As a kid, I spent hours listening to CDs and the radio — sitting in front of a green and black stereo while I finished my homework. I lost myself in the sounds of Whitney Houston and Tiffany Evans, which allowed me to float away from reality for a few moments of sonic release.
Now, music is always my lifeline, whether it’s hitting the record stores, spending hours searching for musical gems in all genres, or diving into a new discography.
This has been true as I have weathered unprecedented crises – the pandemic, an onslaught of anti-LGBTQ legislation, racial injustice, and turmoil in my personal life. Looking back, my journey over the past two years has repeatedly revealed one thing: music is what I’ve clung to for joy.
In 2020, the pandemic hit the United States a few months after my 24th birthday. I had made some serious New Year’s resolutions to grow in my profession as a media professional, but things took a turn when the world shut down.
At the time, I was completing the first year of my master’s program at USC Annenberg. Classes were held remotely and I was thousands of miles away from my loved ones in Texas. I lay awake at night listening to music, hoping to get by without crashing. And, eventually, I got the chance to keep doing what I loved: I joined Spotify as a remote intern that summer and started turning my audio passion into a career.
That same year, many great albums were released – “Positions” by Ariana Grande, “Limbo” by Aminé, “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t” by Kehlani – which guided me through this strange and unexpected in my adult life.
And through this music that I consumed almost every second of the day, I learned more about myself – which brought me joy, peace and a sense of security. Over the next two years, it gave me the ability to meditate, explore, and understand that I am non-binary.
I had been gay since I was 17, but something still felt incomplete. Growing up, I always gravitated towards femininity while always feeling the masculine energy, and music was one avenue where that showed up: I always liked artists who were both soft and rough around the edges, who didn’t didn’t quite fit into specific boxes – Janet Jackson, Queen Latifah, Fefe Dobson, Janelle Monaé and Teyana Taylor. They naturally pushed the boundaries of what music could be and how life could be perceived.
These artists taught me a lesson: which a listener may not immediately understand, but that doesn’t make the music any less valuable. It’s the same thing I realized about gender and my interpretation of being non-binary. I was just creating the soundtrack of my life in the most authentic way I know.
Over the past two years, I’ve seen that reflected in new music – in that shift in ideology, in particular, I owe a lot to the musical duo Chloe x Halle. I had been a fan of their vocal range and unique contemporary approach to music for years. But on June 12, 2020, they released their second album “Ungodly Hour,” a 13-track set that beautifully showcased their style and depicted becoming adults in their twenties. The project was edgy, brutally honest, but vulnerable and sweet like me.
The album’s intro had only one line that stuck with me: “Never ask permission, ask for forgiveness.” Yes, I realized that I didn’t need permission to fully be myself openly. And the forgiveness I felt was for myself for the death of the person I had been – the facade I used to be out of a sense of duty.
Other tracks like “Do It”, “Catch Up” ft. Swae Lee and “ROYL” sparked a newfound confidence in me to be my unabashed self, while “Overwhelmed” and “Lonely” perfectly portrayed my anxiety and overwhelming isolation I felt through that first year of the pandemic. The first verse of “Lonely” resonated the most.
Who are you when no one’s watching?
You close the door to your apartment
Are you afraid of silence?
Are you afraid of what you will find there?
I was scared – scared of what the reception of my true identity would be like as I slowly drifted away from the binary. For the first time, I felt alone in this fear. But the time to figure myself out while the rest of the world was on hiatus was necessary to become who I am today.
In 2021, the music continued to guide me like a flame into the darkness – this time to escape the continued grief caused by the constant police brutality that targeted the black community, while anti-LGBTQ legislation continued to rear its sectarian head.
Because these intersections of my identity were under attack, everywhere I turned I felt insecure. But music allowed me to be a world apart. This time, I turned to pop/punk rock via “Sour” by Olivia Rodrigo to deal with the anxiety I felt on a daily basis.
To be black and queer is to have several targets on your back. I’m not someone who gets angry or even shows it when I am; I need a breaking point to react. But I was choking as my anger at the world’s ignorance only grew. When “Sour” came out, I sang every lyric loudly in my apartment, stomping and playing air guitar and sometimes screaming into a pillow.
Later that year, “Montero” by Lil Nas X popped up, becoming my music diary that perfectly captured my experience as a Black queer Southerner.
Towards the end of 2021, I fell into a deep depression after quitting a job as a journalist and generally felt uncertain about my future. In some ways, I felt like my life had run its course, and a part of me was easily accepting that. But Adele’s “30” saved me. I cried. I spent hours crying and letting go of the deep, jaded sadness that consumed me listening to this album over and over.
At the end of October 2021, as the air cleared of depression, I had a realization: music has not only been my lifeline since childhood, it is also powerful enough to spark change. at the others. So I started thinking about how music and my passion for journalism could provide some form of service to fight the constant erasure of gay people. I submitted my very first music column, Playlist Q, to Xtra magazine. The queer people platform has become cathartic for me, my little form of protest against our erasure.
These days, Playlist Q is still going strong. In February, I came out as non-binary, finding myself through more gender-affirming clothing and speaking up for myself and other queer people in public forums. I came out on the other side of this journey, while being guided by the music.
And I know that as I enter this next chapter, music will continue to be my sonic haven of hope that recharges my exhausted spirit crushed by the world – my joy, my peace, my serenity.
Daric L. Cottingham is a culture and entertainment journalist.