“Escúchela, la ciudad respirando”
—Black Star, “Respiration”
“A map is more unreal than where you’ve been or how you feel”
“Black musicians have made up an impressive display of sacrifices over the years. Their records are distributed with the reverence accorded the wine and wafer, while magazine litanies lament the cruelty of the world and the tragedy of candles burned at both ends. Nevertheless, the sacrifice, it is finally agreed, was for the good of the community, since the appetite satisfied was the spiritual craving for fresh vision and emotional rebirth. Or, as Eric Clapton told the New York Times, the death of Jimi Hendrix was ‘almost a necessity.’ Sacrifices are always ‘almost a necessity’ when you are not the victim.”
—Margo Jefferson, “Ripping Off Black Music” (1973)
For days and weeks and months I’ve been wondering whether a city can be designed to hold collective, overlapping griefs. The pandemic has made visible how grief, for many people, is assigned: by postal code, income level, citizenship status, race, disability. Who exactly makes up a ‘we’ in a city often overlaps in unpredictable, unfixed ways. But ‘we’ can also be a narrative diversion, with inert spectatorship claiming the grief and trauma of the witness.
“One of the worst, most poisonous things about living in a community where death is prevalent is the grieving hierarchy,” Mustafa, a young poet and musician, told Pitchfork in 2020. “Who gets to grieve? What are the time restraints on mourning? At what capacity do they get to mourn? What was their relationship? Was it of any importance? What I never strayed from is that anyone can grieve; if they are from the community, allow them space. To live in a community where someone is getting murdered, that in itself is enough.”
Toronto’s Regent Park is the community Mustafa is referring to. The plaintive folk songs on his 2021 EP, When Smoke Rises, are a hazy sketch of how poverty and violence can regulate a neighbourhood and the relationships within it. The title conjures purification, memory, resurrection, love; it commemorates his friend, the rapper Smoke Dawg, who was murdered in the summer of 2018. The “small songs from a small hood,” as Mustafa calls them, build on poems he’s been writing since he was a kid. And as musical compositions, they reveal the crushing ambivalence of survival. Writing them is a responsibility, a burden, he told the New York Times last summer. He didn’t know if he’d perform the songs live.
So the mood at Mustafa’s show at Massey Hall last December felt rapt and preordained: a homecoming at a mythic venue for a young artist from a hood less than two kilometres away. Watching from the balcony heightened the distance I felt between myself and the intimacies I knew Mustafa was speaking to his people, some of whom are my friends. Later, on the street, a lot of us pressed up against each other for the first time in two years, laughing, smiling, making eye contact. Praise for this young poet, our young poet, rang out. But going home I felt uneasy and too wired to sleep. I thought about the elasticity of that word ‘community,’ and how sympathy blurs the line between spectator and witness. My skull buzzed with the sound of polite applause.
For days I cycled through anger and then embarrassment at my intrusive critical mood. And then frustration at how being an audience to “small songs from a small hood” made me culpable in a way I hadn’t previously considered. Mustafa’s offering challenged the idea of concerts as easy catharsis, and I felt alone in wanting something more than pride or empathy which seemed one-sided, inadequate, sentimental, not enough.
I found guidance that made me feel both giddy and gross in the writing of L.A. poet Harmony Holiday: “Reverence for music and performance is secondary to the validation one feels for one’s unique and often chauvinistic tastes as a spectator, as if the creative act is choosing to watch, to be there.” But I wasn’t left to linger in shame. “This is a false sense of agency that I hope dissolves and disappears from social life, to be replaced by something more like Mardi Gras or Carnival, harder to police and curate, and more about people unleashing their deepest drives as collective improvisers who don’t harbor such an entitled relationship with the world that they expect to be entertained all the time, for a small fee.”
Virtue signalling is typically seen as a hypermodern behavioural tic accelerated by generational schisms and social media, rather than what it is: morality displaced to a set of consumer practices, including being in the ‘we’ of an audience. This is the function of the modern concert hall, ‘revitalized’ by a real estate developer, with its assigned seating, distant stage, metal detectors and pat downs, ticketing structures, and social incentives. The music industry corroborates this superficial connection between art and virtue. There is only space for enthusiastic endorsement, but no way to improvise and respond.
I hadn’t felt this chasm until Mustafa’s show. It was an invitation to imagine love differently—between brothers, across allegiances, within the fissures of a city, against the mandates of state and capital. But how?
