I’ve seen Minneapolis-based rapper Brother Ali in concert several times, and he strikes me as someone who’s as kind as he is talented. When I told him at a Chicago show that I had previously chatted with him in Orlando, he tried to remember me. He told me that he doesn’t recall faces due to albinism-related vision issues, but he recognizes people through reminders of previous conversations. He rapped about his experiences in “Us”: And I go with the feeling from the start/Blind in the eye, so I see you with my heart/And to me all y’all look exactly the same/Fear, faith, compassion and pain.
All of this is to say that I’m a Brother Ali fan and my expectations were high for his 2017 album, All The Beauty In This Whole Life. I think it’s a musical masterpiece, and “Out of Here” is a standout song. The lyrics are a detailed expression of his feelings and thoughts after losing his dad to suicide. In this post, I included all of his lyrics (in bold) and my comments (in italics) with some links to relevant research.
I recommend watching his performance of the song before reading the rest of the post:
Okay so it might appear To an outsider that you found your way up out of here
They tell me that it’s hardly fair to blame myself
What a hell of a cross to bare You didn’t say it in your letter But the fact that I failed you is loud and clear
Suicide can be a particularly painful kind of death to grieve because 1) it means someone you love was deeply hurting and 2) there may be more of a sense that you could have prevented it, if only you had acted differently in some way. It’s a common response for people to tell you that someone’s suicide is not your fault, and yet, it can be hard to refrain from blaming yourself for not stopping the person.
Found out the amount of fear You would drown when you found yourself naked staring down a mirror And partners are supposed to lay the cards bare I left you playing solitaire, and I promise you that I’m sincere
If you’re looking for some judgment, you won’t find it here Let’s be honest here I can’t say I’ve never known that kind of despair When the clouds appear, how’s life fair
Some people erroneously perceive people who die by suicide as selfish or weak. However, Ali feels compassion and humbly links it to his own experiences. He may also be fearful about his own future (e.g., will his suicidal desire increase to the levels that his dad’s ultimately did?).
Not to make it about me, but how could you check out Before you really allowed me a chance to sit down and hear? I think I would’ve listened Or were you saying it all along and I just missed it? You sang your swan song, we all dismissed it
Ali acknowledges that the suicide isn’t about him, but feels a frustration about his father leaving without trying to ask Ali for help first. He then changes course and tries to look for signs that his dad *tried* to reach out, but that Ali missed or ignored it.
Because you filled the room with laughter I watched when you thought no one was looking at you In hindsight, I wonder where your smile went When the party ended and you swallowed it I saw you swallow it
Sometimes, people who have lost someone to suicide say they saw it coming, but others feel completely shocked. It can also switch back-and-forth in the mind of a person as they try to make sense of it.
Okay so it might appear That you took yourself up out of here How many cries soak through your disguise Before you drown in your silent tears? Okay so it might appear That you took yourself up out of here How many times can you fight for your life Before you throw that white flag up and volunteer? (x2)
Here, Ali seems to be trying to figure out the threshold that was crossed before his dad killed himself. I don’t know if this is Ali trying to understand if his own life obstacles and past suicidal ideation might ever exceed that threshold or if he is trying to understand his dad’s experience better (or both).
I’ve had car accidents Where everything is slow motion no matter how fast it’s happening Every second that pass stretches so that you can watch it unraveling But can’t always react to it Your whole life might flash before your eyes The minute when you transition to the other side But what can actually happen in that time? In-between the leaping and the moment you collide In-between the trigger and the blast In-between you let go of the wheel and you crash In-between the moment when you swallow the last pill in the bottle Turn out the lights, roll the dice on tomorrow Is there a moment to reflect, can there be regret? Is there a wait, not yet, let me reset? Or is it just too painful to accept? That maybe death just seemed best
I think Ali is trying to imagine what his dad was going through at the time he died by suicide since he cannot ask him about it. He’s wondering if he crossed his dad’s mind or any reluctance emerged that could have prevented his death. Or was it more like an uncontrollable-type of experience where he felt like he was watching himself but could not change the outcome?
Okay so it might appear That you took yourself up out of here If you’re not winning, you can go down swinging Even if it doesn’t feel like they’re fighting fair
I heard this as Ali arguing for not taking one’s life, even in the face of repeated, seemingly unjust hardships…’you can go down swinging.’
Okay so it might appear That you took yourself up out of here I’m trying not to resent you But you left me defenseless in the life we share
Every man before me in my fam died by his own hands How am I supposed to understand my own role in the plan When nobody who grows old stands a chance?
Ali lost both his dad and his grandfather to suicide. He’s wrestling with sympathy for his dad and his own feelings about being left behind.
What about this mysterious dance Made you cut the cord to the curtain in advance? But these are questions I can only ask The person looking back in the looking glass
Ali recognizes that he is full of questions that now must go unanswered.
I’ll close by saying that I am truly sorry if you’ve lost someone to suicide – this post is dedicated to you. I’m especially thinking of a friend who is going through this now. Research by Julie Cerel and colleagues suggests that each suicide affects a large number of people (even larger than previously thought). It’s imperative that we increase the effectiveness of suicide prevention efforts. If you need support, please consider some of the resources below.