David Bowie gave us Blackstar on Jan. 8, and died two days later from liver cancer. Phife Dawg, born Malik Izaak Taylor, co-founder of A Tribe Called Quest, was just 45 years old when he passed away on March 22. Prince died of an accidental overdose on April 21. On May 24, the Tragically Hip announced on its website that lead singer-songwriter Gord Downie had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. Canada heaved and coalesced to begin the cathartic process of a — hopefully — long goodbye. And on Nov. 10, Leonard Cohen died at the age of 82, just weeks after releasing his new album, You Want it Darker, and sparking a wave of panic when he was quoted as saying he was ready to die.
Most of us have lost somebody, or are losing somebody. Maybe it was sudden and fast, causing a break so significant in your day-to-day that you’ve just grown around the hole left by their absence. Or maybe it was long and tiring, death defined by the kind of suffering that erases everybody it touches. The sadness is real even when we’re mourning people we don’t know, and when it comes to artists like Bowie, Phife, Prince and Cohen it seems impossible not to dwell on what we’ve lost, and in the case of Downie, how much we stand to lose. Making space for sadness is important — 2016 has reminded me of that. What I didn’t expect was how grateful it would make me feel to be alive.
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I make sense of the world through my relationship to music. It’s essential to my quality of life. David Bowie challenged my imagination. A Tribe Called Quest turned my love of poetry and lyrics upside down and expanded my understanding about the infinite capacity of language. Prince pushed me past binary and amplified sexuality beyond its narrow confines of rockist heteronormativity. Gord Downie is still prompting me to question everything and let my curiosity inspire creativity and change. And Leonard Cohen deepened my understanding of the divine, the spiritual entwining and practical pursuit of beauty, religion, philosophy, culture and sexuality.
An engaged culture is a place of genuine opportunity, of endless possibilities, and music is a place of action and entertainment, release and provocation, rebellion and protest. It’s a resource and an artistic practice, creator and consumer, and its power has never been more evident than in 2016. With every musician’s passing this year — and it has seemed more cruelly relentless than previous years — we find ourselves not so much isolated in grief as we do situated in de facto communities with fellow mourners/strangers. A sort of collective precarity of music lovers being ushered en masse into a new future, one where our icons become echoes before we’re ready. And so we scramble, desperately grasping at wisps of genius as if it’s as easy as capturing fireflies in a jar. We lament and despair because in the vast loneliness of grief, it’s hard to look around and feel an obligation to the suffocating sameness of a place that will always be a little less shiny without a person like Prince in it.
But then I put on a record and hear the sooty static of the needle touching vinyl or I press play on a video and a voice fills my ears and I can’t help but remember that I witnessed, and am witnessing, brilliance. I sing along with friends at karaoke to “Ziggy Stardust” and “Purple Rain,” turn up the volume on “Check the Rhime,” marvel over the futurist vision of “Jazz (We’ve Got),” tear up over “Bobcaygeon” and feel the hollow misery slip from my bones with every sweeping, winking chorus of “Dance Me to the End of Love.” There are decades of albums, hundreds and hundreds of songs, and a future full of re-issues.
Phife Dawg was working on a solo album at the time of his death. Now A Tribe Called Quest has briefly reunited for one final release. Prince, of course, has a vault’s worth of material that may or may not ever see the light of day.
Bowie, a master of precision and control to the end, left us a map for our mourning with Blackstar. He knew his cancer was terminal. He kept the diagnosis private and he got to work. He made sense of his mortality in the way many artists might, a rush of creativity flooding his body, endorphins fired up by the stress and pressure and finite nature of it all. Cohen did not try to hide from his mortality either, and You Want it Darker is a different kind of map for mourning. He was, after all, 13 years older than Bowie, his body, perhaps, more battered by age. There’s a resignation throughout, a sense of weariness but also gentle gratitude that he’s made so much of his time. He’s not a man begging for more; he told us he was ready to go.
Downie is not dead, but the spectre hangs, and he, too, has gotten to work. His decision to do so publicly is a generous one. He’s using his privilege to amplify the voices of Indigenous people, to publicly obligate the prime minister to move toward a decolonized Canada, to somehow restore or atone for not only what has been taken but also the legacy of trauma wrought by the oppressors and white supremacy. In doing this, Downie models a way forward and fights for a future that he will not live to see. He’s not cowed by mortality; rather he ensures both his immortality and humility by using what time he has left to try and make the world a little better for his having been here.
There isn’t a shortcut through grief for these figures, but we also need to rejoice in their art, revel in what they gave us. This is the year that took, took, took, with both hands, but it also reminded us to appreciate what we have, be grateful for what we had, and it reaffirmed the mind-blowing power of music.
Find me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner