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“Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand.” —Stevie Wonder, “Sir Duke”
In 2003, young professor Ferentz LaFargue traveled to Paris, where his fiancée, Tricia, declared she wasn’t happy with their relationship, ending what he thought was a wonderful engagement. After days of “craying”—“that sorrow-laden blend of crying and praying delivered in perfect pitch by those in mourning”—Ferentz happened upon Stevie Wonder’s 1976 classic double album Songs in the Key of Life. Listening to it anew ...
“Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand.” —Stevie Wonder, “Sir Duke”
In 2003, young professor Ferentz LaFargue traveled to Paris, where his fiancée, Tricia, declared she wasn’t happy with their relationship, ending what he thought was a wonderful engagement. After days of “craying”—“that sorrow-laden blend of crying and praying delivered in perfect pitch by those in mourning”—Ferentz happened upon Stevie Wonder’s 1976 classic double album Songs in the Key of Life. Listening to it anew was a healing, spiritual trip down memory lane, helping him to come to terms with his breakup and reflect on how songs in general have been linked to his life.
In this book, Ferentz invites us to get cozy and listen as he hits PLAY on meaningful tracks from Wonder and others, including Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, LL Cool J, Beenie Man, Sheryl Crow, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, and Black Sabbath. He recalls:
How the fusion of rock and rap in the breakthrough Run-D.M.C./Aerosmith video “Walk This Way” helped to change an adolescent Ferentz from outcast to authority figure
How Michael Jackson’s Thriller brought back a traumatic childhood experience
How Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” speaks to the tension between his Christian beliefs and his need to rip it up in clubs as a hip-hop head
In the tradition of Nick Hornby’s Songbook¸ these words paint a portrait of a life framed by sounds, allowing all of us to think about what songs have been key in our own lives.
“I’m not happy.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I was sure that I’d misheard her, or that by “not happy” she meant “not happy” with the fries or “not happy” with the cold spell that we thought was uncharacteristic of southern France. Clearly she wasn’t suggesting that she was “not happy” in our relationship. She was.
A little less than a year after I’d proposed to her, my fiancée, Tricia, announced she wanted to terminate our engagement. She made her declaration over lunch in the plaza in Montpellier, France, in April 2003.
I had been looking forward to traveling to France with Tricia ever since she blissfully told me about her previous time there. I thought that by experiencing Paris together, I’d experience a similar euphoria. Instead, I spent two weeks fearing my parents’ and friends’ reactions once I told them that Tricia and I were no longer engaged, and bracing myself for life without Tricia for the first time in five years.
Six months later in October 2003 those three words–“I’m not happy”–were still ringing in my head as I took in my new apartment. I’d lived with Tricia for one year, and now everything in the apartment was my own: the bed, the desk, the portrait on the wall–and the bills. I had discarded all the pictures of us together, the love letters written, and everything that we had bought together for our previous apartment. While I was proud that I had erased virtually all signs of her from my apartment, her presence still weighed heavily on my heart.
I was alone. When there was no more dissertation writing to be done, when I couldn’t read any further and there weren’t any more friends awake to talk with, I found myself in the bed alone, wondering how all this came to be.
Was my father right? Should I be ashamed that things didn’t work with Tricia?
I thought about what else I could have done to make it work, or why I didn’t take any number of opportunities to end the relationship for good. The deeper that I let myself fall into thought, the more I ended up crying, or rather craying, that sorrow-laden blend of crying and praying delivered in perfect pitch by those in mourning.
I crayed because I was confused, and wondered if Tricia knew that her need to find her happiness would bring about so much pain for me, and if she did know, whether she cared. This was the point where I usually broke down and my craying intensified. Regardless of whether she cared, Tricia had the right to find her own happiness, even if that happiness didn’t include me.
So I tried to muster the courage and energy to discover my own joy. One Saturday morning, I got out of bed and started ruffling through the unopened boxes piled in my living room in search of my CDs. After a few minutes of searching, I was able to cull a stack of albums by artists whose harmonies the heartbroken have been relying upon for ages: Billie Holiday, Etta James, and Nina Simone. From that point on, every Saturday morning I pulled out another batch of CDs to listen to as I went about researching and writing my dissertation.
