For her, music was everything. It was consciousness, it was voice, it was power. At sixteen, she first heard Tupac’s lyrics, “Why did ya lie to me? I couldn’t find a trace of equality.” He spoke truth. His voice illuminated injustice with which she was familiar. His songs were more than music. They were political. They were activism. Sarah felt pulled to his music because it felt liberating to hear someone defend the Black community. His lyrics resonated with her life experience. They described the oppression that left her people “trapped in [their] own community.”
Listening to music gave her power.
She surrounded herself with it and it became a way for her to express herself. When she found herself giving birth in the parking lot, she thought of Sarah Vaughan’s “It’s You or No One.” When she held her daughter for the first time, she knew her life would change forever and she heard Vaughan’s captivating voice ask, “How did I know that the warmth of the glow would last? I merely looked at you and I knew that I knew.” Sarah named her Isabelle Vaughn Rayburn.
Sarah, my mother, did not know then that music would be a love we would always share.
Since before I could talk, my mother surrounded me with music. On Saturdays, you could hear our gospel music from a block away. On Sundays, we stood together in the pew of our church singing hymns. Music brought us together. One day when I was in fifth grade and we stayed up all night listening to Beyonce until we had the entire dance to “Single Ladies” memorized. Just like Vaughan sang, the warmth of the glow lasted because music would keep us together.
Just like it had been for my mother, music became my everything. I was mesmerized by its universality. It allowed me to see that the struggles of my family and my community were shared by others across the country. It broadened my own horizons while still feeling like home. In other words, listening to music gave me refuge while also empowering me. It challenged me to go beyond what others expected of me as a young African American girl growing up in the inner city.
When I was asked “Is that your real hair?” I let India Arie drown out those questions with her lyrics “I am not my hair, I am not my skin. I am a soul that lives within.”
When my peers and I protested against police brutality and I felt concerned seeing black-on-black violence continue in our community, I found solace in Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics which ask “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, when gang banging make me kill a person blacker than me? Hypocrite.”
When a friend innocently standing on a corner to cross the street caught a bullet intended for someone else, J. Cole’s lyrics played through my mind, “All we wanna do is break the chains off, all we wanna do is be free.”
When I recorded my original poetry at a local radio station, I knew it was because Talib Kwalei’s lyrics empowered me through their promise that “the revolution is inside of [me].”
These are more than just songs to me, just like Tupac’s were more for my mother.
Their lyrics are forever imprinted in my mind and continue to inspire me to fight for change. They gave me power and consciousness in a country which has tried to keep me silent, marginalized, and invisible.
Music pushed me to write, to speak, and to lead. It pushed me to spend my senior year building a writing center to create the space and opportunity for other students to experience the power of voice. To provide them the chance to see what music showed me: you too, can use your voice as a force of revolution.