Kai Wright: Hey, Kousha.
Kousha Navidar: Hey, Kai.
Kai: We are coming up on an important holiday for a lot of people, right?
Kousha: Yes, that's right. It's the solstice.
Kai: The longest night of the year, and what's important about it for you?
Kousha: In Iran, which is where I was born, one of the most important holidays of the year is on the solstice actually. It's called Yaldā.
Kai: Which is a great name. What do you do on Yaldā?
Kousha: You basically try to stay awake as long as you can. There's special food, special rituals, lots of poetry. It's part of a longer cultural tradition in fact, and whether you realize it or not, it's a tradition that's influenced our own culture in the US.
Kai: Tonight on the United States of Anxiety, we celebrate Yaldā live on the air, and then a reflection on loss and renewal.
Regina de Heer: Have you ever heard of the winter solstice?
Sushil: No, I've heard of it, but I don't know exactly what it is. I actually haven't heard the name of it. I can't really speak much about it.
Ayush: It has something to do with the moon or the coldest day of winter.
Abir: Winter solstice, yes, December 21st, right? That's like the shortest day of the year, like transitions from fall into winter technically.
Regina: Do you know of anyone who celebrates the winter solstice, or what do you know of it?
Manal: I thought it had something to do with some specific cultures, probably Persian, Iranian. I just remember seeing something on the internet about the winter solstice on Twitter, I guess.
Abir: I feel like the longest and shortest day of the year should have some meaning especially before civilization got modernized. I would assume like days that are the shortest and days that are longest would have some meaning for a lot of people.
Kai: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright, and don't worry we're not going to make you understand astronomy. I can't keep it clear either, but know this. The sun is about to make a comeback. December 21st is the winter solstice the longest night of the year, and then we begin climbing out of this dark place, at least in a literal sense. The metaphorical darkness that may or may not be lifting any time soon. As a result, we're going to do two things tonight. We're going to mark the solstice, a moment of renewal with a poetic celebration of the Persian holiday, Yaldā. Later in the show, Grammy Award-winning jazz and gospel artist, Gregory Porter, will help us remember all the people we've lost over the past couple of years.
Gregory Porter: As evidence, we're almost getting used to death, but I believe in love and I'm fighting for love.
Kai: That's in the second part of the show, but let me say this, we mean for this whole thing to be a celebration. There will be singing, there will be reading, we'll learn some history, and I hope you'll all be eating and drinking while you listen. To begin learning about Yaldā, I am joined by poet Kaveh Akbar, his most recent book of poetry is Pilgrim Bell published this past summer. He's editor of the forthcoming, The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse: 100 Poets on the Divine, and poetry editor of the Nation Magazine. Kaveh, thanks for coming on the show.
Kaveh Akbar: It's such a joy to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
Kai: Just to get us all on the same page, can you introduce Yaldā to those listeners who are learning about the holiday for the first time, give us just a 101.
Kaveh: Sure, of course. It's the winter solstice, it's celebrated on the winter solstice. The longest night of the year/the shortest day we call it Shab-e Yalda which is like the night of Yaldā. Shab-e is night, and the idea is that you stay up all night with your family and your friends and your loved ones and you eat fruit and you read poems to each other and you talk about your hopes and your dreams and your aspirations. You're supposed to stay up as late as you can. There's reading of Persian poets. It's a really happy and beautiful of looking forward and feeling grateful.
Kai: An all-nighter of gratitude, I love this. I'll say that this is my introduction to Yaldā, but I truly intend to make it part of my life, it just sounds wonderful. Poetry is so central to this celebration, and we're going to learn more about that in a bit, but first let's talk a little bit about own relationship to poetry in your first book, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, you write about addiction, and I've heard you talk about poetry in general as something that changed your life. You want to share some of that and how?
Kaveh: Yes, absolutely. My first book was very much an addiction recovery narrative that was my addiction recovery narrative. During the time of writing that book, poetry was just a place to put myself. Poetry was a piece of driftwood upon which I could cling and not drown. It was literally just as I was figuring out how to live this new life, I could put myself in a poem for an hour, two hours and not worry about accidentally harming myself, or I could go to the library and post up in the 811 and .54 poetry section and just three or four, six or eight hours would go by, and I wouldn't have to worry about what to do. In this very unhyperbolic, unmetaphorical way, poetry saved my life. It was a place to go when every other place that I knew to go was harmful.
