Branwen Choate was a very talented, up-and-coming young artist from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, who was struggling to make a name for herself in the DC art scene. She had recently gotten some mild attention for her homoerotic series of paintings, which, by her own admission, were inspired by her relationship with Maude English, with whom she’d been living for almost a year.
The two met at Hillary Clinton’s official campaign announcement on New York City’s Roosevelt Island. Both were from out of town, both wore similar white t-shirts bearing the name, “Hillary,” and when they literally bumped into each other, Maude excused herself in sign language, to which Branwen replied likewise. Although Branwen’s fluency in sign language was only because of her older sister’s disability, not one of her own, a connection was still made.
Neither was from New York and both had ironically traveled from DC for the event, which made for a pleasant return back down 95 once the event was over.
Maude was a board member for a number of organizations for the hearing impaired, and also worked as a Democratic political consultant to help the party reach their voters who were hard-of-hearing, so she had no problem being the breadwinner in their household. The fact that she was in her 40s and Branwen was in her 20s made the appearance of this arrangement work seamlessly.
Branwen held odd jobs—dog walking, substitute teaching, waitressing—while dedicating her full-time attention to her art. However, not for lack of effort, her paintings were not receiving the love she was pouring into them. Exhibit after exhibit left her defeated. Not only did people not seem to like her work, they often would verbally express how they just didn’t get it.
One night, after another not-so-well received showing from her intimate collection, Branwen found herself alone in a music bar in Adam’s Morgan, keeping company with the only man to ever make her feel the way she wanted: Jack Daniels.
That is, until the guy sitting beside her offered her something Maude simply couldn’t: an ear.
“You wanna talk about it?” he asked.
She signaled for the bartender to fill her up again before taking Stax up on his offer to talk.
The two talked for hours, at first struggling to be heard over the lively setting, which became easier as the evening went on and the other patrons slowly called it a night and left. When the bar closed, their conversation continued in the cab, which took them back to his apartment a few blocks away.
By the time they got there… they were done talking.
The affair continued as their friendship grew. So one night after Branwen casually shared with him that she desperately wanted to broaden her artistic reach, her new friend gladly offered to help. He suggested hosting a needle-drop party for his other friend: me. And as part of the deal, I just had to agree to let her show some of her more experimental pieces. For Branwen, it was a chance to put on a unique artistic event that fused music with art, something she’d never done before. For me, it was also a unique opportunity to introduce Tk’s music to a promising new audience. And with someone else helping with the heavy lifting, like securing the venue, I could focus on more pressing issues, like getting things aligned for the eventual release of the album.
She chose a gallery that was situated in the perfect location—right in the middle of town, not far from Howard University. And it was of a modest size; only about 70 or so people could fit in there comfortably, and once you factor in the art, comfort had quickly become a second thought after capacity.
And, indeed, it was packed well before the official 8 o’clock start time. Our audience was very diverse—no particular connection in age, race, gender, or religion. They all mingled with drinks and finger foods in hand, while surveying the various sized paintings that covered the place.
Oh, yeah, I’m sure you’re wondering: What the hell is a needle-drop party? It’s basically just a glorified listening party for a recently finished (although not yet released) album. Nothing big, just something for an artist to let people close to them hear what they’ve been working on all that time.
I had invited some DJs, promoters, and other well-connected people, of which I had only spotted about half so far. There was a large noticeably Muslim crowd, who were Tk’s family and friends, and I had of course invited my friends, who were all there to support us.
I had told Derek about it weeks ago, but it had now been almost two weeks since we’d spoken. So I wasn’t expecting him to show up, but I also unconsciously kept looking at the door every time someone came in, just in case.
The people that I didn’t know were from Branwen’s list, although she made sure that I met all of them before the night was over.
I know nothing about art, only that I like to look at it. And of the 18 pieces she had hanging and standing around the place, one in particular had captured my attention. It wasn’t the largest of the collection, but something about it had drawn me in.
“Kenya, I see you haven’t taken your eyes off of this one. I’m curious to know what you see in it.”
I looked over as Branwen stood beside me with Maude, who she’d introduced me to earlier, standing with her, holding her hand.
