i thought of you in technicolour: bright eyes,
slow dance, all neon. took a stroll on the riverbank
& prayed for release like i used to. rust took its
time to settle but the old can be scraped off, just like
that. found a stone bench & paused to let midnight
rattle my bones—to let the cold silence inject some grit
into these soft muscles. blamed myself for not picking up the phone,
realised i never wanted to anyway. followed the streetlights home:
traced every crack in the pavements, thought about my mom
for the first time in months. i guess hurt shows up
wherever it wants to. still, this misery holds steadfast.
listened as the dark grew around & the neon flickered
just the slightest—recovery leaves a bitter taste
so i let the ache wash it down, just like that.
four observations during 拜年
I. My grandfather watches from his living room altar every Chinese New Year, our family gathering in an abundance of flashing red and greetings galore. The framed image of his surly, unyielding expression towers over us as we shuffle into the house he and my grandmother used to live in. A miniature porcelain pot sits before him, joss sticks freshly lighted. It beckons me forward; the scent of incense floods my face as I approach the raised altar. Acrid smoke seeps deep into my eyes, a sting that ignites my senses in a menacing warning. As my vision clears, my grandfather’s portrait glowers back at me, suspecting me of what I already know to be true: I wish I were anywhere but here.
II. My grandfather scrutinises my father standing alone in his studio apartment, donned in his regular New Year clothes and counting the stack of ang baos he has to hand out this year. He files money into the red packets mechanically and paws around for a long-forgotten wedding band, still determined to keep up the pretence. My grandfather sits upon his dais, looks down on my father—his sixth child, his first son—and wonders how he has been reduced to a suitcase splayed on a cracked floor, how he can trace the outline of this hollowness and not recognise it as grief. But how could he? We’ve always kept the pain subdued, always fanned the flames of our cold war.
III. My grandfather witnesses my brother find his place among our cousins, while I try to find space in the back for my introversion. It’s a painful sight to see: the only granddaughter without a New Year dress on, year after year as uncompromising as ever. My grandmother accepts the mandarin oranges we present to her, receives the customary greetings that taste foreign in my brother’s mouth. The language does not come easy anymore—floodgates of shame and self-hatred shut out a then raging river of fluid pinyin; now only droplets of our mother tongue leak through. Among relatives, gossip of our deficiencies spreads like wildfire and disappointment reverberates around the house—the blaze within only rises.
IV. My grandfather considers these open defiances of legacy, of tradition, and scowls down at us from his portrait. He first came to us disguised as superstitions, as memories tucked within all the untold stories. Since then, we’ve stopped salvaging what we could from the inferno, letting the fiery flames consume the last of our remnants. All of it meant something once, I’m sure. I stand before my grandfather’s portrait and breathe in the uneasy history; the falling embers latch onto our present, ravage our future—offerings for a lineage gone cold. Our suffocation has always been inevitable. Soon, this house will be all that remains.
- 拜年 (bài nián): visiting during CNY, a tradition where relatives visit each other to celebrate
- ang bao: red packets of money that are usually given by married people during CNY.
- pinyin: the romanisation of the Chinese language
- four is an unlucky number in Chinese culture, it sounds like ‘death’ in mandarin. this piece centres on that, exploring both physical and metaphorical deaths.
something about the way you move through life
has never sat right with me. call it for what it is:
fluid motions / fitting into all the right corners.
bruised-backed stepping stones / you always needed more.
cast me to the night sky, banish your humble pluto,
shuffle constellations all you want - morality will sneak up on you.
someone is always watching. and i’m not saying that someone is me,
or that life, with its own two eyes, is glued to your every move.
i’m hoping you feel it in your soul / an unconscionable spark haunts for life.
hope you feel this wrongness in your bones / our scars have been demanding to heal.
follow your trail of devastation and correct your way back. maybe you’ll find me waiting,
maybe i won’t be. but you’ve got a chance to reverse fate - don’t let it slip away.
no one shines brighter so #hbdsunny!
teach me how to radiate kindness the way you do,
beaming rays embracing the old and the new
and some parts of me can’t fathom what it’s like
to shine so bright, to lift up high
all us seedlings in this blooming garden.
