David Recommends: “Playing Possum” by Earl Sweatshirt (feat. Cheryl Harris & Keorapetse Kgositsile)

To my mentors and comrades in arms

“Playing Possum” is a track from Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs that contains no hooks, or even any rapping from Earl himself. Instead, Earl samples recordings of his parents and splices the two together to create a conversation. Cheryl Harris, his mother, gives her thanks in an awards speech; Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile, his father, recites his poem “Anguish Longer Than Sorrow.” Under this he layers vintage horns that sound like they were sampled from an “In Memoriam” VHS tape.

Earl’s choice to sample his parents brings to mind a storied tradition of voice messages in hip-hop: Kendrick’s cousin Carl’s brief homily on “FEAR.”; Ms. Rosie Watson speaking her piece on Frank Ocean’s “Be Yourself”; Drake’s “Marvin’s Room.” So while “Playing Possum” may be unconventional in its construction, it still speaks to a precedent of oral storytelling in Black music that verges on memorializing.

Notably, “Playing Possum” samples a Thank You speech and a poem, not direct messages. In a Vulture interview, Earl said he wanted to incorporate his father’s audio to make amends and to bring them closer. Kgositsile passed away before he could hear it.

To my son Thebe (Words like)
Cultural worker and student of life (Home)
Whose growth and insights inspire me, a thousand kisses (Could not carry any possible meaning)

How do you show love to a voice message? How do you make amends and show solidarity with no words? Recently, I’ve been trying to find an answer to that question that doesn’t involve death.

The premature daily death of their dreams

Days after watching another Black man have his life snuffed out on camera, my mom – who lives across the country – called me to ask how I was holding up. Anger immediately came to mind. That anger gave way to sadness, which still sits in me shoulder-to-shoulder with exhaustion. Friends and allies shared that video relentlessly as a call to action. As something to point to to encapsulate the complex injustices Black people are facing.

But it shouldn’t take a video of a Black man being murdered for nonblack people to care about racial relations.

Thank you to my family
(Can you see them now?)

In his final moments, George Floyd called out to his late mother. We later found out he touched mothers all over America. His cry was heard by Kadiatou Diallo – the mother of Amadou Diallo, who was murdered by police officers in 1999. Wanda Cooper Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, attended George Floyd’s funeral.

“Every mother heard him,” Diallo said in a CBS interview.

(Consider what staggering memories frighten and abort
The hope that should have been)

“Playing Possum” sounds like love to me. Earl stepped back and created a space to let his parents talk and echo over each other. It speaks to the unspoken pain, love, grief, desire for change, desire for love, desire to action, desire to be held – the complicated and powerful feelings of the Black experience in America.

(Perhaps I should just borrow
The rememberer’s voice again
While I can)

This track hits harder now, as Black Americans are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and are constantly being dehumanized by a broken mass incarceration system. The former makes it hard to hear a family member’s voice; the latter can make it impossible.

You know the real deal
(To have a home is not a favor.)

In the same way you know breathing is not a “favor.” In the same way you know hearing your son’s voice is not a “favor.” In the same way you know the freedom to wear a hoodie, eat skittles, jog, cosplay, and exist is not a “favor.”

In the future, I hope that it is joy rather than grief that is shared between the black mothers like Ms. Diallo, Ms. Cooper Jones, Ms. Harris, and my own.

BIO

David recently graduated with a degree in sociology and a minor in creative writing. He likes writing short stories and occasionally making mash-ups.

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