As this ritual took form, I took to calling it church, the only word I knew which captured the sense of cleansing, praise, and rehabilitation that I was undergoing as the sounds of these artists filtered throughout my apartment. I
gave some of these Saturdays special names, as is done in many Protestant congregations. On African Appreciation Day, I invited a Nigerian brother by the name of Fela Kuti to address my one-man congregation. I extended a similar invitation for Deacon Robert Nester Marley to sing a few homilies on Caribbean Appreciation Day. After these deacons and deaconesses were through leading the praise-andworship portion of the service, that Holy Roller from Saginaw, Michigan, Reverend Steveland Hardaway Judkins would step to the podium and offer the same invocation that he offered week after week:
Good morn or evening friends.
Here’s your friendly announcer…
Reverend Steveland, or Reverend Stevie as I called him back then, was installed as my pastor during my third Saturday of worship. Having been deeply moved by his sermon from the week before, I knew that his musical doxologies were exactly what I needed to hear. Once Reverend Stevie uttered the opening lines from his oration, “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” I settled in to hear him recite the other twenty-one sermons off his masterful 1976 double album, Songs in the Key of Life.
Songs in the Key of Life marked the culmination of one of the most dynamic four years of production by any musician in the twentieth century. This string began in 1972 with the arrival of both Music of My Mind and Talking Book, the second and third albums that Stevie Wonder had complete control over after renewing his Motown contract. They inaugurated the funkier blues-laden sound that Wonder became known for once he was freed from the reins of Motown’s singles-driven balladeer style. The following year he unleashed Innervisions, and in 1974 he completed this quartet with Fulfillingness’ First Finale.
Within four years Wonder premiered five albums, two of which–Talking Book and Innervisions–are often referred to as classics. Many consider a third, Songs in the Key of Life, a masterpiece, his magnum opus. The fact that a twenty-sixyear-old man who had been blind since birth created such a prolific period not only reaffirmed Wonder’s credentials as a prodigy but also elevated him to the level of genius.
It wasn’t until Tricia and I started dating in 1998 that I really became acquainted with Songs in the Key of Life. It all began on a Sunday, the eve of our first day of classes at Yale, when I invited her and her roommate over for dinner. As we ate, Tricia and her roommate got into a conversation about sampling. Tricia was critiquing Coolio’s use of “Pastime Paradise,” one of the tracks off of Songs, but she couldn’t remember its name and began wading through my CD collection in search of Songs in the Key of Life, only to discover that it wasn’t there. She thought it was a glaring omission on my part. Similarly when tracks from the album like “Ngiculela–Es Una Historia I Am Singing,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” and “As” came on over the radio during one of our dates or manic study sessions, we’d swap memories about our earliest recollections of these songs, only to have the conversation arrested by the fact that the album wasn’t there for us to listen to.
Yet the most vivid image I have about the album during the early stages of our relationship is from the first time that I went to her parents’ house and saw the record’s cover atop their stereo. Having never seen the cover before, I thought it was a piece of art that her parents had hung over the stereo. I was struck by the lush shades of brown and orange filling the canvas. From far away I wasn’t able to tell whether the image was the center of a flower or the sun. Drawing closer I realized that it was also possible that the image was of the skyline at dusk, the sun slowly setting over the mountains in the foreground with the red sea lying slightly beyond the horizon.
This last interpretation was in line with a painting by an Eritrean artist that her parents had on the wall nearby, and since her dad was from Eritrea, I thought this was another reminder of his homeland. When I finally got close enough to read the lines in the center of the image and saw that it read, “Songs in the Key of Life. Stevie Wonder,” I knew that just for the cover alone, I needed to have a copy of this record.
Noticing my fascination with the album, Tricia’s mom told me that I could put it on, but I’d have to find the CD because their record player was broken. As I searched for the CD among the pile next to the stereo, she continued talking about growing up in Detroit when Songs in the Key of Life was first released. To my surprise, I learned that “Sir Duke” was the big hit off that album, and not “Isn’t She Lovely,” the infectious aria dedicated to his daughter, Aisha. Listening to her talk about “Sir Duke” and Detroit in 1976 reminded me of my own mother, who liked regaling me with stories about being in Haiti in 1976. Just like my mom, Tricia’s mother spoke of being young and the thrills induced by her favorite musicians–except in conversations with my mom, these artists had names like Orchestra Tropicana, Skah Shah, and Nemours Jean-Baptiste, the Haitian equivalents to the Motown and soul legends of the ’60s and ’70s.
