There’s an album attached to every life-changing moment that’s happened to me over the years, particularly four so far that I can listen to without skipping a track. Many of the memories are behind me, so I now look at them with the eyes and emotions of someone who has done the very hard work of mentally growing from those experiences.
I’m an incredibly private person, though I’m also aware that can be confusing because of my extroverted personality. I’m flirtatious, chatty and engage easily with everyone at the function. I want to know everything about you; come to me in need and if I can’t help I’ll find a way for you. Ask me what’s going on with me, though, and you’ll likely be met with “nothing – just chillin’ really.” and a quick turn back to yourself.
Like most things in our lives, it goes back to my childhood. My first actually formed sentence was “I can do it myself.” I’ve been finding ways to do it all myself since I spoke those words. I went to libraries to educate myself on processing practices, I taught myself how to journal to get out heavy laden emotions and watched TV and film to dissect and escape some parts of my life. I later found music to connect it all together and after starting therapy years later, I blended it all together like a sexy mental health milkshake.
This year has been wild for me and intense in a way I was unfamiliar with. Music helped me through it again, one person created something that stood out: Ari Lennox. What I aim to do with sharing this part of me with y’all is a few things. To use my writing as another genuine way of continuing to put opening up into practice — and to thank Ari for creating Shea Butter Baby to get me through the start of a difficult year.
When I think on it, I feel these albums were implanting themselves in my life to go back to when I would need them. When I couldn’t (wouldn’t) talk to a friend, couldn’t get in for an appointment with my therapist or when I would simply be too broken to lift myself out of something alone. They are soundtracks to the hard growth and grief I’ve experienced. Shea Butter Baby is the latest tool to help encourage my development in being the healthy woman I am still becoming today.
The first album I ever purchased with my own money was No Doubts’ Tragic Kingdom. It was a few years old when I got my hands on it and Gwen was nearing another stage in her music. I sold cards at church and was going to buy the S club 7 CD, but copped this one instead. Gwen’s outfit on the cover stood out and I had to have both it and the album. Purchasing this album solidified in me that making my own money meant independence and freedom, something I desperately wanted with what I was experiencing at that moment of my story.
Man on the Moon: The End of Day by Kid Cudi hit my ears almost a year after I was brutally raped in college, a rape that produced a pregnancy that both I and my body immediately decided to abort. I had these new labels put on me by doctors, unhelpful cops and even some of my family. I needed help figuring out how (and if) I wanted to start again. This album was my guide when I made the decision to take what happened to me in and start moving forward with what I knew was meant to be a beautiful life.
I’d ended my first relationship as a queer woman when I first heard Sylvan Esso’s self-titled electro-pop-filled album. The relationship was full of mental abuse, extreme pressure and immense uncertainty. I questioned whether I was worthy of relationships in the future and if love was something I wanted to invest in. The melodies on this album and the sound of Amelia’s voice sounded like love. Hearing them collectively made me realize I wanted it and I was allowed to have it look the way I wanted it to.
I was nearing finally coming out to my ENTIRE family, making the decision to write and mean it and in the final push of healing childhood traumas and assaults, when native Chicagoan Saba released his personal and heartfelt album Care for Me. My life was speeding up and I was nearly whole enough to recognize and appreciate it. This album rode with me along the way, telling me that my past will never be erased and it’s ok to live now with intent and healthy remembrance.
….and that brings us to today.
I’m an eternal optimist; ask any friend that I annoy with my POV on their situations. My world is now abundant, sharp, clear and more attractive than it ever has been. I am finally ok with believing that I am meant for something big, ok with feeling that hopes and wants are more tangible than ever. It feels that way for the foreseeable future — but at the start of this year, I was knocked suddenly and hard.
I was nearing two years living in a space I hated and needed to leave; my second relationship ever with a woman ended after nearly two and a half years when she cheated. I stopped writing, my family unit got rocky after coming out, some of my closest friends moved away with no intention of returning and other things that I don’t care to share. For the first time in my life, I let my entire world stop. I had no interest in putting to use the resiliency or optimism whatever spiritual entities had embedded in me since birth — and then Ari released Shea Butter Baby.
