’t easy, but empathy is essential. We have to be selfless and give ourselves away. However obvious that may seem. Life mandates—and art reinforces—the importance of stories outside of us.