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Rashod Ollison: The Soul Serenade of a Music Journalist

Rhythm, blues, & coming of age through vinyl.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Rashod-Ollison-photo-credit-to-Hyunsoo-Leo-Kim-e1453695839501.jpg
Photo taken by Hyunsoo Leo Kim.

By Rashod Ollison

Adapted from Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues, & Coming of Age Through Vinyl by Rashod Ollison (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

The picture revealed the happiness I never knew.

On the back of the beat-up, black-and-white, wallet-size snapshot, the names are in lovely penmanship, probably Mama’s: Raymond + Dianne Ollison. The location: Juarez, Mexico, where my parents honeymooned in September of 1970.

In the picture, they sit in a café booth. Daddy’s arm wraps around Mama’s slim shoulders as he presses his dark, angular face next to hers. He gives the camera a seductive stare. With flipped bouffant hair, Mama looks like a member of the Marvelettes. Her smile is so wide, sweet, and radiant it melts the heart. I’m startled at how svelte she is. For as long as I can remember, Mama has battled serious weight issues.

I saw the photo nearly forty years later and its effect was like fresh air circulating through a musty room. Mama Teacake, my maternal grandmother, gave my younger sister Reagan the picture just before she died. When Reagan shared it with me, I was at her place in Little Rock. We were close to thirty and had grown up knowing only the stormy years of the marriage, which ended just as we started grade school.

“Dusty, look at this,” Reagan said, handing me the photo. “Can you believe this?”

I stared at it for a long time.

“You betta not walk out of here with it,” she said. “I’ll get you a copy made.”

Much has changed since somebody captured the budding marital bliss of the attractive couple from Malvern, Arkansas, both nineteen at the time. Daddy’s long dead. Mama steers clear of talking about the early years when their love bloomed. She will, however, go on about the drama, when Daddy left home for days, skipping out on paying the light bill to “lay up with some bitch ’cross town.”

“I was always left in the dark,” Mama said, the double meanings lost on no one.

The country-glam woman-child in the photograph worked two full-time jobs for years, found comfort in food, and constructed a fence around her heart that kept everybody, including my two sisters and me, at a safe distance.

As long as food was in the fridge, clothes on our backs, and a roof overhead, I guess Mama never felt compelled to offer hugs or say “I love you.” The proof of that love was all around us in the comfortable homes she could barely afford to rent. The proof of that love was in every tired sigh she released before heading to a job she detested.

Growing up, I heard relatives drop intriguing bits about the early years of the marriage, and always with a tinge of sadness.

Yeah, that was back when Dianne and Raymond had just got together. Lawd, you couldn’t tell Dianne nothin’ ’bout Raymond. She know she loved him and he loved her.

Uh-huh, they was silly and in love then.

Oh, that’s before your time, boy, back when Raymond and Dianne used to go ev’rywhere togetha. ’Memba how they used to dance?

Whenever I asked specific questions about that time, the subject quickly changed or I was told, “Go ax ya mama.” Sometimes I found the nerve to ask her how things were in the early years before Reagan and I were born. But Mama always blew me off with, “Boy, that was a long time ago. Don’t even remember. Hell, think I was depressed.”

She remembers. The end of that marriage, which lasted thirteen years, haunts her still. It haunts me, too. Out of the ashes, mystery and ugliness, I found music.

*                      *                     *

The trumpet in Mama’s throat could be sharp and piercing.

It often cut through the music spinning on my record player, knocking me off my cloud and back to Omega Street.

“Dusty! Turn that shit down, or turn it off.”

I always wondered if she had a problem with the music itself. These were Daddy’s records, after all. And Lord knows she never had a kind word to say about him. Something in Gladys Knight’s anguished belting and Bobby Womack’s testifying growls made me feel wise. Maybe they unsettled Mama. I don’t know. It probably wasn’t even that deep.

Mama threw her head back, flashing the smile she wore in Mexico all those years ago. Then the record went off, Mama stopped dancing, and the ghost of Daddy vanished.

Sometimes, though, her face unknotted when she walked by my bedroom door and a song stopped her. This sudden change in her mood always surprised me. One day, it was “The Rubberband Man” by the Spinners. Mama pushed opened the door. Her hair was in rollers, her feet were in slippers, and her old housedress hugged her hips.

“Oh, that was the jam,” she said, a smile brightening her face. I smiled too. “Turn that up.”

Mama snapped her fingers and bounced her shoulders. She wasn’t in the room. She seemed transported well beyond our apartment as she shuffled her feet, the Spinners harmonizing through the scratchy vinyl. She shouted, “Hey!” and rolled her hips.