It was May 7, 2019, two days before my birthday. Everyone knows I don’t care for birthdays, but I’m not sure they know why. I do have a tradition that begins with me sharing a photo the day before of myself at about age 7 wearing a birthday hat and holding cake and sporting a faux smile. You can see the disdain for the day on my face. The attention and gifts make me uneasy and always have. I’ve lost a massive amount of time in my life and birthdays serve as a somber reminder of that. When I was younger it also marked another year of going through things that no child should ever have to endure. This year, I started working even more with my therapist surrounding my birthday issues and she told me to try to take it back. So this time around I wanted a fucking present. I didn’t know what I wanted, if I was going to get it for myself or tell someone to get it for me, but I knew that I wanted a gift.
I didn’t know much about Ari before the spring of this year. Someone complimented me by saying my Instagram gave them “Ari Lennox vibes” and so I looked her up. Her page was dope and she was stunning. Dark skin, full lips, tightly coiled hair and a smile with an attitude. Shortly after, a woman sent me a link to her single with J.Cole, Shea Butter Baby as a sweet and romantic gesture. Her and I decided to not continue on, but my relationship with Ari was just starting.
Her voice got me. It was sultry, a bit gritty, and it felt like she was singing every track with her eyes closed on Sunday mornings. If that doesn’t register let me explain. In church when Bro. or Sis. so-and-so started feeling whatever selection they were on, they closed their eyes. Their knees would bend and their arms would change from open wide to wrapped tightly around them. That would signal to me that they wanted to trap whatever emotion they had inside and feel it as long as they could. That feeling is how Ari sounds to me.
I lived on that song for a while. Then her album came out and I felt my way through it, eyes closed. Every track hinted at something I was going through; even the pseudo interludes felt like perfectly placed palate cleansers before fucking me up with the next track. She was meeting me where I was at with every situation and telling me that not only did she understand but that this shit is temporary. I felt like no one could truly understand me other than my therapist. I knew that wasn’t real and I had friends who loved me and wanted to be there, but I wasn’t ready or able to let them. It’s not in my nature to let someone help me; I am a lot like my father in that respect but with music, it’s always been different. I can let it help me at my own pace, pause the track when it’s becoming too much, put it on repeat when I need the help more and do it all without saying a word.
Ari gave me the present that I didn’t know I wanted. It became the second therapist at my sessions and tracks like New Apartment, Up Late & Static became guides out of this space I was trapped in. I made it out. I put old and new tools to use; I reached out to friends for the first time; I let people be there for me and this crazy clarity began happening. What I’m saying is my nigga, I fucking worked. This album was a part of what I was doing to become healthy again. The words she wrote, the way she sang them and the emotions that I know were behind it all because I felt it too.
Her being overlooked at the Grammys and being snubbed by the Soul Train Awards saddened me. I want so desperately for her to be publicly rewarded for the art she created and poured herself so deeply into. It changed me, it supported me, and I know that I’m not the only one it served. It often felt torturous for these traumatic events to occur at every stage in my life like some form of psychotic clockwork, but music like this helps get through it every time. Of course, I get the help I need in other ways but music is always there. I decided very early on in life to not let the traumatic moments define me but to make them chapters in the story of how I came to be the woman I am. This time around was the hardest I have had to work to remember that decision. The industry that Ari is in may have failed to recognize her this time around but I didn’t.
I experience love through words of affirmation and I express it through giving gifts. I’m using this article to do both. To look back and read and say to myself that I did an amazing job surviving (again) this time in my life — and to serve as a gift to tell Ari thank you, with my entire heart, for being with me while I did.
Listen to the music that saved Shelli here.
I love the way you describe how your experience of music feels to you. And your choice to keep showing up for yourself when life has knocked you down is inspiring 💚 I hope you have a community of support to help you though too. To this day my family still mocks me with the line “I can do it myself!” from when I was a kid, so I’m familiar with that urge to do it all on your own.
Thank you for sharing this. I will have to take a listen to the album when I get a chance this week.
Now that I have a keyboard with a space bar – this is SO generous (wow esp since opening up is a challenge) and honest to god does similar work for others as Ari’s music does. Stories about being a little more ok and maybe healing are so so precious so thank you thank you thank you!