A soft breeze rustles the newborn lilac blossoms. Fresh cut grass gives way underneath my running shoes. It’s still chilly but the sun is out, and I haven’t gone on a Sunday morning run since the leaves fell last October. And with the baby on the way, I’m not sure how many more chances like these I’ll get.
It feels good to be running. Feels good to be using my muscles again. The chilly morning air burns my lungs a little and I duck to dodge a tree branch hanging in the trail. My iPhone changes tracks and I hear the buzzing reverb of an electric guitar and driving backbeat that immediately throws me into a childhood memory.
I am fifteen years old, angsty and eager. It is Christmas morning and I look at the stack of presents and shredded wrapping paper on the living room floor. A wake of destruction that can only be made by two teenage boys, ravenous to scratch the itch of potential hidden in each perfectly wrapped box. My mom always goes overboard with the presents. It’s her way of telling us how much she loves us and how sorry she is for everything. For her working nights at the factory. For the divorce. For dad.
Tucked between a pair of wide-legged Jnco jeans and a box of pristine Airwalks, are a few CDs still in their crinkly plastic packaging. I gave my mom a detailed Christmas list this year – basically a high school survival kit – and music is a crucial part of that list. To be honest, I haven’t really listened to any of the music that I asked for, but I know the names of the bands that will give me cool points in the lunchroom cafeteria: Limp Bizkit, Blink 182, and Weezer, to name a few.
I pick up one of the CDs and inspect the cover. A stark outline of a person holding a raised fist in dripping black spray paint stands defiantly against a blue-gray cement wall. Inside the stenciled figure are the words, “The Battle of Los Angeles”. In the top margin of the cover, the band’s name, Rage Against the Machine, was written in a bold serif font. I had never been to Los Angeles before and I had never raged against anything, but the image stirred something inside of me.
I quickly tore open the CD and plopped it in the tray of my mom’s CD player. I pushed the play button and waited for the first track to begin. The sound that came from the speakers was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. A thumping rhythm escalated, finally erupting with a loud grunt and a thick grungy verse punching me square in the chest! I grew up listening to James Taylor and Fleetwood Mac. Compared to those gentle melodies, this sounded like someone was rallying a crowd of disgruntled rioters for the next revolution. I immediately felt goosebumps. Something hot swelled in my lungs, rose through my throat and throbbed behind my eyes. I started tapping my foot and before I could stop myself, I was jumping and thrashing around the living room.
That album played on repeat in my discman for nearly three months. Growing up as a White kid in the middle of Michigan farm country, I had no reason to feel rage. I was totally unaware of the race riots happening in reaction to the brutal beating of Rodney King. I heard vague stories about war in a far-off place, full of dust and sand and tanks. But, those things were only as real to me as the Nintendo video games that I grew up playing. Having privilege means that you don’t need certain emotions, like anger, frustration, and rage, and as a result, you don’t feel them. It’s not that I didn’t get angry as a kid. I did. It was just not the same kind of anger that you feel about injustice. But music has the power to show you emotions – make you feel them – in ways that don’t require experience or reason. At fifteen, Rage Against the Machine was my emotional tutor, giving me instructions on how to be pissed off at the world and all of the corrupt atrocities in it.
Suddenly, my foot slips on the muddy trail and I catch myself before I fall. I’m back in the middle of my run and as I get into stride again, my mind is still focused on the music streaming through my earbuds. The verse kicks in and I hear Zack de la Rocha’s voice, “Mister anchor assure me, That Baghdad is burning, Your voice it is so soothing, That cunning mantra of killing, I need you my witness, To dress this up so bloodless”. My skin prickles with goosebumps and the familiar wave of heat rushes from my chest to my eyes. After seventeen years, this music still gets me every time.
My mind jumps to a new vision. The setting is the same, but something is different. I’m back in my living room on Christmas morning, but this time as a grown man. Rage Against the Machine is blasting from the CD player and I’m thrashing around just like I did on Christmas morning when I was fifteen, but this time I’m not alone. I look down to my right and a small child is looking up at me. I feel them watching me with curiosity and wonder. It is my child. The one who – in real life – is still growing in my wife’s tummy. I can’t make out the child’s face, but I know it’s my baby.
I stop dead in my tracks, panting hard as the song blasts on, “Now testify, It’s right outside our door, Now testify, Yes testify, It’s right outside our door”. Suddenly, without warning, I begin sobbing. Messy, uncontrollable, can’t-catch-my-breath sobbing. There aren’t even tears; just an instant explosion of staggering grief and sadness. I realize the vision is a prophecy. One day, I will have to teach my child how to feel and one of the ways I will do it is through music. These songs will be how I teach my child to feel anger. This music is how I will give my baby permission to feel rage.
And unlike me, my child will have experience and reason for these emotions. At fourteen weeks in the womb, there is a lot about my kid I don’t know yet. But, as a mixed-race person, one thing I know for sure is that my baby will not meet other people’s expectations. They will never be White enough and they will never be Asian enough. At the same time, they will be too White and too Asian. I can already hear the questions and comments: “What are you?,” “You’re so exotic!,” and “Where are you really from?,”. Racism by itself is enough to rage about, but sadly, that won’t be it. Police brutality. Trans-murder. The Prison Industrial Complex. Even if my child isn’t wounded by these arrows, I suspect my child will be angry about them, and Rage Against the Machine will help fill the gaps that my privileged experience cannot.
I regain my composure, take a deep breath, and turn up the volume. I take off, bursting into a full-out sprint, feeling overwhelmed with the determination that only an expecting father can feel. The song transitions into the outro, “Who controls the past now controls the future, Who controls the present now controls the past, Who controls the past now controls the future, Who controls the present now? It’s right outside our door, Now testify”.
*Author's Note: This post was written before the birth of my daughter Azaelea Grace Ashlee on October 19, 2018.