I shouldn’t be writing about this with such brevity – because it deserves a solid long read – but when my family’s matriarch, my stoic maternal grandmother who I’m named after died, my mother, being the practical planner that she is and having made peace with her mortality like every good Muslim should, bought an extra sanda – that delicate item of clothing, the one one is wrapped in in the final goodbye – and stored it in her closet.
I never wish to dwell on it, but the message was home. One day, like had happened to Bibi and would happen to every one of us, her day would come.
As if to make Bibi’s exit bearable, Mama said death and grief are always imminent, that one must not fear them – a philosophy that every Muslim is taught to carry. I remember trying to find a moment of solitude during Bibi’s funeral while listening to Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine about a million times on the small walkman I cherished more than anything in the whole empty world.
Withers’s words and voice and notes took me through a grief I had no words to describe.
I was sixteen.
Granted – and I wish I shouldn’t have had to say so, but life (and as you’ll get accustomed to sooner rather than later, here’s goes another potential future long read) – I had faced heart-shattering grief before, but maybe being sixteen and owning a walkman and being a certain kind of Nairobi young woman in a certain Nairobi high school gave me certain predispositions, certain languages, certain tools, certain playlists.
And so over the years, including during the lonely and scary pandemic, I’ve carried along songs to take me through these evolving emotions of loss and grief, fully immersing myself in them when needed – catching a feeling, as my sixteen year old self would have said – because Mama said I shouldn’t fear nothing, whether grief or death.
And so welcome to my grief-holy-of-holies, five songs which have particularly armored me against every brief and expansive grief.
In different circumstances I’d have said “Enjoy.”
I guess I shouldn’t. But here goes…
- For the impending grief
Abusey Junction by Kokoroko (2018)
This may be the toughest one because you know it’s coming but you can’t stop it. It’s the long walks around the hospital garden, the constant glimpses at your loved one in the hospital bed – slowly fading away. This is a ballad for the darkness. The trombone announces the chokehold, the drums escort the agony and as if on cue, the soulful singing soothes you into a long, long sadness before the strings tempo down to the unavoidable quietus. It’s the end of an era.
Kokoroko may not have intended for it but this is the song for when grief grips you and you have no option but to oblige. You can’t miss its afrobeat influences – and perhaps that’s why this song is also wrapped in warmth, making it even harder but necessary. Just like that bowl of soup you’re forced to drink at your loved one’s funeral.
- Grieving the short, precious moments
Cómo Me Quieres by Khruangbin (2018)
There’s this thing they say about grief – that it never quite ends. It may start off with a burning intensity. But once the palpitations quiet down, the turbulence settles and the aching soothens – then you’re left with this bitter-sweet embrace called reminiscence. And that’s what this song is. It’s the passing memory of that family dinner, that dance in the rain, that smile from across the kitchen – all while knowing you’ll never see them again.
This feeling is exactly why this song was made.
Khruangbin’s lead bassist Laura Lee is widely quoted explaining the seed of this opening track in a press release:
“My grandfather would always ask me, ‘Como me quieres?’ (How much do you love me?) and he’d only accept one response. ‘Con todo el mundo’ (with all the world).” It’s no surprise therefore that this song, off of Khruangbin’s life-based album ‘Con Todo El Mundo’ reflects Lee’s nostalgia of her grandfather.
- For the grief you didn’t know you needed
Love & Hate by Michael Kiwanuka (2016)
Grief isn’t always bad. And it isn’t always sad. Grief can be an angry, soulful despair that ends in a spiritual resolve. Like when you grieve the loss of something or someone you needed to lose such as your former self. Or a bad lover. A loveless home. And still be intact enough to say it with your chest like Kiwanuka sings, “I’m in the house of war.”
Known for his brutal self-reflective approach to soul music, British artist Michael Kiwanuka, born of Ugandan parents, released this track as part of his second album in 2016. The soft-spoken Kiwanuka speaks candidly in this interview about his childhood struggle with identity and self-confidence and the reawakening you discover when you choose to embrace yourself. And you hear Kiwanuka break this barrier across his album – Cold Little Heart – which carries this song.
- For grieving your city
Baltimore by Nina Simone (1978)
This grief is in the walking, the cycling, the driving or just simply the living in a city as a silent witness to its slow death. Luckily, artists like Nina Simone refused to be quiet by-standers to this injustice. In this 1978 song, Simone leaves us with a language to articulate this melancholy of seeing a city change right in front of you – and for the worst. For those witnessing the shrinking of green spaces, the senseless crime, the hungry faces and the dusty paths, Simone sings, “the people hide their faces…And they hide their eyes…’Cause the city’s dyin’…And they don’t know why.”
Interestingly, Baltimore – Simone’s fourteenth studio album – was a commercial flop. Throughout the decades, the album continues to receive mixed reviews with some music critics barely giving it two stars while others terming it one of her strongest albums. But if you know Simone, you know she’s not afraid to fail, to protest and certainly not afraid to tell the world when she’s not okay.
- When you’re done grieving and are ready to dance
Dove, by Cymande (1972)
Apart from not warning you that this song is just under 11 minutes long, Cymande weren’t clear either that this fast, polyrhythmic track was intended to evoke peace and calm. But, crate-diggers will tell you that this is how this cult-funk band rolls, so go with the flow here. Because this is the type of song that forces you to surrender to freedom. The poetic strings will remind you of your pain but the drums will jolt you out of the funk. And because this song is long, you will find yourself voluntarily drawing the curtains open and dancing to the sunshine outside. Because what is life?
Easter Egg: Cymande jams have been sampled widely including by Wu-Tang Clan. The Fugees sampled this song for their track “The Score” featuring Diamond D in their 1996 album.
PS: Now you know. I too, jam when I grieve. And it’s funny-not-funny that I’ve recommended this playlist before to someone who I thought would first enjoy its musicality, but also find a route in or out of some grief and loss I know they’ve experienced. Because what are playlists if they aren’t shared? That said, I promise to not get you watery-eyed next time, when I’ll tell you about these speakers I love 😊.