by Jojo Parker
One Christmas, maybe a year or two before Hurricane Katrina, I was gifted a portable CD player and the Black Eyed Peas album Monkey Business. It was my favorite and most used gift at the time, despite having to hold it a certain angle to avoid skipping songs. There was nothing more powerful to me than listening to music on my own; creating a personal relationship with the notes, bars, melodies and words spoken without influence from others. To this day I prefer listening to music by myself with headphones in. But when Hurricane Katrina changed the space wherein I listened to music, my relationship with it changed. Songs became reflections of the homes—or lack thereof—I had.
"Choppa Style" was played everywhere in my pre-Katrina childhood-on the radio and at every function. The song sounds exactly like the city it represents: loud and boisterous on the surface, unexpectedly slow in some parts and repetitive enough to inspire participation, down to the call and response section in the middle. But outside of the noise and fun, it remains a grim reminder of my broken and dysfunctional family life. My parents went from arguing a lot to not speaking at all during my youth, and now the song represents a home that was broken before it even began.
I once asked my mom if she would scream in response when Choppa said "If you hate your baby daddy holla (Ooww)." Her response: "of course.” I don't think my mom hates my dad now, but I no longer speak to him, which could be a result of her willingness to scream out in joy about her hatred for him. I also have no doubt in my mind that my dad screamed "Oh yeah!" in response to the call out "If you hate your baby mamma holla" too.
Then home moved, blown away by 175 mile per hour winds and the instability of my single parent home. We found our footing in Houston, where everything became chopped and screwed. Growing up in a new city was hard and the older I got the less secure I grew with myself. I was reminded of these uncertainty when "These Days" by Z-Ro would play in the car.
Z-Ro's low voiced lyrical lament, "and these days / seem like where I go the fake taking over like real ain't cool no more / and these days / don't nobody show love / instead of lending a helping hand they want to see blood," would always feel like a direct commentary on my lack of connection to the people around me and, by proxy, Houston itself. Sure, it was home for a while, but it wasn't a home I understood.
I tried my best to fit in, dressing and talking in ways I had hoped would would give me the approval of my white peers. It was an attempt escape the “Katrina kid” label I previously held in elementary school—a label that was only placed on the Black kids. Thus, I leaned towards the emo pop-rock that congregated the music charts. One of the only Hip-Hop songs I had on my phone was "Crack a Bottle" by Eminem, which I would play after school with my crew at the time.
It was the crew that made feel at home, that made me feel safe and with whom I did not have to compromise my being. But as with most things, that sense of belonging was only temporary. One day friend got annoyed when I played the song yet again, angrily stating that they wanted to hear something else. I floundered. I didn't have anything else to play that would produce that same level of camaraderie. I was embarrassed to learn that, just like me, there was no staying power in "Crack a Bottle"; it didn't always belong; it fell out of favor fast.
Hurricane Katrina didn't keep us from visiting family when possible. 6-hour car rides were filled with gas station snacks and my mom’s infinitely large CD collection, which she would cycle through regardless of scratches, skips, or complete breaks. One song that always stood out to me was "More than Friends" from Estelle's second album Shine.
It wasn't the thesis of the song that got me. Instead it was the lyrics, "wonder why, wonder why, wonder why / why must we pretend," that always rang true. Every time we went back home, it didn't feel like home. Sure I was born in New Orleans and partially raised there, but I was losing almost all connection to the place. I felt like I was just pretending to be from New Orleans. I wasn't from Houston, but I was no longer from New Orleans either. I was just pretending to have a place that I could call home and I didn't want to anymore. But I really wasn't presented with any other options.
In my life, there is no pure definition of home. There is no one singular place that I can describe as belonging to. However, there are songs that bring me back to moments in time; lyrics that take to places that no longer stand; bass lines that conjure up car rides; and melodies that lay truth to my sense of belonging. Maybe one day I will have a finite and tactile place to call home. But for now I have an infinite amount of intimate little moments in songs that remind me of home.