here’s to never keeping all that potential hidden,
to knowing every night will eventually bow to you
centre stage and the whole world’s your crew
one step into the daylight and i’ll know you’re near
golden glow seeps in to envelop the darkest of years.
keep your gaze up and look. in my time we’d call them
fools for flying too close, but now your wings are sunlit gold
and fortune favours the bold—there is nowhere to go
abandoning long-held ideals of peace
because i’d hoped it would be as simple
as waking up one morning with both feet steady on the ground
sunlight leaking in, spilling clarity into every corner of our canvases
birds chirping in a rehearsed symphony, the breeze delivering its soliloquy
i epiphanize on balconies with my lover and we breathe in the saccharine summer
but in keeping things bottled up i’ve learned that
there is an art in orchestrating peace amongst chaos —
there may be no overarching theme to life but cyclical givings and takings
a crescendoing gain, a cacophonous loss
and as mad as it sounds, serenity can co-exist with agony.
when i absorb news cycles, i do it with misplaced pride —
i let the horrors bore into my eyes, the static enmesh in my mind
and in this hollow home, compartmentalizing quickly becomes second nature
drawers bursting with secrets, shelve any sign of weakness
with practice, staccato sounds eventually fade into the background.
so 18 is when i wait for serenity to arrive and this time it looks a little different
it looks like work leave, graduating poly, conversations over coffee,
smaller moments where i let the peace seep in
and it’s a lot more terrifying, reaching out for a more modest dream
of knowing serenity can simply sound like every resilient respite, sinking in.
- poly is short for polytechnic, a type of tertiary education that focuses on preparing students for the workforce in specialised fields, i.e. where i’m at. one final semester to go before i graduate next April :)
a split sense of self
sometimes i stay in the darkest corners of the room,
between the sliver of space where my two shadows meet.
here, they blend into a singularity, a fusion of my competing
superlatives. this is where the light does not reach me,
where it cannot expose me for my incongruences. in this
i am but two sides of the same coin — you flip me to find
my tail ambiguous in value, my head as blank as cold static.
but conforming is what i do best, and i contort my body to fit
into the littlest corners, fleeing to my refuge with abandoned
rays nipping at my heels. luminous laughter trails to my ears,
taunting me relentlessly as i play this inane game of coin flip
over and over, each time desperate for a different outcome.
my shadows place their bets as to when i’ll brave the light but
odds are, this seclusion will claim me before the coin lands.
September 7th, 2018 // on the topics of music, death, substance abuse, & legacy (TW)
Waking up to the news of your favourite artist’s death is never something you’d expect, but it’s how I spent the first few hours of that fateful morning, mourning the death of a man I never truly knew.
Due to timezones and delayed news reporting, I learned of Mac Miller’s accidental overdose at the crack of dawn on the 8th. I was from the other side of the planet, from a world that had progressed to the next day. It was a timely reminder that the earth keeps spinning, no matter what. That a single world-shattering event can leave such a profound impact on people all over the planet, but has little effect in the way life has to go on. And this, arriving on the heels of my 17th birthday, was a grim realisation I don’t think I was prepared for. I spent the day in a haze, on a school trip that went by numbingly slow in my eagerness to head home and let the news wreck me.
Mac Miller, born Malcolm James McCormick, was a different kind of rap artist in the well-established world of hip-hop. There were the obvious differences: he was white, Jewish, and started his career embodying the stereotype of “frat rap”—white suburban dudebros who rap about drinking and partying, all without the lens of struggling or the POC experience that were deeply entrenched in hip-hop. Needless to say, I’ve never taken to much of his earlier work. Starting from cheesy pop-rap, his transition into a darker and more mature artist was an astounding feat to accomplish in just a few years. He dabbled in experimental rap and jazz, releasing those projects under alter egos to allow more breathing room for change. Battling issues with depression and addiction, he never shied away from incorporating every aspect of them into his music, letting his worst demons guide his art and its trajectory.
Mac switched up his style and cadence often, with a lengthy career that spawned funk, R&B, neo-soul, and even singer-songwriter, all at the core of the rapper he was. I honestly cannot pick my favourite project from his discography—every single one has something unique to offer and speaks to different parts of my soul. And isn’t that the hallmark of a great artist? Not one with the catchiest music or the most profound lyrics, but one who never stops trying to grow and manages to spark some undeniable feeling in us.