I felt at home in Tricia’s parents’ living room as her mom framed this album for me. Once “Sir Duke” came on, I heard in the trumpet intro sounds eerily reminiscent of the horn sections in the konpa bands whose records my parents played when I was growing up. And then Wonder sang:
Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand…
These lyrics deftly captured my feelings while listening to Songs in the Key of Life in the company of Tricia and her family that evening. I was enchanted by the semblances of her father’s native Eritrea in the album’s artwork and how Wonder’s music brought together Africa and the Americas in one glorious cavalcade of emotions, rhythms, and aspirations.
This heartening introduction to Songs in the Key of Life was a stark contrast to the reintroduction occurring in my own living room on Saturday mornings in the fall of 2003. My previous listens to the album had their own theme. When hanging with Tricia’s family, we focused on the upbeat or sentimental selections: “Sir Duke,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” “As,” “Another Star,” “If It’s Magic,” or “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” If our conversations were more pensive, we gravitated toward “Pastime Paradise,” “Village Ghetto Land,” “Saturn,” or “Black Man,” the songs that reflected Wonder’s concerns as a human rights activist.
Now that I was alone, a new set of songs with which I had never really concerned myself were taking priority. “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” “Ordinary Pain,” “Summer Soft,” and “Have a Talk with God” bewitched my imagination. “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” an appeal for more love in the world, directly captured my personal longing for more love, and for being in love. “Have a Talk with God” reflected the conversations with God I revived during many of my craying moments, and “Summer Soft” was particularly painful because it reminded me of and all the activities associated with our planned June 2004 wedding–sending out save-the-date cards and invitations, selecting caterers–that weren’t going to happen.
Yet “Joy Inside My Tears” had the most to say. It’s one of the album’s slower-paced songs. It wasn’t a breakout hit in the mold of “I Wish” and “Sir Duke,” nor did it develop an infectious cult following like “Isn’t She Lovely.” Ushered in by a slow bass line that cradles the listener as the snare taps gently rock us back and forth, “Joy Inside My Tears” is one of the more subtle reflections of Wonder’s musicianship. Lyrically poetic, it resonates just as clearly on the page as it does in stereo:
You you you made life’s his • to • ry
You brought some joy inside my tears…
Wonder cries out his lyrics over a score that could easily have been used for a lament instead of a celebration. “Joy” touched my own sadness, helping me embrace the idea of having someone be the center of my joy while inspiring me to look beyond my romantic loss and see what parts of life I could celebrate.
As “Joy” filled my living room I realized that through music Wonder had captured my feelings about Tricia and where I was now. I began to think about what other parts of my life might’ve also had musical accompaniments.
There was a song coursing through every experience I’d had, from my first crush to my most significant adult relationship. It was surreal that Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Crossroad” was there while I consoled my brother after members of his girlfriend’s family were murdered. I took glee in remembering my hot and heavy sessions with Teena Marie’s “Portuguese Love.” These reflections inspired me to come up with a playlist for the page, to share a batch of songs that have been there for me in all of life’s permutations, which will hopefully help others reflect on their own relationships to music, and life.
In the midst of heartbreak, I found the spirit of the writer in me that I had suppressed during my six years of graduate school. During that time, I put off exploring my interests in creative writing “until I finished my dissertation,” which soon became “until I got tenure,” then “until Tricia and I got settled and had kids,” and more outrageously, right before we broke up, “until we could afford a summer home so that I can escape and write.” For six years I put off a passion that was stirring inside of me, and were it not for that breakup, I was on the verge of putting it off for six more years and then some.
As my words filled up the page, I found myself crying again. For the first time in years I turned to poetry, adapting one of Wonder’s songs, “Ngiculela–Es Una Historia I Am Singing,” with the same fertile energy that I once put into remixing pop tunes for my first crush, Adriana Hernandez. I wrote in order to exercise both my talent as a writer and the spirit that I brought along with me as a child from Haiti to the United States. I wrote to explore my connection with the musical and political pulse of Africa and its diaspora. The more I wrote the more it became apparent that as the soul child of ancestors who have been making and remaking the manna of sound for ages, I am trying to do through writing what my forebears have done through music: