As a child, I spent hours listening to CDs and the radio — sitting in front of a green and black stereo while I’d complete my homework. I got lost in the sounds of Whitney Houston and Tiffany Evans, which allowed me to float along, escaping reality for a few moments of sonic release.
Now, music is still my lifeline, whether it’s frequenting record shops, spending hours hunting for musical gems across genres or delving into a newfound discography.
That has been true as I’ve moved ahead — the pandemic, an onslaught of anti-LGBTQ, legislation, racial injustice and turmo in my personal life. Looking back, my journey these past two years has repeatedly revealed one thing: Music is what I’ve clung to for joy.
In 2020, the pandemic hit the United States a couple of months after my 24th birthday. I’d made earnest New Year’s resolutions to grow in my craft as a media professional, but things took a turn as the world shut down.
At the time, I was finishing the first year of my master’s program at USC Annenberg. Classes went remote, and I was thousands of miles away from my loved ones back in Texas. I’d lie awake at night listening to music, hoping to make it through without spiraling out. And, eventually, I was lucky to keep doing what I loved: I joined Spotify as a remote intern that summer and got to start turning my audio passion into a career.
That same year, a lot of great albums were released — Ariana Grande’s “Positions,” Aminé’s “Limbo,” Kehlani’s “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t” — which would guide me through this odd, unexpected chapter of my adult life.
And through this music I consumed almost every second of the day, I learned more about myself — what brought me joy, peace and a sense of security. Over the next two years, what it gave me was the ability to meditate, explore and figure out that I am nonbinary.
I’d been out since I was 17 as gay, but something still felt incomplete. Growing up, I always gravitated toward femininity while still feeling masculine energy, and music was an avenue where that manifested: I always liked artists who were both soft and rough around the edges, who didn’t quite fit in specific boxes — Janet Jackson, Queen Latifah, Fefe Dobson, Janelle Monaé and Teyana Taylor. They innately pushed the boundaries of what music could be and how life could be perceived.
These artists taught me a lesson: that a listener may not get it right away, but it doesn’t make the music any less valid. The same is what I realized about gender and my interpretation of being nonbinary. I was just creating the soundtrack to my life in the most authentic way I knew how.
In the last two years, I’ve seen that reflected in new music — in that shift in ideology, specifically, I owe a lot to the musical duo Chloe x Halle. I’d been a fan of their vocal range and a unique contemporary approach to music for years. But on June 12, 2020, they released their sophomore album “Ungodly Hour,” a 13-track body of work that beautifully showcased their style and charted becoming adults in their 20s. The project was edgy, brutally honest, but vulnerable and soft like me.
The intro to the album spoke a sole line that stuck with me: “Don’t ever ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.” Yes, I realized, I didn’t need permission to be my whole self openly. And the forgiveness I felt was to myself for the death of the person I had been — the facade I used to be out of a sense of duty.
Other tracks like “Do It,” “Catch Up” ft. Swae Lee and “ROYL” sparked new self-confidence to be my unapologetic self, while “Overwhelmed” and “Lonely” perfectly described my anxiety and the overwhelming isolation I felt through that first year of the pandemic. Verse one of “Lonely” resonated the most.
Who are you when no one’s watchin’?
You close the door to your apartment
Are you afraid of the silence?
Are you afraid of what you’ll find in it?
I was afraid — afraid of what the reception would be to my true identity as I slowly stepped away from the binary. For the first time, I felt lonely in that fear. But the time to figure myself out while the rest of the world was on pause was necessary to become who I am today.
In 2021, the music continued to guide me like a flame in the darkness — this time as an escape from the continuous grief caused by the constant police brutality that legislation targeted the Black community, all while anti-LGBTQ continued to rear its bigoted head.
Because these intersections of my identity were under attack, everywhere I turned felt void of safety. But music allowed me to be a world away. This time, I turned to pop/punk rock via Olivia Rodrigo’s “Sour” to deal with the angst I felt daily.
To be black and queer is to have multiple targets on your back. I’m not someone who gets angry or even shows it when I am; it takes a breaking point for me to react. But I was suffocating as my anger toward the world’s ignorance only grew. When “Sour” was released, I sang each lyric at the top of my lungs around my apartment, stomping and playing air guitar and sometimes screaming into a pillow.
Later that year, Lil Nas X’s “Montero” tapped in, taking over as my musical diary that perfectly captured my experience as a Black queer Southerner.
Toward the end of 2021, I sunk into a deep depression after leaving a journalism job and was generally feeling unsure about my future. In some ways, it felt like my life had run its course, and a part of me readily accepted that. But Adele’s “30” saved me. I grieved. I spent hours crying and shedding the deep jaded sadness that consumed me while listening to that album on repeat.
In late October 2021, as the air cleared of depression, I had a realization: Music hasn’t just been my lifeline since childhood, it’s also powerful enough to spark change in other people. So I began brainstorming how music and my passion for journalism could provide some form of service to combat the constant erasure of queer folks. I pitched my first-ever music column, Playlist Q, to Xtra magazine. Platforming queer folks became cathartic for me, my small form of protest against our erasure.
These days, Playlist Q is still going strong. In February, I came out as nonbinary, finding myself through more gender-affirming clothing and advocating for myself and other queer folks in public forums. I’ve come out on the other side of this journey, the whole while guided by music.
And I know stepping into this next chapter, music will continue to be my sonic haven of hope that recharges my depleted spirit crushed by the world — my joy, my peace, my serenity.
Daric L. Cottingham is a culture and entertainment journalist.