He delivers his best and worst to listeners, which escalated with his car crash and DUI arrest just months before his death. He resented the increasing pressure from the media, lamenting: “I run around with open scissors, they takin’ pictures/I could lose my head it grow instead, gets only bigger,” from “Buttons”. He went dark on social media for months but returned a seemingly renewed person in July 2018 for the release of Swimming. He passed two months later, falling victim to fentanyl-laced drugs.
Music & Mortality
Mac always knew his death was coming, in a sense. His critically-acclaimed 2014 mixtape, Faces, was built around that vision. The opening line, “I should’ve died already,” still haunts me whenever I revisit it. He’s prophesized the circumstances of his death on numerous other occasions: “To everyone who sell me drugs: Don’t mix it with that bullshit, I’m hopin’ not to join the 27 Club” from “Brand Name”; “It won’t be long until they watchin’ me crash/And they don’t wanna see that/They don’t want me to OD and have to talk to my mother” from “Perfect Circle/God Speed”. It made watching his meteoric rise and tragic end even more difficult, knowing that he was very aware of how far his issues could take him—to the point of no return—but still being unable to stop.
Being relatively young myself, this was my first insight into substance abuse and addiction. The pain and honesty in his music bridged that gap between my adolescent brain and the scary state of adulthood, signalling just how fast life can all go sideways. Much of his music is crude and centres around substance abuse, but it never felt suggestive or encouraging of people to follow this wildness—it was a warning, a de-glamorisation of fame and drugs as he admits defeat to this addictive lifestyle: “All my life I’ve been afraid of powder, all my life I’ve been afraid of power/Where did all that go?” from “New Faces v2”; “You never told me being rich was so lonely/Nobody know me, oh well/Hard to complain from this five-star hotel” from “Small Worlds”. In the end, he never did make it to the 27 Club—he died at the age of 26.
A Quieter Kind of Vulnerability
It’s an indescribable feeling to hear Mac’s voice again after his death. With the announcement of the album Circles in 2020, fans were reasonably worried that it would be just another posthumous cash grab, like recent releases for several deceased hip-hop artists. But all it took was one listen to quell those fears. Watching prominent music critic Anthony Fantano break down over Mac’s heartwrenching first posthumous single “Good News” marked the beginning of a journey of vulnerability Circles offers like no other past project of his.
The album opens frankly: “Well, this is what it look like, right before you fall.” Another sombre prophecy comes true as he sings this listlessly in the final album he completed before his “fall”. This melancholy persists throughout the album, giving listeners a subtler, quieter take on the chaos in his mind as compared to his previous work: “Good news good news good news, that’s all they wanna hear/No, they don’t like it when I’m down” from “Good News”; “Half the time the wheels that’s in the back of my mind/Just keep on turning ’til the tire’s flat and burn until the fire crack” from “Hand Me Downs”; “Don’t ask me what I think/It never really mattered what I had to say” from “Once A Day”. His lyricism shines through when accompanied by the toned-down instrumentals, as he deviates further away from rap and travels into indie/singer-songwriter territory.
A Musical Legacy
Circles sparked this devastation in me that I hadn’t known I felt about Mac’s death. I had been heartbroken over his death, but never thought to call it grief—grief, in my opinion, was reserved for someone you actually knew. But no one can deny the mark he left on the world, shown by the 970% spike in streams of his music in just days after his sudden death. “Good News” became his highest-charting single ever, as the devastation of the posthumous track and album hit fans and casual listeners hard. In this, grief exists wherever there is a connection, wherever a bond was formed. Music granted us that privilege without ever having to personally know him—a talent that transformed the industry and left a lasting impression in the form of a legacy. Mac’s drive was stoked by this responsibility of a legacy and the knowledge that it could all disappear: “No matter what one day everyone dies/You think you a God ’til you run of time/When you’re gone, what will you leave behind?” from “Soulmate”; “Things like this ain’t built to last/I might just fade like those before me” from “Woods”. This pressure was admittedly the trigger for his addiction issues and loneliness: “Spent all my cash on a broken dream/Went from weed and liquor to the coke and lean” from “Polo Jeans”.
