You know that band? What were they called?
The band that gave you permission;
the band that blew the bloody doors off.
Who stood you upright, against the face
of X & Y cardboard chromosomes, dressed
as show homes on streets lined with every sign
except a U-turn. The band that took you away
like a rapture cult. Yes, that’s the band.
Well, whether it was a band, or – as is the case with our poem today, a song – teenagers have been shaken and taken out of the mundanity of school life, or hanging out on street corners, by music. Often it is a ‘fuck you’ to all that has gone before.
Lucky enough to be fifteen years old in 1977 with forgiving parents, it was punk, reggae, then being from Coventry, Ska (especially the Specials), that blew the bloody bedroom door off for me; the music, the bands, the look, all felt like a revolution. The Clash song ‘1977‘ summed up the mood; ‘No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones, in 1977!!!!!’ – (Elvis in fact died that year, so it was very prescient, as the song was written before his death). It was the camaraderie which, essentially said: no-one likes us, we don’t care.
Most teenagers have that moment, when the music is for only them; it reflects their mood in the face of world issues and adults who they feel don’t understand them. It can often be the first step to independence, which you and your friends own. I see this in Theresa Lola’s wonderful celebration of Fat Joe’s Lean Back, ‘in the unofficial national anthem at school. When the students gather you recite the lyrics to Lean Back, lean your shoulder at a 45-degree angle and watch them gaze at the perfect arch, your tongue burning with no lyric left un-scraped.’ We can see the whole playground making the moves, mouthing the words, coming together. Then the poem takes us to deeper stuff, how the music makes us feel about our identity, our position in society. ‘Till now you carried the name ‘unidentified female body in the yearbook pictures’. You tried scratching out the name, shifted to the busy table at the cafeteria.’ This is what makes great music, and great art more generally; both uniting, whilst at the same time making us feel it so personally.
As we get older, needing to make money, bringing up a family, etc., can distract people away from music; they end up being nostalgic and going to a revival or reunion concert and say things like, ‘they don’t make music like that anymore’. And of course, that first experience of music will always be special, but our teenage years were not so unique, there is still great music out there, music that still has the power to blow the bloody doors off.
Now come on everybody, Lean Back!
Theresa Lola is a British Nigerian poet, events programmer, workshop facilitator and accountant. Her debut full length poetry collection ‘In Search of Equilibrium‘ described as an extraordinary, and exacting study of death and grieving was published by Nine Arches Press in February 2019. She is the joint winner of the 2018 Brunel International African Poetry Prize. In April 2018 she was invited by the Mayor of London’s Office to read a commissioned poem alongside Sadiq Khan at the unveiling of Millicent Fawcett’s statue, Theresa has also been commissioned by Tate among others. In 2018 she launched a magazine for writers called FourHubs. She is part of Octavia Women of Colour collective led by Rachel Long.
Lean Back as instructed by Fat Joe
in one of the greatest Hip Hop songs of all time. You stand
in front of the mirror, lean your right shoulder backwards at a
45-degree angle; by the time you return to the mirror your
bones have stretched into hangers draped with gold chains.
You wear arrogance like a rented wedding dress. You
accessorise it with the lyrics you memorise during lunch
breaks, with no one to tell you to quiet the noise. This is new
to you, a joy that makes you feel like you are moonwalking
on God’s eyelashes.
Hip Hop is the unofficial national anthem at school. When
the students gather you recite the lyrics to Lean Back, lean
your shoulder at a 45-degree angle and watch them gaze
at the perfect arch, your tongue burning with no lyric left
Till now you carried the name ‘unidentified female body
in the yearbook pictures’. You tried scratching out the name,
shifted to the busy table at the cafeteria; but forget subtlety –
sometimes you need a kind of confidence you can dangle on
your neck like a shark on a hook. An act of pretence, to tell
others you wear shinier ghosts, shimmy you name in their
face. What better instructor to mimic if not Hip Hop?
You watch as you name get pinned to the notice board of
tongues. Their tongues touch your name like hands reaching
for the garment of Jesus. You pose for the new yearbook
picture, chains dangling on your weak neck.
This was never you, but who wouldn’t stretch their body
into a flag to avoid being deported into their shadow?
(You can buy Theresa’s debut collection In Search of Equilibrium from Nine Arches Press here)
I heard Theresa Lola read this live at her launch at the Free Word Centre. It’s a poem that rearranges space around you, and makes time move differently, in the way that music can. An insightful, moving commentary on an essential new poet.
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Thanks Alice, that is a beautiful way to describe the poem.