I wanted Daddy to appear. And suddenly, there he was: sober, groomed, and handsome. He grabbed Mama, their smiles met, and the room became a bright and infinite place in the sky.
Daddy released her and she dipped. “Get it, baby,” he shouted. He pulled her from behind and whispered something in her ear. Mama threw her head back, flashing the smile she wore in Mexico all those years ago. A silly song about a rubberband man had lassoed joy and made all well again. Then the record went off, Mama stopped dancing, and the ghost of Daddy vanished.

Mama’s smile faded and she pulled her housedress down.

I didn’t want her to leave. “You want me to play it again, Mama?”

“No,” she said, heading toward the door. She stopped and furrowed her brow, her face back to a tense mask. “Turn that music off , anyhow. Come down here and sweep this kitchen up.”

*                      *                     *

No prayers kept the lights on at Baker Street. So after about a year, we moved. The new house, across town on Audubon Street, was just around the corner from Dusa’s high school. Reagan and
I transferred to Oaklawn Elementary, which was two or three short blocks away. The neighborhood was another quiet one where standoffish whites dominated. Maple and magnolia trees shaded fastidiously neat homes, where plastic pink flamingos bent their necks in fresh-cut grass and ceramic gnomes nestled under chrysanthemums.

Our house was moss-green and smaller and much less stately than the one on Baker. It felt like a cottage, with wood-paneled walls and stingy windows that didn’t let in much light. The kitchen was large with ugly floral-print carpet. The bathroom, tiny as it was, must have been an afterthought.

Soon after we moved in, Mama started wearing more makeup, Fashion Fair Glam Girl, and her smile was dazzling. She still worked two full-time jobs, but she wasn’t home much the few days she had off.

She’d met a man.

We’d walked home from school one day, excited to see Mama’s bug-eyed, sky-blue Chevette under the carport. But whose boxy white sedan was parked in front? Reagan and I ran inside and found an ebony-skinned man in a burgundy sweater with black geometric leather patches sitting on the couch, his arm thrown over the back. We froze at the door.

Aglow with a made-up face, Mama strolled in from the kitchen.

“There’s something to eat on the stove,” she said. “Y’all fi x your plate and go in your room.”

We exchanged looks. Who was gonna ask about this muthafucka on the couch?

I looked directly at him. “Who are you?”

“Dusty!” Mama hissed my name through tight lips. “You don’t pay no bills in here.”

The man chuckled and rubbed his knees. “That’s OK, Dianne. I’m Dennis, lit’ man.”

His smoked-out baritone caressed Mama’s name with a sly affection that made me bristle. I could smell his pungent, gag-inducing cologne all the way at the door. I hadn’t known this Dennis cat for one whole minute and already I detested him—the way he sat on our brown-and-burnt-orange couch gap-legged as though he’d bought it; the way he rubbed his knees as though he was satisfied and expected someone to bring him something.

I hated Reagan’s juiced-up Jheri curl, and so did she. Now here was this Dennis, greasy and shining with a stringy curl—short on the sides and long in the back. Did Mama think he was cool? Gold chains hanging from his neck, a gold-nugget pinky ring gleaming on his broad, dark hand—who the hell did he think he was, Rick James?

Mama snapped her fingers and pointed to the kitchen. “Dusty and Reagan, y’all go fi x ya something to eat and get back in that room and do your homework now.”

We slowly made our way to the kitchen, dragging our coats and book bags while looking back at Dennis.

Later that night, Mama went out with him. Dusa didn’t have to work and, as always, was pissed about having to stay home with us. We were in the living room watching Alf when I asked Dusa about Dennis.

“Who is he?”

“Mama’s new boyfriend.”

“He ain’t my daddy,” Reagan said.

“Nobody said he was,” Dusa shot back.

“Where she meet him at?” I wanted to know.

“Who you askin’? I don’t know.” Dusa pouted. “And she gon’ go out with him and leave me here, like I don’t wanna go out on my night off.”

But Dennis remained a stranger to me, a hologram with stank-ass cologne, whose presence made me deeply resent the fact that I could neither vanish nor fly.

“Where you gonna go?” Reagan asked.

Dusa continued, ignoring her. “And we don’t know nothin’ about him. He was in here the other day, before y’all got home from school. I’d missed the bus and needed Mama to take me to work, and she gon’ fuss me out. They were getting ready go somewhere, and I had to be at work.”

Dusa sighed.