On the Cycle of Substance Abuse & Mental Health
And so, with this, we’ve come full circle—his struggles with addiction and mental health fuelled the growth of his music, which led to fame, power, and hardships, which only led right back to his issues as the cycle goes on (“My God, it go on and on/Just like a circle I go back where I’m from” from “So It Goes”) and he is unable to cope any other way (“I cannot be changed, I cannot be changed, no/Trust me, I’ve tried/I just end up right at the start of the line/Drawin’ circles” from “Circles”). Stuck in this cyclical struggle, it’s easy to see how it tripped him up when one moment of recklessness is all it takes for addiction to claim you. Of course, I can’t speak for this as I have no hand in addiction or depression, but Circles has been a great resource in gaining the privilege of sympathy for those who do. With addiction and mental health, there’s an illusion of choice—you could choose not to take drugs; you could just try to be happy. In truth, there’s always a whole network of variables at play, a circle of factors to consider, that makes it disrespectful to attribute a complex issue to solely an individual’s judgement.
If Circles has taught us anything, it’s that legacy comes from anywhere—what you leave behind is just as important as what you take from this world. With death striking at any time, your legacy could be your last actions, your last conversations; it could take the form of the last piece of art you ever created. Growth and self-awareness are immensely powerful in navigating our place amidst all of this existential contemplating. What kind of change do you seek in this world? Does that include yourself? (“When’s the last time you took a little time for yourself?” from “Hands”) Even if it doesn’t change the world, what we put out into it should be in service of caring for ourselves, of the privilege of growing. How are we going to change the world if we don’t look after ourselves first? (“You could have the world in the palm of your hands/You still might drop it” from “So It Goes”).
I still listen to Circles occasionally, to revisit Mac in his then state of mind. With every listen I treasure it more, needing lines like “I know we try/Days, they go by/Until we get old/There’s water in the flowers, let’s grow” from “Surf” to keep me going in turbulent times. Whether he intended for it to be or not, Circles is the best send-off Mac could have given to the world, as he equips us with all we need to keep growing, as we say our reluctant goodbyes.
And to Mac, there’s a whole lot more for you waitin’ on the other side. I hope you’ve found peace there.
- fentanyl is a powerful narcotic that is often illegally cut into other drugs, making fentanyl the most common opioid overdose in the US in 2018. people who take these drugs have no clue they’re also taking fentanyl, which has escalated the current opioid crisis in the US. Hasan Minhaj has a great episode on fentanyl in his show Patriot Act if you’re interested.
- “the 27 club” is a list of legendary musicians who have all died at the age of 27. includes Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin, among others.
- lyrics from Genius
holding on / letting go
uncertainty pricks at me,
seeking for something to consume,
some shred of confidence it can feed on.
i let it wash over me,
let the sorrow hollow my bones out in this
hypnosis of the heart.
pastel skies swirl before my eyes,
worlds dissolving as i know it,
so i search for some belief to hold onto.
hope flickers like a lightbulb, kept alive by conviction
and no one makes me believe like she does.
do i deserve her? god, no.
she’s a protector; some sentinel seraph of my soul
while hell is a sanctuary i’d be lucky to get to know.
she’s my anchor, holding me steady and strong
but she hangs on by a thread, stripped bare,
grounding me at her rock bottom.
is this why it’s so hard to let her go?
if ignorance is bliss, then knowing is the realisation that
there are no winners here in the inevitable aftermath —
neither of us will walk away unharmed,
and no one will hurt us like we do.
the invisible needle and strings slowly suture
the wounds where my wings used to be.
where there once was a heavenly power,
now these jagged threads are fused to me.
they planted metal rods in place of my bones,
strung me up like a puppet on death row.
i cry tears of blood and shed my gold,
but all they do is cheer on the freak show.
reduced to a mockery while humanity watches,
my dangling limbs rise and fall every night.
let them think they can chain my soul -
they haven’t seen my freedom put up a fight.
they take my suffering at their hands for art
but i won’t be forced to serve on my knees.
i control the colours of my masterpiece,
and only i can paint my truth so effortlessly.
so let me paint them a prettier picture:
streets that run red when the curtains disappear,
humanity snuffed out into pitch-black darkness -
my final act as the puppet becomes the puppeteer.