The first stirrings of this essay began sometime in late 2016 when the trailer for ‘Process’, the transcendental short film from Khalil Joseph and Sierra Leonean musician and producer Sampha had just hit the internet. I listened to Sampha because of Drake, but considered him one of the many talented but uninteresting British singer/producer archetypes that dominate contemporary music.
Then Sampha released Process, an achingly raw album that chronicled his attempts to make sense of his mother’s death from cancer in 2015, five years after she was first diagnosed. Through music, he explores his own depression after her death, the realisation of the void her absence leaves in him, and the weight his memories of her carry as he tries to live without her. Listening to the album alone, you get an acute sense of his grief and the alienation that it wrought, but Process, the film seemed to acknowledge something that was conspicuously missing in his equally powerful music, his acknowledgement of his African heritage and how that heritage, through his connection to his mother, shaped his life and his music.
As a first generation immigrant to England, Sisay’s parents are his only real connection to the Limbe people from which his parents descend and Sierra Leone, the country they call home. Khalil Joseph (who also directed Beyonce’s bravura project Lemonade) juxtaposes the sterile graffiti ridden streets of England against rustic but vibrant expressions of life in Sierra Leone. Through deft vignettes, Sisay chronicles his pilgrimage back to Sierra Leone, existing simultaneously as a tourist and a perceived prodigal. Scenes of him reclaiming his heritage are juxtaposed with montages of pop-n-lock crews in basketball jerseys rehearsing by moonlight, a reminder that the idealised Sierra Leone Sisay was regaled with by his parents before he came to discover the country for himself exists as a myth, never to be reclaimed. Reality is more fluid and complex.
What is hinted at, but never overtly expressed in Process (the film & the album) is how his choice to pursue music was received by his mother. Sampha has spoken in detail about writing the skin and bones of the album in the years between 2012, when his mother first went into remission and 2015 when she died. He cared for her full-time during the worst of her illness, his life, career and ambitions railroaded by his duty to her. Her loss freed him to complete the album, a terrible cost to bear for creativity.
She never got to see him release his debut project, never got to cheer in the audience when Sisay eventually won the Mercury Prize for Process, the most prestigious prize for creativity in music in the United Kingdom.
It was unnerving to come to that realisation and seeing the film unplugged a dam inside me, releasing memories long buried. Memories of my father who after years of being a doting stay-at-home dad disappeared when I was 6, during the worst years of a deadly military junta, leaving my mother with 6 children and no money. Doubly burdened, my mother lashed out at me and my siblings, emotionally alienating herself from us. I resented her for most of my adolescence for the distance she put between us, distance that I widened as her clumsy but well-intentioned attempts to reconcile only caused me more hurt. The years only cauterized the hurt, leaving ugly scabs of teenage trauma. Process was an augury into a possible future that lay in wait for me, a confirmation that permanent alienation through death was worse than anything I’d already experienced.
I began to actively seek out first generation immigrant artists, parsing their music for ways in which heritage and trauma was folded into their experimental pop albums about LSD and polyamory and gun control. Two years before Sampha’s album was released, I had discovered singer Moses Sumney via a Saint Heron profile by Taiye Selasi, a Ghanaian-Nigerian writer. Sumney is a first generation Ghanaian born in America and raised between Ghana and America. His music however, sounded otherworldly, and drew inspiration from Yiddish chants, melancholic grunge guitarists, electronic house and chamber pop. I followed Sumney’s career, finding kinship in his EP’s and eventually catharsis in his debut album released in November 2017, only a few months after Sampha’s debut.
His album was titled Aromanticism, a choice which seemed to simultaneously acknowledge and dismiss the internet’s obsession with Sumney’s private life and especially his sexuality. For an album that proposes to celebrate a rejection of conventional expressions of romance in its title, Sumney’s debut project dwells almost entirely on love, loneliness, the dynamics of contemporary romance and the politics that come with loving publicly in a post racial world. It is such a powerful, unexpectedly cohesive record that you could go the entire album without really noticing the 1 minute spoken word monologue, wedged as an introduction to the album’s midpoint and mission statement, Lonely World.
This non-song is Stoicism, a soundscape that made my breath catch the first time I heard it. I spent so much time unravelling the song that I felt compelled to share my findings as my first annotations on Genius, providing what I hoped was context for the song and by extension, the entire album.
This is the Rosetta stone of Aromanticism; the all-important flashback that explains just how the unnamed protagonist Sumney has woven the album around became this unemotional, detached adult who rejects love in its traditional incarnations.
The more I have listened to Aromanticism, the more these words I wrote in a haste in 2017 mirror my adolescence. Stoicism is only 4 lines long, an auditory feast that conveys to the reader a succinct retelling of a singular event in the childhood of the album’s semi-autobiographical protagonist. Footsteps on a gravelly path are heard as chiming gives way to horns that swell to a climax and wash out afterwards, spent from effort. A child is being dropped off at school in a second-hand Mitsubishi Caravan. An exchange happens between mother and child, simple enough on the surface but laden with meaning.
The car is a Mitsubishi, a Japanese brand considered inferior to the Ford thoroughbreds that populate American urban legends. It is second-hand and a caravan, suggesting it was bought for its price and utility. The exchange sees him mimic expressions of intimacy that have been modelled to him on television and among his peers who have all-American parents. His immigrant mother however, either tired from her never ending obligations, or oblivious to American gestures of intimacy, replies with a non-committal ‘Thank you’ to an overt declaration of love. Our protagonist’s sensitivities and emotional needs go unnoticed in the whirlwind of family life.
It is a scene that resonates vividly with me, mirroring my earliest childhood memories. The sentiment it expresses is one that is often described on darkly humorous Twitter threads by millennials and perfectly captured by Ken Liu’s haunting short story, The Paper Menagerie. Ill-equipped parents, unwilling or unable to express their emotions to children raised by the media to expect overt expressions of love.
Whatever lessons were learned from this exchange are so powerful that they shape how our protagonist sees himself; his inability to connect to others, his view of conventional love as doomed, the stoicism with which immigrant parents honour their obligations, the detachment which they fulfil their duties; it is all immortalized in the album.
I return to this epiphany over the years, refining it, coming to further realisations. It becomes clear that there are two kinds of first generation immigrants; immigrants whose families physically migrate from a 3rd World country to a first world country, and those whose families migrate from a lower social class to a higher social class. We are all familiar with the first, but fail to recognise, even within ourselves the second. Stoicism in less than two minutes lays bare how first generation immigrants and their parents seem to speak different languages, the chasm between them widening as the children assimilate and their parents withdraw, frustrated by their own inflexibility. It exposes how immigrant parents hide their bitterness and resentment behind a facade of stoicism as their children shed accents and ethnic names to take on affectations that skew their very identities so they can navigate easier in the brave new world/social class in which they must survive.
Moses Sumney’s Stoicism was not only a rosetta stone for his album, it also unlocked keys to a deeper understanding of Sampha’s film. Process as an autopsy of sorts, of a first generation immigrant assessing fully for the first time, the strength of their relationship with their immigrant parent and the heritage that parent represents. It breaks past the facade of quiet stoicism and uncovers the vibrant inner life that was denied, tucked away in service of blending in, helping the child succeed.
I had my answers, about why my mother was secretly terrified that I would never become streetwise like my brothers. Why she questioned my decision to give up my degree to pursue writing, why she seemed convinced I would be the child who took the longest to find their feet in the real world, the begrudging respect she eventually accorded me for independently forging my own path. But the answers they gave me seemed bleak, like the children of immigrants (social and otherwise) were doomed to suffer through stultified relationships with their parents, or bear the misfortune of repeating their mistakes. There had to be something out there, some hope to be found.
I found my hope in Loreley Rodriguez, who performs under the stage name, Empress Of. I found her work in 2015, at about the same time as I found Sumney and Sisay, and quickly became enamoured with the deftness with which she combined electronic dance music and powerful treatises on feminism, social justice and misogyny. Her debut album Me, defined my 2015, a blurry dance fueled mess as I exorcised two failed relationships with wildly intelligent but deeply flawed people. Her sophomore album Us was hard for me to get into but I pushed through, feeling I owed her that much loyalty.