Kai: I read one profile where you urged people to walk through life reciting poems. Do you actually do that still?
Kaveh: [laughs] I just think that they're the best thing. I just think that they get me a little bit closer to understanding the why's and the how's that I really care about, a little bit closer the way that standing on your roof gets you a little bit closer to grabbing the moon than standing on the floor. It's a fractional difference, but it makes all the difference in my living.
Kai: I can see that you're going to speak to me in poetry as well and that I'm going to swoon constantly.
Kai: You're describing a very different relationship to poetry than I think many in the US have. I dare to say it's probably most often seen as intimidating and often considered a lead and even snobby. How would you say we, in this country, relate to poetry?
Kaveh: There's this old Western idea of poetry as like the art that is ornamental. In other words, like the rich land barons would hang a picture of roses in their foyer to look at during the winter when their actual roses were withering, and that was the job of art was to give you something beautiful to look at. I think that the tradition of poetry, the much longer older tradition, the millennia-old tradition of poetry that dates back 44 centuries to the earliest attributable author in human literature, Enheduanna, who was an Iraqi woman, a Sumerian woman, but that tradition of poetry is of illumination.
You recite poems and you write poems to tell you something about your living. It is instructive, it's a spiritual technology, it's a technology of moving through the world and moving through social spaces and family and love and desire and grief. It helps illuminate the path for you. I think that when you're able to approach it from that perspective instead of this hanging in a museum and everyone gather around and pontificate upon what it means, and just allow it to be this thing that does or doesn't make you feel something or does or doesn't speak to something about your living, I think that that's when it can become really meaningful.
Kai: As we've said, poetry is central to the celebration of Yaldā
Kai: Why is that? Help us understand why is poetry such a part of this and how is it used.
Kaveh: There are a few facets for this, and I'm not a scholar of this, but my sense is that from the earliest Zoroastrian roots of Yaldā, there's this belief that the longest night of the year was the night in which you're most vulnerable to the malicious malevolent forces of the cosmos or whatever. You would stay up, you would gather with your family, with your friends, with your neighbors and you would try hard to stay up through the night so that you could watch each other. What better way to help yourself stay up right than to recite each other poems, the endeavor that activates the spirit, the mind and the body, like the three parts of your being are all animated in the recitation of poetry.
It keeps you up, and of course, you're eating all of the fruits that are left over from the harvest that you still have. This is when they're about to hit the wall of not being particularly edible anymore or having to dry them or whatever. You're eating all of these fruits which is why the fruits, the pomegranates, and the watermelon, and that red color are so associated with the holiday, but just this idea of the poems being the things that keep you up, and then also being this bibliomantic diminitory. You open the book of Hafez and you point to a poem, and it will tell you something about the year to come.
Kai: Briefly introduce us to Hafez for people who don't know Hafez.
Kaveh: Sure, of course. Hafez is one of the great Persian poets. Iranians love their poets. We love our poets. Hafez was a 14th-century Iranian poet. His shrine in Shiraz is still visited, it's still a site of pilgrimage. People go to that grave as if they were going to the grave of, I don't know, a prophet or something. He has the supernatural air which is also true of Saadi and Rumi, and so many, and Ferdowsi. Hafez, in particular, the word Hafez means memorizer or memorize, which is the pen name that he took after memorizing the Quran in its entirety in his youth. It said that he did that just hearing his father recite Quran, and he just passively memorized it, Hafez did.
He grew to become this incredible Sufi mystic poet whose poems are still among the best selling poems in America today, however, many centuries after his life, which is a testament to the undeniability of the power of their verse even in translation, even across time, they still move us and they still animate us, and they still feel illuminating, complicating, and revelatory.
Kai: We will hear a little tease everybody, we will hear a little bit of Hafez, the best-selling poet in the United States today, a little later in the show, and we'll also hear a little bit more of the history that Kaveh started telling us about. First, we asked you to share a poem to help us celebrate tonight, and thankfully, you agreed to do so. Tell us what you're going to read for us.
Kaveh: Yes, thank you so much for this invitation to do so. I'm excited to hear the Hafez poem too because that's really what the holiday is about. I'm also grateful for this opportunity to share this poem from my new book. It's about when I was young, we would travel. We didn't live in Chicago, but when we came to America, we lived in and around the Midwest. We would take these road trips to Chicago to go to this one Persian restaurant, which was the only Persian anything within a six-hour driving radius of us. It was this really, really special day every year when my family would all get together and go to this one Persian restaurant.