“She take you to work?” I asked, suddenly feeling like her equal.

“She finally did, and I was late.” Dusa rolled her eyes.

We turned back to the TV. After Alf went off, Reagan turned to us and affirmed what she’d said before: “He ain’t my daddy.”

*                      *                     *

Mama’s affair with Dennis snatched from us what little time she had between jobs. When she was home, Dennis was usually around or on his way over. Once, in the middle of the night, I awoke to use the bathroom and noticed Mama’s bedroom door closed. She never slept with the door closed. Dennis’ musky cologne sang in the air as it always did when he was around. I wanted to bust into the room and tell him to get the fuck out. The fantasy was delicious: Dusty, the pint-sized, shit-talking hero in Superman pajamas.

I would snatch Dennis’s curl shag and pull him through the living room and onto the front porch. I’d stomp his leg and say, “Split! Before I kick yo’ dog ass up and down this block.”

He’d struggle to his feet, looking at me all bug-eyed, and scurry to his raggedy car and peel away. I’d stand on the front steps with my fists on my hips and send a deadly beam from my eyes, zeroing in on the back of his car, and blow the muthafucka up to the sky. Afterward, I’d strut back into the house, like Sherman Hemsley as George Jefferson, and slam the door.

But Dennis brought out Mama’s sunshine smile, which she beautified with cranberry-colored lipstick. But he remained a stranger to me, a hologram with stank-ass cologne, whose presence made me deeply resent the fact that I could neither vanish nor fly.

Mama’s affair made Dusa defiant. Her relationship with Mama, especially after Dusa started working when we were over on Omega Street, became a partnership. Mama leaned on Dusa alot—to help with the bills, to mother Reagan and me while she held down two jobs to make ends at least wave at each other if not fully meet. Sometimes Dusa seemed to relish the responsibility. By the time we’d moved to Audubon, her cooking had improved. She’d make easy recipes from the old, tattered cookbooks Mama had. She’d stand at the stove hand on hip as she stirred the pots. Her grown-woman affectations had become less awkward.

Like Mama, she wore her invisible suit of armor, her voice often a whip snapping at us for every offense no matter how small. But from time to time, the insecure seventeen-year-old playing the weary grown woman revealed herself.

“Y’all come eat,” Dusa ordered.

Reagan and I exchanged glances as if to say, “Lord, what did she cook now?”

Dusa had fixed our plates. Anytime she tried a new recipe she insisted we all sit at the table.

“This is tuna casserole,” she said.

I examined it and noticed the melted cheddar on top; didn’t look bad.

Reagan asked, “What’s this green stuff in it?”

“Peas,” Dusa snapped. “You eat peas.”

Reagan frowned. “Not like this, though.”

“Eat!” Dusa commanded.

We all picked up our forks and dug in. I felt Dusa’s eyes on us. When I turned to her, the armor was temporarily gone and her eyes searched for approval. Her face softened.

Slowly, I chewed. I had a feeling that if I said the casserole was disgusting, it would crush her. But it really wasn’t bad; needed less salt, but pretty tasty. Tell the truth and shame the devil, as Mama would say.

“It’s good,” I said.

Reagan nodded her approval and said in between forkfuls,

“Uh-huh. I like it.” A half-smile almost crept across Dusa’s face, but she stopped it and put on the armor.

“Y’all gon’ wash these dishes after y’all get finished.”

Snap!

*                      *                     *

With Dennis’s regular visits, Dusa’s affronts to Mama went from sly to bold. Whenever he came by, we all gave him a limp “hello” and disappeared into our rooms. He and Mama stayed in the living room, watching TV, talking, or listening to the stereo. Dennis sometimes brought over cassettes—mostly Quiet Storm cuts by Freddie Jackson or Peabo Bryson. I thought his taste in music was lame.

When Dusa arrived home from school or work and saw Dennis, she’d roll her eyes, go to her room, and slam the door. She’d sometimes interrupt Mama’s time with him by busting into the living room and abruptly asking for the keys to the car. Mama sometimes gave her the keys, just to get her out, I guess. But whenever she told her no, Dusa stomped back to her room, slammed the door, and got on the phone.

“You are still a child in here. There’s only one damn queen. You hear me?”

Once while Dennis was over, Dusa strolled through the living room dressed in panties and a painted-on T-shirt. Reagan and I sat in the adjacent area, playing Uno at the dining room table. Dusa’s half-nakedness didn’t shock us. She always strolled around in her bra and panties—but never in front of Dennis. Reagan whispered, “Look at her.”

Mama sat straight up on the couch. Dennis glanced at Dusa and quickly turned his head to the TV.

“Dusa! What the hell you doin’?” Mama said. “Get the hell outta here and put some clothes on.”

“I’m looking for something,” Dusa said, shuffling through Jet magazines on the coffee table.

Mama’s eyes flashed fire. “Girl, I’m gon’ tell you one more time to go put some damn clothes on.”

Dusa plucked a Jet from the stack. “Found it,” she said and sauntered back to her room, slamming the door.

Dennis left shortly afterward, and Mama rushed to Dusa’s room. Reagan and I followed to catch all the drama.

Mama opened the door and ordered Dusa off the phone.
“What was that shit you tried to pull?”

Reagan stood close to me in the doorway. Dusa sat up in her bed, looked at us and shouted, “Y’all go somewhere.”

“Never mind them,” Mama said. “I’m talkin’ to you.”

Dusa folded her arms, rolled her eyes, and turned toward the Prince poster on the wall.

Mama put her hands on her hips. “Heff a, you roll your eyes at me one more time, I’m gon’ knock them clean out yo’ head.”

She stood over Dusa. “Look at me!”

Dusa’s jaw tightened and she didn’t move.

Mama snatched Dusa’s hair and jerked her toward her. Reagan and I flinched as Dusa’s face scrunched up and tears fell.

Mama’s voice had spikes. “Girl, don’t you ever pull no shit like that again, disrespectin’ me in my damn house. You hear what I’m tellin’ you?”

Dusa whimpered, “Yeah.”

“You are still a child in here. There’s only one damn queen. You hear me?”

“Yeah.”

Mama pushed Dusa’s head away, and Dusa buried her face into a pillow, the way Jason did that day Phyl slapped him over on Omega Street.

Mama turned toward the door. “Dusty and Reagan, y’all get somewhere and sit down.”

We scurried across the hall to our room and shut the door. I slid onto my bed, and Reagan sat on hers facing me. We exchanged wide-eyed stares.

“Mama sho was mad,” Reagan said.

I didn’t blink. “She sho was.”

*                      *                     *

A few months after Mama snatched Dusa’s hair, she felt strange pains in her abdomen. She went to the doctor and had several tests done. After she got the results, she called us into the living
room and delivered the news in her usual straight-no-chaser style.

“I got cancer, y’all.”

When Dusa put her hand to her mouth, I sensed this was not good. I had no idea what cancer was. I looked at Reagan and knew damn well she didn’t know.

“You got what?” I asked.

“Cancer, Dusty,” Mama said, rolling her eyes. “I’m gonna have to go into the hospital for a while, and they gon’ have to do a hysterectomy.”

I was confused. “A what?”

Dusa sighed. “Mama’s gonna have to have a surgery, Dusty.”

“Where we gon’ go?” Reagan asked, on the verge of tears.

“Well,” Mama said. “First thing, we gotta move again.”

Dusa and I slumped back on the couch.

“Shoot!” Dusa said.

After just a year, the rent on Audubon had become too high. We never knew our neighbors. Like Baker Street, the area hardly had any color (literally) and definitely no funk. I was glad to leave Omega Street but sometimes missed the wooliness over there.

“We gon’ be all right,” Mama said. “I’m just gonna have to go into the hospital for a while, and Dusa, you gon’ have to look over things. Doctors said it shouldn’t be too serious, that I should be fine after this hysterectomy. Caught it in time, they said.”

“You talk to Dad?” Dusa asked.

“Raymond? Nah.”

“Where’s Daddy?” Reagan asked.

“Shit, I don’t know,” Mama said, curling her lips. “Over in Malvern somewhere. Ain’t sent no child support. That much I do know.”

“He needs to know what’s going on,” Dusa said.

Mama looked away as though her thoughts were reflected on the wood-paneled wall. After a moment, she said, “He don’t need to know shit. It’s just us. Always been just us.”

*                      *                     *

The new place, a three-bedroom white Colonial on Garland Street, held no cheer.

We were two blocks away from Baker Street, back in the same lifeless neighborhood that looked like a Kodak shot. The living room had a fi replace and generous windows. The long hallway seemed to stretch a mile, and at the end of it, a mirror covered the storage closet door. Two full baths. One was across the hall from Dusa’s room, and she designated it as her own, and “Stay out,” she told Reagan and me.

The other was between Mama’s bedroom and the one I shared with Reagan. Mama’s closet was linked to ours, and you could walk through our clothes and hers and open the door into her bedroom.