Branwen was an incredibly adorable, short white girl with the flyest pixie haircut I’d ever seen—naturally brown with blond tips. She couldn’t possibly have been 30 yet—at least that’s what I told myself—although she mentioned having graduated from American University some years ago. Whatever the case, she and Maude didn’t look like a couple. I wouldn’t have doubted if people mistook them for mother and daughter when they went out. Although Maude was just 43, unlike Branwen who looked younger, she presented exactly her age.
Nevertheless, if I hadn’t known about Branwen and Stax’s affair, I would’ve just accepted her and Maude’s relationship as just a happy lesbian couple that worked, despite a slight age discrepancy. But I knew too much to be fooled by their beautiful smiles.
“Well…” I was caught off guard and didn’t really know what to say. “I don’t exactly have an eye for art—”
“This type of art is not much different from music,” she said. “If you let it, it’ll say something to you just the same way.”
I looked at the painting again—a nude woman, bloody, scared, dirty and filled with tattoos of negative words on her left side; on her right side, flawless and beautiful skin that appeared to be illuminated by rays from the sun.
I didn’t know where to begin. “Well. On the left, she appears rather androgynous. Maybe it represents… I don’t know, a struggle with womanhood, femininity… maybe even love. Maybe self love.”
I stared at the painting some more.
“And the right side… is the truth.”
I looked at Branwen to see if I was right. She was just standing there, smiling and nodding, looking at the painting herself.
“Wow,” was all she could say.
“Is that right?” I asked.
“I don’t think there is a such a thing as ‘wrong’ when it comes to interpreting art. You see… what you see.”
I looked back at the painting, and I began to recognize the feeling that I was having as one of familiarity.
“With this piece, my goal was to interpret the theme that Taj Kamal explored with this album. He is a man of faith. He believes that our existence has—how should I say?” she asked rhetorically, thinking. “A divine meaning.”
“I take it you don’t,” I concluded with intrigue.
She shrugged. “What I think is irrelevant. Tk’s album infers that each of us are connected or acquainted because of some valuable exchange that needs to occur in order to become who and what we were meant to be.”
Stax appeared a few feet away, just in Branwen’s and my line of sight, which caused Branwen to stop and stare at him for just a moment, breaking her concentration.
Refocusing, she continued: “This painting personifies the battle between who she is… and what she’s allowing life to make her.”
And in that moment, I thought to myself: what have I been allowing life to make me?
Right then, Tk, who was standing toward the front got my attention and silently asked if it was okay to start. I nodded back at him, yes, as Ty and J came and stood right beside me.
The music that was serving as background noise immediately cut off and the room instantly got quiet. Tk and London, his guitarist, a thin white guy in his early 20s, stood looking out at the crowd, who all stood looking back at them.
He took the mic off the stand and began: “As salamu alaykum.”
And about half the audience responded, “Wa alaykumu as-salam.”
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Kamal Taj Abdul Rahman. You know me by the name, Taj Kamal.”
Unprompted, the crowd began to clap and cheer for him.
“I want to thank you all for coming out. Welcome to the needle drop party for my new album entitled, The Awakening.”
The door opening in that moment of quiet quickly drew my attention to it. Yes, I thought it might be him. I was hoping that it would be.
“The artwork you see around was done by my host, Ms. Branwen Choate. Please support her. She helped make this happen.”
And everybody turned their attention to Branwen and likewise gave her a round of applause.
“This is my third album. Insha’Allah, it’ll reach a greater audience than my other projects. For those of you that don’t speak Arabic, ‘Insha’Allah’ means ‘if God wills it,’ you know’m sayin. It’ll be out in April.”
Tk took a seat on a stool and cued his guitarist to begin. As the guitar played, he began to talk over it. “But tonight, along with my boy London here on guitar with this acoustic, unplugged style performance, I’m gonna let ya’ll in on The Awakening, and what it took to create it. Hope you enjoy…”
As the guitar started, something drew my eyes back to the painting, which was just a few feet to my left. I stared at it again for just a moment before I turned my attention back to Tk right as he began rhyming—a song called, “The Fear of Faith…”
+ + +
+ + +
5 Years ago…
Tk and I were in my basement. It wasn’t an office then. In fact, it didn’t look anything like it looked now. It was just a run of the mill basement back then.
He was waiting to hear what I’d thought about his project. It would eventually be his first album. He’d recorded it himself with a computer and a mic, and he’d even made all the beats himself. It had taken him over a year, but he had finally finished a draft that he felt was good enough to let someone else hear. I was the first “someone” he sent it to.