This poem is orbiting that. It's called Reza's Restaurant Chicago 1997.
the waiters milled about filling sumac
shakers clearing away plates of onion and
my father pointed to each person whispered
Persian about the old man with the silver
beard whispered Arab about the woman with
the eye mole Persian the teenager pouring
water White the man on the phone
I was eight
and watching and amazed
I asked how he could possibly tell when
they were all brown-
skin-dark-hair’d like us almost everyone
in the restaurant looked like us
he smiled a proud
little smile a warm nest
of lip said it’s easy said we’re just uglier
he returned to his lamb but I was baffled hardly
touched my gheimeh I had huge glasses and bad
teeth I felt plenty Persian
when the woman
with light eyes and blonde-brown
hair left our check my father looked at me
I said Arab? he shook his head laughed
we drove home I grew up it took years to
put together what my father
meant that day my father who listened
exclusively to the Rolling Stones
who called the Beatles
a band for girls
my father who wore only black even
around the house whose arms could
cut chicken wire and make stew and
bulged with old farm scars my father my
father my father built
the world the first sound I ever heard
was his voice whispering the azan
in my right ear I didn’t need anything
else my father cherished
that we were ugly and so being ugly
was blessed I smiled with all my teeth
Kai: Oh, Kaveh, we were ugly, so being ugly was blessed. That, it just hits me, I love that line so much.
Kaveh: Thank you so much.
Kai: Thank you for that. We're going to take a break and come back to learn more of the history of Yaldā. As we pause, I leave you with the song by the renowned Iranian composer, Sussan Deyhim. It's called the Candle and the Moth, and it interprets and borrows from the poetry of Rumi, one of the most popular Persian poets. We'll be right back.
Kousha: Hey, everyone, it's Kousha, I'm a producer. I hope you're enjoying the show. Since this episode is about the solstice and how we celebrate, we at the show, we're wondering, does your family or your heritage have a special way of celebrating the solstice? We'd love to know. Send us a message describing how you celebrate, what it means to you.
You can send us a voicemail, an email, pictures would be awesome. Just send it to our email address. It's firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd love to put the responses up on our show page, maybe do an audience segment in a future episode where we share your messages. We'll see what we get. The address one more time is email@example.com. All right, thanks so much for listening. Happy Celebrations. Talk to you soon.
Kai: Welcome back. This is The United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. We're marking the solstice by celebrating the upcoming Persian holiday, Yaldā, and that song you're hearing is called Yeki Bood Yeki Nabood by the Black Cats. It's a Persian pop group that was originally formed in Tehran in the 1960s and then reformed in Los Angeles in the 1990s.
Kai: Yaldā is a night of renewal, an all-nighter of food and poetry. I've been talking with poet Kaveh Akbar, and let me also welcome Persis Karim, who is the director of the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University and a professor of Comparative Literature. Thanks for calling in, Persis.
Persis Karim: Thank you, Kai. It's great to be with you.
Kai: As we celebrate tonight in advance of Yaldā, I guess, the goal of your center is to shift the conversation about Iranians away from this obsession with the US-Iran foreign policy and toward the human experiences of the diaspora to make that diaspora visible as I gather it. Tell me a little bit about that.
Persis: Yes. Well, the center was founded in 2017. One of our primary missions is to encourage research and scholarship on the widespread global diaspora of Iranians who primarily left after 1979, but have also left Iran in earlier waves, and to share some of the interesting cultural, and social ways that they have adapted, changed, evolved, and reflect a different sensibility about their Iranian identity and heritage.
One of the things that I'm really proud of is that at the center, we like to showcase the stories of those in the Iranian diaspora to suggest that there isn't one exclusive experience about the Iranian diaspora, there are many diverse experiences. That is, in a way, storytelling and using the vehicles of documentation are really central to the work that we're doing.
Kai: The story of Yaldā is part of that narrative.
Kai: The holiday has a fascinating history to it, and Kaveh started telling us a little bit of that before the break. Help us out, what are the roots of this holiday?
