My Black & STEM Playlist
Or, more on thriving as a URM student in physics and astronomy
Being a Black person in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) means being part of a revolution. It’s not revolutionary because we are becoming scientists for the first time. Black people have always been scientists, but here in the post-colonial world, we are not fairly included and represented in the mainstream STEM community. So this is a revolution because we are reclaiming our rightful place in the story of part of what makes humans a sometimes lovely species, our love for and curiosity about how everything inside the cosmos works.
I’ve been writing recently (part 1, part 2) about how to not just survive but also thrive as an underrepresented minority in my field, physics and astronomy (although most of the advice broadly applies to anyone in STEM), focusing on knowing the rules of success in the physics community.
But, thriving isn’t just about knowing what the rules for getting along in the STEM world are though. Thriving is about not having to let go of who you are or where you came from, but rather living fully entwined with your identity. It is about not shedding who you are in exchange for a place in a white-centric STEM community.
As a queer Black agender/cissex woman, art is incredibly important to me as a place where my identity and culture are lovingly expressed and positively. (Reason n+1 that art in schools is so important!) Music is especially important to me as someone who was practically born dancing and started watching MTV at age 3. There’s a story about me walking around at someone’s wedding, aged 2, with a tape of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, telling anyone who would listen “Mika Jacks! Mika Jacks!”
So part of my thrival story is music. As I told The Setup, the single most important piece of tech I own are my headphones. Today I’d like to share some of the music I always have available to me no matter where I am, going beyond some of the songs I shared with the CBC earlier this year. There’s plenty I left out, but for me this is the most memorable stuff.
- Janelle Monáe’s entire discography. The Electric Lady always seems to release an album just when my academic shit is starting to feel really fucked up, and it is incredibly empowering. “Sally Ride” brings me to tears almost every time. “Ghetto Woman” makes me think of how thankful I am for my mom. And “Q.U.E.E.N.” paired with “Electric Lady” is a love note to empowered, queer femmes. I love it all. Except for “Yoga.” Gotta say I did not like that song, and I hear my Indian friends about appropriation.
- David Bowie’s entire discography (except “China Girl”). David Bowie is a queero chameleon whose mark on musical and fashion culture is impossible to fully express. The way he has lived his queerness and made it an integral part of his art has made my life better. I love pretty much every song he’s ever recorded, except “China Girl.” That’s a terrible, racist song and I never have it on me. David Bowie’s hero, by the way, is Little Richard, and he began as a jazz saxophonist. He may be white and English, but his success is a reflection of Black American contributions to global culture.
- Vijay Iyer Trio’s Accelerando. I can’t fully explain it, but this album has the miraculous power to help me feel more equilibriated. It’s enormously gorgeous and complex in a way that helps me step out of whatever moment that I am in. Also, their cover of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” is absolutely stunning.
- Angel Haze’s entire discography. Angel Haze is a Black pansexual agender person. Like me. They are younger than I am and even so they are a mentor to me in so many ways. Because of their bravery in coming out as agender and asking for the right pronouns to be used, I started to feel comfortable telling people that I too am agender. It helps enormously that their music speaks to me. In a lot of ways I connect to it the way I connect to Ms. Janelle’s music. Angel is a preacher with hella rap skills, and they teach us to keep going even when there are scars, even when keepin’ on seems difficult/impossible. And this is a message I need sometimes (all the time). It is a message of love and hope from someone with a vision.
- BIGBANG (빅뱅) & G-Dragon’s entire discography. It is a total coincidence that my favorite pop group is called BIGBANG. I know no one believes that, but it’s true. It just happens to be the case that the group’s leader, G-Dragon, is basically me if I were a K-pop star. His name is Kwon Ji-Yong, if you’ve ever wondered where my Twitter handle came from. And if you’re curious about how I got into K-pop, this comes back to my roots as a Los Angeles magnet-school educated kid. L.A. is home to a huge Korean/Korean-American population, and I was exposed to K-pop early on. K-pop is, in some sense, part of my geographic heritage, especially since so many of its stars and song writers are actually American born/raised. #VIPforever
- Benjamin Clementine’s At Least For Now. Benjamin is, like Ms. Janelle, part of a generation of global Black artists who are reclaiming rock’s Black roots. He is also, like me, the child of immigrants with British colonial roots, and I think that’s one reason his music speaks to me. His song “London” brought me to tears the first time I heard it. And his music brings me back home. (Yes, that’s a link to a book my mom wrote a while back)
- Tunde Olaniran’s Transgressor and Brown Boy. Transgression. That’s what I feel like I am doing every time I walk into a space, proof that there is something in physics beyond straight white cismen. It’s important to have music to cheer you on because transgressing traditional, discriminatory boundaries can be scary and isolating. Tunde Olaniran’s music is totally there to cheer me on. Like Clementine’s music, it speaks to me as a child of immigrants, often mistaken by racist xenophobes for someone who doesn’t belong, like the “Brown Boy” (revoir mix is the best):
I’m every single thing you think of me
I’m a sinner, killer, drug dealer, refugee
So keep your jaw locked and I’ll keep the peace
They act like they don’t wanna but man you know me
I’m a Brown Boy
- Wheesung’s entire discography. I don’t really have a super deep excuse for this except that I love his voice, and he can sing sexy to me any time he feels like showing up at my house and never leaving. It’s important to have music that just makes you feel good and happy and hopeful inside.
- Vijay Iyer’s Mutations. I realize that this is not *actually* the case, but I treat this album like Vijay made it to personally help me think. It has so many layers that it’s the perfect way to get the mind going in a fresh direction, and there’s something new every time I listen.
- Aimee Mann’s entire discography. What a beautiful voice! And her lyrics speak to me. Take from that what you will. But, Aimee’s music, especially Lost In Space (and its B-sides), is like comfort food for me.
- Cloud Cult’s Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes). The message of this album is, “Keep going.” Craig Minowa wrote its songs while mourning the loss of his son from sudden infant death syndrome. I’ve never been through a loss of that magnitude, but the message of love and strength through grief and challenges is universal. Cloud Cult’s music is like going to Church/Temple, offering words of love and compassion for all who will listen. On the occasions when I have written them to thank them for the music, Craig has written back with words of support. If you listen to only one song on this album — “Hurricane and Fire Survival Guide.”
- Grateful Dead, especially American Beauty. I hope my mom doesn’t mind me putting out there that she’s a Dead Head. My childhood memories of records being played at home are all Bob Marley, Linda Ronstadt, the Rolling Stones, and most importantly the Grateful Dead. The opening track to American Beauty (an album that always puts a smile on my face), “Box of Rain” is one of my favorite all time songs, and I’ll end this post with this message about not just surviving, but also thriving, and I hope you’ll remember it the next time someone tries to make you feel small:
Walk into splintered sunlight
Inch your way through dead dreams to another land
Maybe you’re tired and broken
Your tongue is twisted with words half spoken and thoughts unclear
What do you want me to do to do for you to see you through
A box of rain will ease the pain and love will see you through
Every silver lining’s got a touch of grey
I will get by I will get by
I will get by I will survive