So he sat down across the room, waiting to hear the verdict.
“I like it. A lot, actually.”
I watched as his face lit up.
I went on: “It’s a good, solid first album. Put a little money into it, make it look good, make it sound professional, do it right, and I really think you could make some noise with this. What’s your plan for it?” I asked.
“That’s what I want to do—put it out,” he said.
I nodded. “That’s the way to go, man. Independent—”
“And…” he continued, “I was hoping maybe… you could help me.”
“Of course,” I said, quickly. “I know some people who would do a few favors if I put in a good word. And, it goes without saying, I would’ve played it for you on the radio if, you know… I was still there. But I’ll point you in the right direction if you want—”
“Thanks,” he said. “But. I meant… you.”
I didn’t understand, and the look on my face said that.
“You just said I could do this independently. So. Let’s do it.”
I still didn’t get it.
So, he exhaled, realizing that he would need to explain it to me further.
“You wrote a business plan. It’s been sitting on your computer for two years. Two years and it’s just been sitting there.”
Now I exhaled, realizing what he was talking about.
“Yeah, I want to do that, but when the time is right—”
“Yo, you just got fired from your job at the radio station. What else are you doing?!”
I was quiet. That was still a sore spot, as I just gotten fired two weeks ago. I could tell that Tk regretted saying this, but it was already out there.
“That’s exactly why it’s not the right time,” I said.
“I’m just sayin’: I know mad people who say they want to have a label, but none of them actually take the time to write a business plan. None of them have the vision you do…”
“Yeah, but… in that plan, I say, I need people like to handle the day to day functions: marketing, sales, promotion, PR, A&R, distribution, accounting, contracts (a legal department), product development… Come on,” I said, hoping he saw how farfetched this idea was. “I need money. Money—lots of money to pay all these people and to record music. I need songwriters, producers, engineers to record the artists. I need artists!”
“You got a artist!”
“Yeah, but… I don’t have anything I need to help him succeed.”
Tk sighed and sat back in the chair as if he had given up on trying to make his point. But then he said, “Well… after I got rid of all my ‘yeah, buts’… I was able to record an album. Maybe when you get rid of yours, you can start a record company.”
That one actually really hurt. I dropped my head as I took the blow. He was saying, without saying, that I didn’t have any courage, that I didn’t have faith in myself. That type of accusation was new to me. I was always known as ambitious, as a risk taker. Never a quitter or one who didn’t try. Yeah, sure, I had dropped out of school, but that wasn’t giving up, it was moving on. There’s a difference.
But in that moment, I was guilty. I was not being courageous. I was not being ambitious. I was being a coward.
That day, we talked about taking risks. Tk told me that faith and fear could not coexist, and that I needed to decide which one I was going to let control my life.
I chose faith.
* * *
The next song had a brighter, more upbeat feeling than the first. He even stood up from the stool and moved his hands back and forth, prompting the audience to clap to the rhythm to make a beat to go along with the guitar before he started.
I looked over at Ty and saw her focusing on something off to the right, so I followed her gaze to where Soloman was entering, accompanied by a beautiful young woman of Middle Eastern descent.
“Ain’t that Soloman?” J whispered.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah. I should go say hi.”
“Wait,” Ty said, catching me by the arm before I could get away. “Has he been working out?”
I rolled my eyes while holding in my laughter. She had just seen him less than a month ago. Even if he had been working out, it was doubtful that she’d notice anything different in that amount of time.
“I don’t know,” I told her.
“Hm. Looks like he’s been working out.”
J shook her head and said, “The best looking man in the world is always the one you used to date… on the arm of another woman.”
Ty ignored her and continued watching him.
Before I stepped away, I said, “Want me to let him know you’re over here?” Only joking.
I looked at J as we both smiled. Ty continued to ignore us. But as I began toward Soloman, I heard Ty say, “Yeah, he’s been working out.”
And J replied, “Whatever helps you sleep at night. Or do whatever else you’re going to do while thinking about him.”
“Shut up,” Ty responded, smiling. Or perhaps blushing…
+ + +
+ + +
4 years ago, give or take…
It was an unseasonably cool summer afternoon. Ty and I were sitting on the patio at Acre 121, finishing a late lunch for no other reason than just enjoying each other’s company.
“It takes a year to 18 months longer to complete the Ph.D than it does the Psy.D,” she said, as the waiter sat the bill book on the table between us.
“I got it,” she said, fishing her wallet from her purse. She pulled out a silver colored Amex and slipped it into the book without really checking to see what the damage would be.
“Thanks,” I said, with a hint of insecurity about being treated to lunch. “So, what are you gonna do?”
“I’m going to continue on my Ph.D path. Two more years of grad school first, but hey, who’s counting?”
“You know, you’re the daughter of my mother’s dreams,” I told her.
She snickered and blushed, accepting the bland statement as a compliment.
“No, really,” I went on to explain. “You have the serious boyfriend, you graduated college—two colleges, actually—you’re about to be a doctor… Exactly what she wants out of a daughter.” And then I thought more about my mother and added, “But I’m sure she’d still find something about you to complain about.”
Ty smiled. “That’s what mothers do. How is she anyway?”
I shrugged, hating the fact that I had brought this question on myself by bringing my mother up, because now I had to answer it, which required me to think more about her. “Fine. In Philly with her boyfriend right now. I don’t know—seem to be more concerned about whether I’m dating than she is about my general health. I made the mistake of telling her that I’m not exactly sitting around dreaming about being a wife…”
While laughing, Ty hands the bill book to the waiter just as he approached.
“My dreams are just a bit more… productive in their nature,” I added.
“What? You can’t have both dreams?” she asked.
“The thing is: I can’t do anything about whether the right guy comes along. But it’s completely up to me whether I become a successful CEO.”
Ty grimaced and asked, “Is it?”
That simple question forced me to think more about the statement I’d just made. It was Ty’s way of challenging me to think about my so-called certainty. But that’s what she always did—force me to think about why I thought certain thoughts, even in times when she didn’t necessarily disagree. Maybe it was the innate psychologist in her, and she couldn’t help herself, even when she wasn’t in a work setting.
Now I needed to explain.
“Well, you know, I work hard. I hardly go out. I don’t date really. I don’t do anything but try to make sure this business is positioned not to fail—”
“And yet, do you have any idea how close you are to reaching your goal of, what: being a successful CEO? Could you actually tell me whether you’re any closer to that goal than you are to, say, meeting the right guy?”
I picked up the glass of water in front of me and took a sip, buying time to think about how to answer that.
But she went on. “There’s a Proverb—16:9, I believe. It goes, ‘We may plan our own course, but God directs our steps.’ That means: you can do just as much about becoming a CEO as you can about the right guy coming along. You can do everything in your power to prepare yourself for it. But how and when it happens… really has little to do with you or some plans you might conjure up.”
“I would like to think that these sacrifices I make will mean something,” I said.
“I’m not discounting hard work, dedication, focus… I am, however, suggesting you leave room for life to happen,” she said. “Because it will happen whether you’re prepared for it or… somewhere trying to plan it.”
Right then, the waiter slid the book back onto the table in front her. She opened it and proceeded to sign a copy of the receipt.
“So how is that plan coming along?” she asked, while taking the customer copy of the receipt for herself.
I smiled, only half sincerely, and responded, “Great. Everything is… copacetic.”
She found that answer to be suspiciously funny, smiled and repeated the word, “Copacetic,” as if she didn’t believe me. “And if it wasn’t copacetic… would you actually tell me?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
She wasn’t buying anything I was selling, and the look she gave told me this without her having to say a word.
But then she did. “You know, I don’t need a Ph.D to be able to tell when something is sucking the life out of my friend.”
The smile slowly slid off of my face. I sipped some more of that water to give me a few seconds before I asked, “What do you want me to say?”
“I just want you to talk to me. I want you to step out of this CEO armor and talk to me like I’m your friend. And like you’re a girl. Not some damn… robot boss.”
I took a deep breath and relaxed a bit, thinking about how I had really been doing since I’d decided to go with the whole “faith” thing and finally start my own company.
“I am doing everything. Everything except for making the music myself, and it feels like I’m not doing anything right,” I admitted. “It has been a year, and I’ve spent money I don’t have and time I can’t afford to lose in order to try and make this thing work.”
I avoided eye contact and just stared at the table between us. The stuff I was saying to her was things I hadn’t said to anybody—things I hadn’t even said out loud. I didn’t like that I was saying it, but it needed to be said. I needed to get it out.
“I’m exhausted. I’m frustrated. I feel like I’m going to fail, so I feel like quitting sometime before that happens, but I can’t because now I got somebody counting on me to be in this with him. But… I’m hanging in there.”
I stopped talking in order to concentrate on holding in my tears.
“Is there… anything I can do to help?” Her voice was soft, concerned.
Again, in order to avoid letting tears fall, I smiled and said, “Ty… you already help. You’ve never miss one of our shows. You buy all of Tk’s CDs. You even buy the downloads. And you buy the t-shirts that you never wear. And you don’t even like Hip Hop! I appreciate that. That’s all the help I need.”
I finally looked up at her now that I had avoided crying. I was smiling.
But she was wearing a serious look when she said very discreetly, “I mean… financially?”
We held eye contact for what seemed like minutes.
“I’m saying, if you did need help—financially—would you tell me?” she asked.
“No,” I responded.
And perhaps, this wasn’t the response she was expecting, or even the one she wanted. But before she could ask why, I said, “And, if you did offer to help me financially… I would respectfully decline your offer, because—and I know this may sound prideful, maybe even a little stupid—I need to see if this ‘hard work’ thing has any truth to it. Besides… being indebted to someone, especially a friend, would only add to the pressure I already put on myself to succeed—”
“There would be no debt,” she cut in, assuredly. “Because it wouldn’t be a loan.”
She reached down and pulled her attaché from the ground beside her, quickly retrieving a black leather case that matched her wallet, only it was longer. She pulled out a small envelope, placed it onto the table, and slid it toward me.
I stared at it. It was like I already knew what was inside, but didn’t want to accept it, because it would start—or rather, continue—a conversation that I simply did not want to have.
At that time, Ty and I had been friends for exactly half my life. I knew a lot about her, but mostly only because of what I had pieced together or from what she voluntarily told me in instances that would better clarify certain situations. I never made inquisitions for the sake of not wanting to come across as intrusive (although she knew me well enough to know that wouldn’t be the case). To this day, I still don’t know what, exactly, it is that her father does, other than that it requires frequent travel—not counting their international family vacations every year—and the use of the five languages in which he was fluent. And I knew only bits and pieces about her mother, who had passed away when she was 20, and the maternal side of her family, which apparently had held leadership positions in Nigeria, likely over generations. I probably could’ve Googled this if I really wanted to, but chose to respect this boundary. If she wanted me to know it that badly, I figure she would’ve told me.
Whenever I visited her after we became friends as teenagers, there were always people at her house. Not family, but people, like the guy that drove us everywhere, the women that kept the place neat and tidy, the guy who cooked, and a number of other people who silently would come and go. They were always very nice to me, and I never really thought about who they were or why they were there until much later.
My friend lived a very different life from mine and I always knew it, but she did her best to “fit in,” to be “normal.” She couldn’t help who her family was and the life they’d provided for her. As far as she was concerned, it was irrelevant. She was, at the time, just a med school student and nothing more.
But a med student with no debt, a platinum Amex, and a bank account that automatically replenished itself every month despite the account holder not having a job is not normal—at least not in my world.
So even though we had never talked about money—ever—in the 12 years that I’d known her at this point, I stared at that envelope on the table that she had pushed toward me, knowing that we were about to cross that boundary. And then she said, “It’s yours. There’s no date on it. Use it whenever, however. Or…. don’t use it,” she said with a slight shrug. “But it’s yours. And whatever you decide… we never have to speak of this again.”
I took a very deep breath, still looking at the envelope. Finally, perhaps out of respect, I took it. And without opening it, I put it into my bag. My pride wouldn’t allow me to do anything with it other than frame it. It was a reminder of the type friend I had, and the faith she had in me.
Major changes took place for my little record company that day. I changed the name to 16:9 Recordings, after the Proverb.
* * *
As I pardoned my way through the room toward Soloman, I was stopped by Lucas, who I hadn’t even seen come in.
“Hey. This is pretty cool,” he said. “Can we do a needle drop for my album too?”
Before I could even respond, he cut in.
“Oh! Guess what,” he exclaimed. “I came up with a name for my album.”
I waited for him to tell me tell me.
“Lyrics About Alma.”
Unimpressed, I concluded, “Like Songs About Jane.”
And he just smiled.
“We can do better,” I told him, and started to walk away again, but again, he stopped me.
“Hey, you never answered me. Can you do a needle drop for me too?”
“Yes, Luc. Absolutely.”
And a big smile crept onto his face.
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