Persis: Yes, so Yaldā is considered a pre-Islamic, Indo-Iranian celebration that probably dates back about 5000 years. Yaldā literally means birthday night, or Shab-e Yalda means birthday night. It comes from the Syriac. It was actually early Christians who popularized Yaldā in the context of early Christianity and attached it to the birth of Christ. However, Iranians have celebrated it inside the Iranian plateau for over 5000 years. It is attached to Zoroastrian ideas about the combat of good and evil, light and dark, and the idea that you would spend this last night of the fall before the arrival of the winter and stave off the darkness so that you can await the rebirth of the sun.
Part of the tradition is to congregate with your family and loved ones, eat special foods and burn candles, maybe burn a fire. In Iran, the tradition was to sit under a gas heater and have your feet under that gas heater as a way of having a central table and warm your feet. It's adapted now to celebrate the food, the togetherness, the storytelling, and of course the poetry, which Kaveh points to, which is really important.
Kai: It's notable, what I love it's not about a person I've heard you say, but it's a season that we're talking about.
Persis: No, that's right, and one of the nice things about many of the Iranian holidays, Nowruz is the other one that's pretty popular in this country, which is a celebration of the arrival of spring, is that they're really attached to the turning of the season, the solstice, in this case, the winter solstice, and then the case of Nowruz, the arrival of spring. In some ways, they're very connected to traditions around agriculture, harvesting, and saving up what you harvested in the fall season, and then sharing it in this longest night of the year.
That's why you find watermelon and pomegranates, which really are harvested in the late fall as the centerpiece for the table. Plus they're beautiful fruits. Pomegranates have a sacred status in the Iranian tradition, they symbolize light and fertility, and rebirth. You see those things. You also eat dried fruits and a soup that's called aush-e-reshteh and various other foods that are attached to this holiday.
Kai: Let's hear from Naheed in Brooklyn Heights who I believe is also planning the celebration. Welcome to the show.
Naheed: Yes. Hi, we celebrate Yaldā. I've got little kids, and just like he was just saying, it's just such a wonderful way to teach them about nature, about the earth, and also celebrate nature. The fact of the longest night of the day starting to get longer the next day, and Persian holidays for me are just a wonderful way of really teaching my children appreciation of the cycle of the years. They love it. They go and tell their friends at school about the rotation of the earth and all of that.
Kai: Do you read poetry?
Naheed: We do read poetry. We read Hafez, and what they love about it is that my mom, there is this divination aspect of reading Hafez, and so my mom will open the book of poetry. Usually, it's the elders in the family, and she'll read a beit, which is two lines of poetry, and I tell them what it means about their future or the wishes that they have, and they just love it. They get such a kick out of that.
Kai: Thank you so much for sharing that. Go ahead, Persis, you wanted to respond to that?
Persis: Oh, I was just going to say it's a lot of fun also. I've adapted a tradition with my son where we also write poems and share those poems as well as doing the Fal-e Hafez which is what Naheed was just talking about where you open a book of Hafez and you randomly read it and it tells your fortune. I think those are really wonderful ways also to connect to Persian poetry, which is a centerpiece of Iranian culture for many, many people, regardless of their access to Persian language. They know that it's something that is the mainstay of Iranian culture,
Kai: Kaveh, can I bring you back in to talk about that a little bit? Just the idea, I mean, we were saying earlier, how distant poetry can be for some people in the US or for many people in the US, but it's a central part of Persian culture, correct?
Kaveh: Yes, absolutely. It's a central part of Persian culture, and it's also just a central part of the language. The language, it just feels like the constructions in Farsi are very poetic. It's a very poetic language. So much of the world's crate poems have been written in old Persian and middle Persian. It just lends itself so well to poetic expression, and of course, that inflects everything. It inflects the way that the people who speak the language think and inflects the way that they move among each other and how they relate to each other.
Kai: Say more about that. What do you mean?
Kaveh: To say I miss you in Farsi, you would say a construction that literally means like my heart grows tight for you. To translate that into English, you say, I miss you and you lose all of the elegance of the construction. It's just full of these strange and beautiful little moments.
Persis: I was just going to add also that if you talk to any Iranian and you ask them what is the essence of Persian culture, hands down, people will say poetry because it, in some ways, ties people to the language. The language hasn't changed dramatically in the last 1500 years, so people can recite poetry that was written in the time of Hafez or Attar or Rumi and understand it in ways that, for example, we can't understand without some labor, middle English, or some of the older traditions of writing in poetry that stream from the English language. I think that's one of the things that ties people so deeply to Iran and Iranian culture is the poetry. As Kaveh says, I think it mimics poetry in everyday speech.
Kai: You've been tracking the ways in which Iranian culture is discussed online in general but Yaldā, in particular, Persis. What have you been seeing?
Persis: I started noticing about two, maybe three years ago, when I started paying more attention to social media, how much pride there is in people sharing either their Yaldā sofre, which is the spread or talking about what their traditions are. That's both obviously inside of Iran, but mostly I'm talking about in the diaspora. I think that more and more Iranians are sharing their culture and their cuisine via social media in a way that it can get through, in a way that news headlines obscure some of these everyday cultural expressions.
I think that one of the things that I notice every year increasingly is people are showing their pomegranates, their candles, their sofre. I've taken a little bit of liberty in counting it. It's like thousands more each year of people are sharing them. The question is, is Yaldā celebrated more? I don't know, but I think that people feel a certain pride in sharing it. Similarly, Nowruz I would say is the same thing, and I think that filters into the culture of, say, the United States.
Kai: You have a way that non-Iranians, I guess, everybody, but non-Iranians can connect with this holiday, an offering that you're making this year. You want to tell us about that?
Persis: Yes. On December 21st, we're hosting a prerecorded event with the Paris-based opera singer, Ariana Vafadari, who's a Zoroastrian singer, like she sings some of the traditional prayers of the book of the Avesta, which is the pre-Islamic holy book, and then Sima Shahverdi, who's a California-based singer, and then I also recite some poetry. If you want to tune in and hear a live event, it's a short 30-minute event on December 21st at 6:00 PM, you can go to @iraniandiasporastudies, our Instagram, or Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies, Facebook or YouTube channel, and you are welcome to watch it free and witness a little bit about this wonderful holiday.
Kai: We will put a link to it in the show notes for this episode. Persis Karim is director of the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at St. Francisco State University, and a professor of Comparative Literature. Thanks for joining us.
Persis: Thank you.
Kai: Kaveh, if you can stick around for a little bit longer for the Hafez portion of the evening. We, as I said, have asked someone to read this for us. Armen Davoudian is author of the collection Swan Song, which won 2020 Frost Place Chapbook competition. He translates for Persian as well, so we asked him to read in Persian. He gives us a little setup so take a listen.
Armen Davoudian: I'm going to read a ghazal as is known in Persian by the poet Hafez. His poems aren't entitled, they just have numbers, so this is ghazal number 43. It's ambivalent about whether one should seize the day or plan for the future. It honestly just reminds me of Shab-e Yalda which is when you stay up all night eating watermelons and drinking. One more thing to add is that the form has an intricate rhyme and repetition scheme. At the end of every even line, the first line, and then at the end of every second line basically, you'll hear a repeated phrase, which is [Persian language] and it translates to is sweet or is good. All right. [Persian language].
Kai: That was Armen Davoudian reading a poem by the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez. You can find the English translation of that poem in the notes for this episode at wnyc.org/anxiety. Kaveh, before we let you go, any parting thoughts having heard that?
Kaveh: It's just it's incredible how much of even absent of any denotative word-for-word dictionary understanding of the language, how much the music carries you towards the meaning, how much the music carries you towards the sweetness that is meant and the presence that is implied by the poem.
Kai: How are you going to be celebrating this week?
Kaveh: I think I'm going to stay up with my spouse. My spouse is also a poet, so reading poetry to each other is not an uncommon occurrence in this house, but we take any excuse that we can get to stay up late, eat, and enjoy each other's company.
Kai: I think a lot of people are jealous of the idea of two poets sitting up reading poetry to one another on that night, it sounds quite lovely.
Kaveh: It's a very lucky thing.
Kai: It's indeed. Kaveh Akbar's most recent book of poetry is Pilgrim Bell, which was published this past summer. He's editor of the forthcoming collection, The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse: 100 Poets on the Divine. Thanks for helping us welcome back the sun.
Kaveh: Thank you so much. I appreciate you.
Kai: We wrap up our celebration with a little sound of the traditional Persian music. You're hearing the late Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, performing the song Golam-E Cheshm.