When she announced ‘I’m Your Empress Of’, her third album, the product of two months of frenetic recording, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The first two singles deviated from everything I knew of Rodriguez, a mean feat when your genre is electronic dance pop. The messaging that preceded the album seemed designed to highlight Rodriguez’s Honduran heritage, a decision that made sense in light of the cruelties meted on South American immigrants by the American government and tweets like this that exposed the rot that seemed to have seeped into music spaces traditionally owned by minority creatives. Then in April, Rodriguez released ‘I’m Your Empress Of’, with as much fanfare as possible in a pandemic.
The album’s opening track, which shares its name with the album title, is a revelation, not just for its triumphant latin inspired horns that evoke the frantic joy of religious celebrations but for the heritage it represents. Nestled in a salsa riff she learnt from her pianist father was a gift, a 40 second freestyle monologue from Rodriguez’s mother Reina. I am unprepared for the monologue when it begins, and unprepared for the visceral reaction it plumbs out of me.
Third world immigrant parents are the same anywhere in the world, they bear the same anxieties, have the same hopes and dreams, feel the same burdens. Burdens like language and cultural barriers remind immigrant parents that no matter how much they assimilate, they remain foreigners, one wrong vowel away from being found out. First generation immigrants on the other hand, assimilate almost seamlessly, and are tethered to their ethnic heritages only by their connection to their parents. Rodriguez, who is racially ambiguous, celebrates her mother’s accent and broken English, elevating them by including them in her album, demanding her audience look beyond these superficial markers and acknowledge her triumphs.
“It was no easy, no es speak English
It was no easy, has to learn it
But I did, I got it”
Reina’s story parallels many millennial African stories of a generation of parents who endured demeaning jobs they hated and denied themselves so their children could move up a social class or travel to a better country and make the ‘right’ choices. It expresses the disconnect that comes from not being able to properly quantify the poverty and suffering they have endured, their frustration as first generation immigrant children reject their advice and dismiss their concerns, choosing experimental jobs and creative adventures over the safety of prestige careers. The friction that grows as they try to ‘save’ their children with corrective violence and alienation, behaviours learned in their own childhoods.
It expresses the triumph of finally having a tangible marker of success; a novel published, an album released, an exhibition attended, and the pride they feel, limited by their lack of context to understand the scope of this achievement and why it matters in the world, but there none the less. The ways this success is validation that they did something right, that making those sacrifices paid off.
“I only have one girl
But the only girl is like the having thousands of girls
Because look at how many times she reproduce herself in each bunch of you“
It feels like such an innocuous statement, but it is a huge emotional moment for Rodriguez and Reina, and by extension for every immigrant child who rejected parental expectation and followed a creative career. Sampha speaks for his mother and tries to understand her, Sumney’s protagonist interprets his mother’s actions and acts upon them, but Reina, she is given a moment to speak for herself, offering an authoritative perspective on how she sees her daughter. It is such an honest, vulnerable moment, an affirmation that behind the stoicism and the silence, there is acceptance, celebration of individuality and even a willingness to unlearn and relearn.
“This is Empress of’s mom”
As a declaration, ‘Empress Of’ it is factually inaccurate. Rodriguez is nowhere famous or successful by industry standards to be the empress of any genre, but in the context of their interpersonal relationship, it expresses the faith Reina has in Rodriguez’s ability to make a way for herself in the world. Every creative remembers the first time their parent addresses them by their chosen creative identity with pride instead of resignation, disappointment or sarcasm. For the children of immigrants this moment is doubly special, because first generation immigrants do not only carry the weight of their parent’s expectations, but also the integrity of their home countries. To be seen in this way is priceless.
My relationship with my mother remains fraught. She is aloof when we are apart, smothering when we are together. I am still too impatient with her, too angry at how long it’s taken her to accept that I define my own terms for happiness. But now I understand her a little better. We are all on our journeys, and that her triumphs matter as much as mine. I seek out her stories, about her life, her fears and her failures. I see her gestures for what they are; acts of love, swaddled in cautious pride.
The rest of Rodriguez’s album sees her in cycle through the throes of infatuation, heartbreak and restitution, regular fare for pop albums. But knowing that this is a heartbreak album where she has no reasons to hide her pain, or obscure her sexuality in sly language because she worries it might upset her immigrant mother is liberating, for her and me.
As the creative child of a class immigrant, it is my Homecoming.