Soon after we settled in, Mama got ready to go into the hospital. She gave Dusa her checkbook and went over what bills to pay and when to pay them. At seventeen, Dusa had complete run of the house and keys to the car, in addition to going to school and working at Taco Bell.

Reagan and I had transferred back to Jones Elementary, barely two blocks away, where our third- and fourth-grade classes were mostly white. And we had no friends.

The day Mama left for the hospital, she called us into the living room. She was beautiful—her thick amber hair nicely coiffed, as always, her makeup expertly applied. If she felt any fear, it must’ve been concealed by the Fashion Fair or buried so deep that no trace revealed itself in her steady gaze.

“Y’all give me a hug,” she said.

We threw our arms around her. A lump rose in my throat, and I tried to hold it together.

“Dusty, don’t start cryin’ now,” Mama said. “You too big for that. I’m gon’ be OK. Y’all be good and mind what Dusa say. Hear me?”

Mama left and I refused to look up for what seemed like a long time. I could have turned to stone in that spot and would not have cared—head bowed, my tears dotting the chestnut carpet.

*                      *                     *

Going to sleep was hard without Mama in the next room snoring. I missed the familiar comfort of her early morning noises: her house shoes scrapping across the bathroom floor, the news playing on the TV in the living room, coffee brewing in the kitchen. I missed the floral scent of Beautiful, her perfume, lingering after she left .The nearly two weeks she was in the hospital felt like a year. Every time I asked Dusa for an update, she said, “She’s fine.”

“Can we go see her?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

Dusa softened her tone. “She’s OK, Dusty. Stop worrying. And, Lord, please don’t start cryin’ up in here. You know how you do.”

The radio near my bed was always tuned to Power 92, the urban station. At night, the DJ mixed new and old soul. A song struck me one night. The lyrics were about a woman, a “sweet and gentle flower growing wild” whose freedom only comes as she sleeps. The wrenching emotion imbuing the song, shadowed by ebbing horns, washed over me as I lay with my headphones on. New Birth seemed to sing Mama’s story.

She was always tired. And everything was a struggle: paying the bills, keeping us fed, maintaining a house she could barely afford to rent, in neighborhoods where we were invisible.

She always told us, “I got to work like this. Who else gonna pay these bills and take care of y’all?” Working two full-time jobs also meant Mama wasn’t home much and didn’t have to look into our faces and see the loneliness hanging there; she didn’t have to feel the cold absence of a husband, either. Often, when she came home between jobs, we were still at school, and she had time to take a nap, take a bath, and change into her uniform before heading to her evening job, job number two.

When we got home, her perfume still lingered and maybe a casserole was wrapped in foil on top of the stove, if she’d had time to whip one up. I just wanted her to be there in the living room smiling her sunshine glamour smile when we walked through the door. Sometimes I’d go into Mama’s room to watch TV after school. She always told us to stay out of her room, but I just wanted to be where she had been, to wrap myself in the comforter where just a few hours before she had fallen into much-needed sleep inside a quiet house.

New Birth’s lead singer crooned of a weary flower, the horns echoing his sympathy, and I wondered if things would’ve been easier for Mama had I not been born.

Dusa was her partner, and Reagan was the baby, seemingly in constant need of attention. I was needy, too, but I hid it—or tried to. I always felt pressured to be a “big boy,” stoic and unaffected.
But I always felt what I felt intensely, and that seemed to annoy everybody in the house.

Daddy sometimes made cameos in my dreams, and those old records remained an aural lifeline to him. I was his friend, his running buddy, his Dus-Dus. Now he never came around.

What was I to Mama? I looked for her smile whenever I entered the room but seldom found it. Most times, it was the severe, critical face—lips tight, eyes stern—making sure my hair was combed and my clothes were neat, policing my mannerisms and correcting my speech. I often left the room gathering pieces of myself.

But life became magically coherent—storm clouds parted, blossoms opened, rainbows arced in a turquoise sky—when Mama beamed her Ebony magazine smile.

The thought of her never coming home made my stomach twist and turn. She’s coming home, I told myself, sometimes aloud. And when she finally arrives, healed and picture-pretty, I’m going to be a very good son. I’m going to clean up more, study more, and make myself indispensable. Maybe I’ll learn to cook. Maybe I won’t eat so much.

“Damn, Dusty, you finish your food that fast?” Mama said a few times. “Did you even taste it?”