According to the City of Toronto, “The key to realizing the economic benefits of healthy creative enterprise is commercialization.” In the sixteen years since the city released the report with that statement, the ‘we’ that includes artists, arts workers and their supporters have seen this approach bureaucratized and rebranded through the taglines ‘creative class’ and ‘Music City.’ A chic euphemism for change, ‘innovation’ becomes policy-speak for the securitization of cities through capitalist projects.
The pandemic accelerated an already relentless pace of venue closures and diminishing practice spaces. Job instability and rising rents have likely exacerbated the findings of a 2019 Toronto Arts Council report that 50 percent of artists made under $30,000 per year, less than half of what it costs to rent a one-bedroom apartment on fixed expenses. We weren’t actually free to commingle before mask and vaccine mandates—the built and building city was already coming for us.
The city functions through exclusion and extracts economic benefits from how citizens express their grief. A concrete heart lit up by a rotating Spotify billboard. Every day the creative acts of Torontonians are siphoned from communal civic life and diverted from the street into private spheres by condo developers, policymakers, and cultural institutions desperate for relevance. Entering these limited spaces encourages competition for scant attention, and civic life is relegated to spectatorship, with far too many priced out of the nosebleeds.
In a democracy people are not excess, wrote sci-fi theorist Samuel R. Delany in the 1999 treatise Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. His prosocial view included learning to “relax with our own sexuality,” and was informed by decades spent patronizing the old porn theatres on and around 42nd Street in New York City. Delany considered desire to be a useful planning logic for interclass contact, and the capitalist imposition of chain stores and office towers on Times Square to be deepening estrangement. “We have to educate people to look not so much at social objects and social monuments,” he wrote, “but to observe, analyze, and value a whole range of social relationships.”
Losing physical space to rising rents and digital space to platform hegemony—threatened only by the creeping empires of Web3 and crypto—makes it more difficult to see each other clearly. Clandestine sites, like encampments and illegal raves, nurture important subcultures. But as they’re razed by police and pushed into the ravines that bisect the city, we, the city dwellers, lose the ability to suture spaces held in common.
There is a collective opportunity in “the absolute willingness to register the impact of violence,” scholar Sara Ahmed recently said in the Paris Review. “That registering is also the creation of a possibility for being otherwise.” Forsaking the role of onlooker in response to brutality, isolation and death creates a space to consider the difference between expressing grief and consuming it. So I sit here, registering my discomfort, and write about how an audience could be.
The word ‘meditation’ shows up in a lot of writing about When Smoke Rises. It evokes a mood of intimate reflection, but I also think it situates the spiritual potential of Mustafa’s music solely within himself. I don’t know about the nuances of meditation in Islam, Mustafa’s faith. But my own practice—from growing up in a Hindu household, and bolstered through self-study as an adult—reveals that meditation has an arc. A solitary act that radiates into the collective, it’s not just mental conditioning, but bears a karmic impulse as well: right action.
And faith, something Mustafa holds in tenuous abundance, is a prerequisite. Meditation then is not passive or practiced with the hope of healing, but rather a trust in the transcendent potency of what might emerge from your own stillness. Trusting that it might be received by another who could initiate their own revolution. A way of living, without disciplining the actions of political radicals, that allows ideas to endure undetected. Mustafa’s meditation modulates life after death. After Virgil Abloh passed, he tweeted that the Louis Vuitton designer’s “essence makes death feel so small, as it should- because it’s everyday, and it’s what happens after it and the worlds we build around it that matter most.”
So when Mustafa sings to a departed friend, “we forgot to talk about heaven,” it doubles as a lament and an opening into the afterlife that’s here now. “The beauty of music is that it can reach across the border of reality into the myth,” wrote Sun Ra, the musician and boundless philosopher, in 1972. “Out upon the planes of myth strange realities dwell, strange because they are not according to the general law of reality…Reality has [its] own thing.”
What would happen if we looked to wisdom beyond this realm and allowed the dead, their memories or ghosts, depending on your beliefs, to speak? In a culture inured to the sound of dead artists, can we really know what parts of their spirits want to be heard?
Listen to the city breathing. Maybe talk back. The dead have their own maps, latent topographies by which it’s possible to navigate the city—and reality. I think about how Toronto’s map might look if it was organized away from violence and around those who hear the whispers, their grief a connective force, and how that might alter the way we move from east to west, from the lake up to heaven. ✲
Anupa Mistry is a writer and producer who lives in Toronto.