No one danced like my mother. Her sways were swings, hips-guiding glides across the floor. Occasionally she danced with other people, but she was at her best alone. She’d lead herself, one arm in the air, the other on her stomach, in a smooth box step. Music took her somewhere. I remember being a little kid and watching from the back seat as she listened to Van Morrison's “Into The Mystic.” She closed her eyes and threw her head back against the car seat. Ecstasy.
She loved the Bee Gees so much that when Maurice Gibb died, she didn’t move from the end of her bed for three days. Even the least Bee Gee deserved her modified shiva.
She took me to see Titanic on opening night, and we vowed then that we’d see Celine Dion together one day. Back in 1997, when Celine put out her fifth album, we read somewhere that she’d never make another album unless she could make one better than “Let’s Talk About Love.” Impossible, we agreed. That record was perfect. And anyway, the Bee Gees sang a duet on it.
She moped to John Lennon. She twerked to Flo Rida. Two weeks ago, she danced in the street with my brother’s neighbors, strangers just a few hours earlier. Once, years ago, after a full night of Patron and Black Eyed Peas hits, Neola and I watched her persuade my father to slow dance to “Bitches Ain’t Shit.”
She pawed through every clearance section in the mall to find me the perfect prom dress. She made me slow dance with her in the dressing room to determine which one fit best. She once jumped out of the car in the McDonalds line to do the “Livin La Vida Loca” dance in the parking lot. She could Shuffle and Wobble or take it country to the Boot Scootin Boogie.
Two years ago, we went to Mississippi, and she cheered and swayed those hips as a transwoman sang Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” the same day the state passed its anti-LGBT bill. Afterward, she rushed up to the stage to tell the woman how much the performance meant to her as a woman who was trying to make sense of femininity after losing her breasts.
Last month, at my brother’s wedding, she did the Conga and the Cha Cha. She attempted a broken salsa then swirled herself back into that one-armed solo dance she did best. The dance floor emptied out when “Guilty,” her favorite song, came on. She pulled me, and I leaned into her, but after awhile I just watched. She was such glory moving.
She spent her last day with the Bee Gees playing from my dad’s cell phone. The only solace I can take is she didn’t live long enough to see Barry Gibb die.
When that fog horn blows
You know I will be coming home
And when that fog horn whistle blows
I gotta hear it
I don't have to fear it
And I wanna rock your gypsy soul
Just like way back in the days of old
And together we will float
Into the mystic
I'm in school for nine months, writing and studying politics at Columbia University. I don't think I've ever drummed out so many sentences. I wrote 10,000 words with Boosie Badazz on repeat one weekend.
Traveling and reporting South these days. Usually that means the darkest, dirtiest rap stations -- playlists they never venture out west. But I'm catching up on songs I missed in 2017 and fell in love with these songs from my buddy Jeff Hunt's playlists. I spent four days straight stuck on the CCFX EP. Or listen on AppleMusic.
Reserve, La. - As a younger man, Robert Taylor knew there was something wrong about the Mississippi River communities just north of Reserve. He had heard that people living in the shadow of the oil refineries had higher rates of cancer and illnesses no doctors could explain. Plus, Taylor said, he could just smell it when he drove in those towns.
“I had to roll up the window, turn off the air conditioning and hold my breath as I went through town,” Taylor said. “At the time, to me, it was just an inconvenience. Then I noticed the odors. But it wasn’t towns away. It was at my house.”
I don't venture too far outside of rap and jazz anymore, but these were my favorite songs of 2017. Seeing Keyon Harrold at The Blue Note was one of my favorite moments of the year. There's a moment in MB Lament, three and a half or so minutes in, that gutted me every time I listened. I must have cried while walking around New York at least half a dozen times, listening. He's a Ferguson-bred trumpeter who wrote this song soon after Darren Wilson was acquitted. That moment in the song is so full of mourning, and I couldn't help hearing so many other disappointments and tensions captured there. The perfect song for this year.
(Or you can listen on Apple Music, which actually has Jay-Z's songs)
Louisiana's TOPS scholarship was supposed to send more poor and black students to college. So why do most of its recipients come from upper middle class backgrounds? I looked at it -- and other free-tuition programs -- for The Bayou Brief.
1. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN.
The most-genius with a tight-loop of conscious bangers
2. sza - CTRL
I don’t think I went a day without listening to this album. She has so much rhythm and so much to say. Every lyric feels like the right one.
3. Lorde - Melodrama
The production, but especially the lyrics. “I am my mother's child, I'll love you 'til my breathing stops. I'll love you 'til you call the cops on me.”
4. Tyler the Creator - Flower Boy
The lyrics, but especially the production
5. Future - HNDRXX
The trap king gets loose
6. Makaya McCraven - Highly Rare
My favorite modern jazz innovator
7. Dirty Projectors - Dirty Projectors
I don’t love every song, but the good ones are so good, they blur out the rest.
8. Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory
Still my favorite rapper, veering left toward Detroit while everyone else co-opts the sounds of Atlanta
9. The xx - I See You
Still the best at driving emotions through minimalism
10. dvsn - Morning After
Sexy, jealousy-filled and way better than all the other dark R&B guys
11. Calvin Harris - Funk Wav Bounces, Vol. 1
12. Ty Dolla $ign - Beach House 3
So many hooks
13. Migos - Culture
14. Moses Sumney, Aromanticism
If Joanna Newsom and R&B merged. His voice is a wonder.
15. Jay-Z 4:44
Yes, write all the man-unfolded think pieces. Jay will forever have the best voice, but I’m here for NO ID.
16. Drake - More Life
If only Drake put out one album every other year, it’d be perfect. This one is no exception -- plenty of clutter, even more gems.
17. Big Sean - I Decided.
I don't even think the lyrics or production are necessarily great, but I just kept wanting to listen to this album.
18. Smino - blkswn
Rap from the era of Chance: Open-armed beats bolstered by such a good voice
19. Slowdive - Slowdive
The dream(y shoegaze) of the ‘90s is alive.
20. Majid Jordan - The Space Between
Honorable mentions: Aimless - Beats from 2017, A.Chal - On Gaz, Keyon Harrold - The Mugician, Nate Smith - Kinfolk, GoldLink - At What Cost, Perfume Genius - No Shape, A Boogie wit da Hoodie - The Bigger Artist, Young Thug & Future - Super Slimey, Mr. Eazi - Accra to Lagos
I'm reporting in Louisiana these days and so moved by the humidity and hospitality of it all. Spent a long weekend there in November, following around a woman hell-bent on giving everything. That Saturday, she and a group of boys cooked barbecue chicken plates to give out to Shreveport's homeless.
Time feels infinite and stretched, untethered to who I was before. I just stay locked to a desk, studying and reading and writing, hoping I am adding up to someone better.
New York stays so sunny. I'm perched outside reading 600 pages a week, tracing nation-state formation through LBJ's war on poverty. One weekend, we went to two different Jamaican bars. Scotch Bonnet hot forever.
My story about a Native American rapper ran on the front page of the Aug. 27 Sunday Oregonian. Here's an excerpt:
The scratch was the last straw.
Scott Kalama had been on a high. His rap album, "Rez Life," had just won the Native American Music Award for best music video. He'd come home to the Warm Springs Reservation driving a 2013 silver drop-top Camaro, a sign he'd made it in a community where pickups and sedans tended to be a decade old and caked in red dirt.
The rez, Kalama thought, had done him wrong all his life. He was 31 and had already buried three siblings. His dad was a drunk. Kalama had spent most of his life too broke to afford a fast food hamburger. He left for college and returned to find his business degree useless in a place too poor to support a new enterprise.
Still, Kalama had stayed. He launched his rap career there, even though the Central Oregon reservation lacked a professional recording studio or performance space. He did it all for the tribe, he thought. That national award was supposed to put Warm Springs on the map.
Then Kalama stepped outside on his lunch break and saw it. The scratch. Someone had keyed his driver-side door, leaving a seven-inch swoosh that turned his stomach.
This is how they repay me, he thought.
He went back to his office and took his frustrations out on Facebook: "I can't trust my own people," he wrote. "I'm moving."
To Portland, he thought, or maybe LA. A nonprofit wanted to hire him. An engineer who'd worked with Snoop Dogg and 2Pac agreed to help with his next record. Kalama, a stocky 5-foot-8 with a three-inch goatee and a braid down his back, was a unique artist, the engineer said.
His phone vibrated. A tribal council member had seen his post almost the moment he hit enter. Carina Miller typed a response:
"I know how you feel. But you can't leave," she told him. "We need you."
Read the rest on The Oregonian.
I spent the past three years following a transgender teenager as he came of age. The series launched last week on The Oregonian.
Jay was a teenager coming of age in an era Time magazine had declared the Transgender Tipping Point.
By his senior year, Jay's quiet life would ride a surge in civil rights.
Barack Obama would become the first president to say the word "transgender" in a State of the Union speech. Target would strip gender labels off its toy aisles. In Oregon, student-athletes would gain the right to decide whether to play on the girls' team or the boys'. Girls would wear tuxedos to prom.
That didn't make the path forward easy or safe. North Carolina would forfeit $3.7 billion to keep people like Jay out of the bathroom. An Oregon city councilman an hour from Jay's house would threaten an "ass-whooping" to transgender students who used "the opposite sex's facilities." Even Washington, the liberal state Jay called home, would consider a bill rolling back his right to choose the locker room that felt right. President Donald Trump would take over for Obama and ban transgender people from serving in the military.
But that morning, Jay was just a teenager, just a boy walking to school. He didn't want to be a trailblazer. He wanted to be normal.
Jay and I also went on Oregon Public Broadcasting's noontime show Think Out Loud to talk about the story. You can listen online or below.
My Portland days are winding down. Still, I have 11,000 words due by the end of the month. My brain loops crazy and happy and sad and nostalgic and anxious. Green lights only remind me how hard going is.