Mama will direct her Fashion Fair smile at me and say, “You’re a very good son.” She’ll rub my head and I will float. Whatever it takes, whatever I need to do, I’m going to find a way to make Mama happy. She’ll come home from work and will be glad to see me, beaming the smile she gave a greasy-haired Rick James wannabe who smoked cigarettes and wore a pinky ring.

“There you are,” Mama will say, “my baby, my honey, my very good son.”

* * *

Q&A

Rashod Ollison makes music on the page with his story about growing up gay in Arkansas, during the 1980s and 1990s, raised by a single mother and confronting the dysfunction, poverty and depression that surrounded them. He spent his difficult childhood in the housing projects, serenaded by the music of Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, and Michael Jackson and local haunts like the soulful blues of Denise LaSalle, the lively funk of Shalamar, and the romantic duets of Alexander O’Neal and Cherrell. His story is both universal and singular – weaving together a tale about community, identity, strength, resilience, and inspiration. I had the chance to speak with Rashod about the inspiration for his work, the possibility of transferring the musical experience to the written page, and how a childhood of struggle can turn in to an adulthood of inspiration.

If you want some musical flavor to your reading experience, check out Ollison’s Spotify playlist that he made to go along with the book – get ready to groove.

Raluca Albu for Guernica Daily.

Guernica Daily: What inspired this project?

Rashod Ollison: About six years ago, I moved to Virginia from Baltimore to take my current job as the culture writer for the Virginian-Pilot. I had been laid off from the Baltimore Sun, where I had been the pop music critic for six and a half years. So in the midst of this fresh start in this new area, which was very different from what I had been used to, I fell in love. That was a complete, total, utter, foolish disaster.

Then I dropped into a depression. To pull myself out, I started a three-pronged makeover of sorts: I lost weight, hired a therapist and started working on the book, which was a way to challenge myself creatively and delve into the abandonment issues that surfaced after my heart was broken.

The idea for the book had been floating around in my head for at least a decade. I initially thought that I would appropriate parts of my childhood for a novel but it ended up being a memoir written like a novel. It was a cathartic process and rewarding one, too. I was able to use more of the creative writing side of my degree — showing as opposed to explaining and telling, which is mostly what I do as a journalist.

Guernica Daily: Music is so visceral – your story captures that so well. I used to wonder if music was something that can be written about. You proved it is something that can be written about. Does it need to be written about?

Rashod Ollison: I’ve made my career writing about music and the people who make it because it’s such an integral part of my existence. I think in song lyrics; I talk in song lyrics. Music helps to shape our emotional development. It’s so many things: a balm or a bomb, a stimulant or a relaxer. It conveys so much about the human experience, connecting and touching us all so profoundly. As long as there’s humanity, there will be music of some kind. And music is such a great way to achieve an understanding of the rich and gloriously complex ugly beauty of being human.

Guernica Daily: Does music take you back? Or bring you forward? Both, maybe?

Rashod Ollison: Music brings us back home. My adult life couldn’t be more dissimilar to the lives of my parents and siblings. My career as a music journalist has afforded me opportunities to engage personalities, both famous and infamous, and people from around the world. That has exposed me to so much, including different types of music. But the older I get, especially with so many relatives recently dying off, I find myself often revisiting the music I heard while growing up. Snatching away the sentimental filter, I hear it all now with new ears. I understand the blues better. I now get the double meanings that made my grandparents chuckle. I understand now what my mother heard in the voice of Aretha Franklin, a sense of validation. Those recordings don’t change, of course. We grow with them. In a way, music becomes a safe harbor to which we can always return and see new versions of ourselves. At its best, as with any transcendent piece of art, music becomes not just a mirror but a door.

Guernica Daily: How does he think the music of today has or doesn’t have similar stories behind it?

Rashod Ollison: Somebody somewhere is probably listening to Beyonce and feeling empowered. Somebody somewhere hears Drake and sees himself. I have no idea. Much of contemporary pop isn’t made for a guy like me. I can dissect it and write about it as a journalist, but it doesn’t speak to me on a deep personal level, which is fine. Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Adele, Drake, they aren’t making music for me. But I can guarantee you that some young person is seeking a place of refuge in their music the same way I was trying to find myself in a Chaka Khan record some 30 years ago.

Rashod Ollison is an award-winning pop music critic and culture journalist. He has been a staff critic and feature writer for the Dallas Morning News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Journal News (Westchester, New York), Baltimore Sun, and Virginian-Pilot. He also wrote a music column for Jet magazine. A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Ollison lives in Virginia Beach.

Raluca Albu is the co-editor of Guernica Daily.

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