Kai: Let me share that solstice is actually a big deal in my household as well. My boyfriend is very into the rotation of the planets and other nerdy stuff like that, so shouts to him. If you, like him, are into the solstice, we want to hear how you celebrate it too, beyond Yaldā, any solstice celebration, send us a voice memo telling us about it, record it on your smartphone, and email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Coming up, Grammy Award-winning jazz and gospel singer Gregory Porter is going to help us remember those we've lost this year. He's going to tell us about how he used music to process his own grief and how he reminded himself of the love in his brother instead of just the loss. I'm Kai Wright, stay with us.
Kai: As we look toward the end of the year, many of us are remembering people we've lost from big public names like bell hooks and Greg Tate, both of whom just recently passed to all the friends and family and loved ones who so many people have lost to COVID. Earlier this year, back in the spring, we marked the grim one-year anniversary of this pandemic with a remembrance. Now, all these months later, so many more deaths later, we do need to keep remembering. That conversation from this spring, it's still on my heart, and I want to share it again now.
I spoke with Grammy Award-winning jazz and gospel artist, Gregory Porter, he lost his brother to COVID in 2020. His brother, Lloyd Porter, had built a lot of community around himself, he owned a small business in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn that had become something of an informal community center over its many years in operation. As a result, Lloyd had become one of those informal neighborhood mayors, we've all got on our blocks. Gregory told me that a lot of people felt his brother's death, and that actually, that helped him process his own loss.
Gregory: Yes, people are still sending me messages about things that he's done, connections that he's made, even as a matchmaker. There are babies that are here because of him. He's like, "Hey, you need to get to know this girl. Y'all need to sit over there in the corner and have a cup of coffee." This is the kind of guy he was.
Gregory: He gathered a group of people, a group of artists, together, designers, photographers, videographers, for me to shoot all of my music videos, all of my first music videos. [chuckles] My budget was very small, but he was just a fabulous, fabulous person in terms of just making things happen and bringing community together.
Kai: In that way, it sounds like he was a bit of a mentor or father figure for you too. He played this huge role in your career. You're now a multi-Grammy-nominated artist.
Gregory: Right. [laughs]
Kai: In those early days, it was Lloyd who kind of believed in you, right?
Gregory: Yes, right. He believed in me before I believed in me, which is the funny thing. There's a lyric in one of my songs, Thank You, which is I say, [music]
"Rough-cut stone, I couldn't polish myself
Had to be done by someone else
Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you"
"A rough-cut stone, I couldn't polish myself, it had to be done by someone else." I'm using it in a religious casing, but I'm speaking about my brother because I thought I could sing pretty nicely, but my brother would get up on the mountain top and say, "My brother is the best thing in the world." [laughs] Now, I still don't believe that but that's the kind of person he was to me. He was a comedian. The funniest comedian who never had a Pulitzer Grammy for his genius of comedy, but his memory and his image, his likeness is in my music.
Kai: He died on May 6, which I gather is also your mother's birthday.
Kai: I think about a lot of people who have lost loved ones over the last year. I imagine there's probably a lot of anniversaries like that coming.
Kai: I wonder for you, how are you thinking about that preparing for that, what might you say to other people who are in similar situations?
Gregory: I would say that the grieving process has been so profound, the way in which people died without close connection, without me touching his hand, without me seeing him physically in the same room is just so disconnected, so cold-blooded. That, I think, extended the grieving process for me. He just disappeared. He just disappeared, and I had no part to him. A couple of things happened before he was pronounced dead. I sang to him a couple of times. The first time I sang to him, the idea, the thought was, "He's recovering, he's still there. This would give him some encouragement." I'm singing my heart out just to him.
The next day, he had had a heart attack, and the doctor's tone was different. He was like, "Sing to him, give him some encouragement." I was looking at him on screen, and I said to myself, as I sang, "He's not there. He's not there." Essentially, that was my funeral. The last time I sang to him because I knew he was gone, and I was just singing to his soul. The healing has just come over days, really just considering just who he was as a man, who we were as little boys. [laughs] That keeps me laughing. That keeps him alive.
Kai: One of the things that happened when your brother died was that the community had to come up with this really innovative way to remember him. We couldn't have funerals. What was that for you to witness that? How did that impact you from afar?
Gregory: Yes, I watched from 3,000 miles away that when the community and many of my good friends walked past my brother's door of his brownstone and waved at his wife and child as they stood on their stoop. It was beautiful. Painful, but beautiful to see people almost a scene from a movie, just giving him his respect, letting his family know, letting his people know that he was loved, he was seen and he will be missed. The interesting thing that I did afterward, as I watched it a few times again, I just listened to some of the comments because the microphone was just picking up random comments.
There were children didn't understand, like, "Where's Mr. Lloyd?" The parents explaining as they walked away from the microphone because there was a steady procession. Some people would stop and say some of the things that he did, it's like, "I can't believe he's gone. He's the one that helped me find my house." They were saying these things standing in front of his house, and the microphone was picking up some of these things. A lot of them were thinking out loud, thinking nobody was listening. I heard some of those comments, and it was just so beautiful. It was beautiful to see.
Kai: You've written and talked about the way you've turned to music throughout this pandemic. You released an album last year that was nominated for a Grammy, but you also released a collection of songs of your work that was explicitly about helping us get through this time.
Gregory: Yes. I was self-medicating and have always self-medicated with music. I wanted to put together something that was encouraging, because I realized I was going to my stereo, to my vinyls, for memory, for encouragement, for uplift. Not to sound self-important, but I went back to my songs to reaffirm what it is that I believe about the optimism that I have about love, irrepressible love. Sometimes, I write these songs for other people to encourage other people, not realizing one day I'll need them. The simple phrase that, [singing] "Will we know love, let's die in here," I needed it to reaffirm that idea for myself.
Kai: Can I ask you about that song in particular? It's called No Love Dying. It's one of the songs you included in the collection, and it has this incredibly poignant lyric. It says, "The death of love is everywhere, but I won't let it be."
Gregory: Yes. It's about the deeper love. The physical manifestation of love can disappear, but that thing still exists. I still love my brother deeply, and I still trade love with him, but he's not here anymore. That will continue to live no matter if he breathes or not. There's evidence of almost getting used to death, but I believe in love, and I'm fighting for love. I'm fighting for the life of love.
Kai: You talk so beautifully about the song. Can you sing us a few bars of it maybe?
Gregory: Sure. [singing] "There will be no love that's dying here
The bird that flew in through my window
Simply lost his way
He broke his wing I helped him heal
And then he flew away
Well the death of love is everywhere
But I won't let it be
There will be no love dying here for me
There will be no love dying here for me"
Kai: Wow. Oh, you made me cry.
Gregory: [laughs] God bless you guys. Thank you.
Kai: You also included the Revival Song, which is from your new album. It's a gospel-infused song to me at least, but there's also, or maybe this isn't, but there's also this tone of resilience and defiance in it, the not just grief, the syncopation at the beginning, and it feels like we're marching somewhere. Tell us about that song and why you included it in this particular collection.
Gregory: Yes. In the gospel tradition, the songs always have double meanings. The River Jordan is not really the River Jordan, it may be the Ohio River, the Mississippi River, there's a double meaning. [music] "When you lift me, higher out of the fire, out of the flames." You lift me higher, out of the fire and out of the flames, this idea of ascending this muck and mire and rising above this thing that we find ourselves in at the time to a higher place looking to something that reminds us of our strength, looking to something that reminds us of our highest self.
Kai: Gregory, what would you leave people with? What would you say to folks as we mark a year since this pandemic began?
Gregory: The memory of this time will be really profound for all of us, even for those who haven't lost someone. There's been some beautiful things that have happened. People have helped one another get through, and let's continue to do that. We'll need to continue to do that because there's some wounds and some scars. Let's continue to watch each other and help each other. We will make it, we will get through this, and I'm hopeful and optimistic. I know the memory of my brother will continue to inspire me and inspire my music. I hope that your listeners and other people will be as well.
Kai: Thank you so much.
Gregory: Thank you.
Gregory: "Revival. Singing revival. Revival, revival song. Revival. I'm singing revival song, revival."
Kai: That's Revival Song from Gregory Porter's 2020 album All Rise. It's a collection of music dedicated to people who are like him finding their way through grief. The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Special thanks this week to Christopher Worth and Kathleen Horn, who first brought us Gregory and Lloyd Porter's family story. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band.
Sound designed this week by Jared Paul and Joe Plourde. Kevin Bristow and Milton Ruiz were at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Fillman, and Kousha Navidar. I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @kai_wright. Of course, I hope you'll join us for the live show next Sunday, 6:00 PM. Eastern. Stream it @wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Until then, thanks for listening, take care of yourselves, and happy solstice.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.