Really, a eulogy for a musician ought to be a piece of music. I received the news of Billi’s passing when I woke up on the morning of October 11th. Although he’d been sick for some time, the news was unexpected, as he had already made it through some rough patches, and appeared to be possibly on the verge of a recovery. For this reason, the news came as a visceral shock. Like every morning, I walked my daughter Emma to kindergarten, and on the way back I searched for his presence in the vastness of the sky, which seemed to only respond with absence. This walk home that morning has stayed with me, though, every time I walk my daughter to school, and in this way, I think my brother has made his presence known. This was always his way – his spirituality slyly manifested itself in relationships with others; we come to be close to each other through those rituals that make up our relationships.
Family was always important for Billi. From the time I was born, he was always concerned with “taking care of his baby.” Growing up, I always knew I could depend on him for help, advice and insight. As a younger brother, I always wanted to emulate him, and I envied his wit, his intelligence, grace, charm and genius. This he expressed beautifully in his music, whether he was interpreting the work of classical and jazz musicians or playing original compositions. In fact, many of my brightest memories of my brother involve music, as he loved music in all its manifestations – from hearing him practice weekend afternoons in our apartment, where I would often complain, more because he was turning his attention away from me than because of the music he was playing, to his teaching me about classical musicians, and our going through the voluminous box sets of records of classical composers in the living room, to hearing him play the latest trends in pop music, and discovering cutting edge trends through him to learning how to listen to jazz and blues through his instruction and listening to him play and interpret the music. Friends of mine from college still remember going to see him play at the 18th Street Lounge right here in DC, with a band that updated bebop and connected it musically with rock and hip hop, and I remember a jazz brunch he played at a café across the street from University of Maryland, where the band broke out into a sudden, unexpected interpretation of the Charlie Brown Peanuts theme, which made the entire crowd break out in delighted laughter.
As a musician, he was also a lyricist, and as a lyricist, he was also a poet. In his poem, “Family,” he expresses his complex thoughts on family and spirituality.
The tensions found in balancing
more than just the opposites:
I can do to you
what I can do to noone else
But I cannot tell you
what I can tell to all the world
Nor can I heal the sick or raise
the dead or even cast out spirits
(… when I’m with you…)
I am not me –
Nor what you expected me to be
But we can dance
that awkward dance of grace
that only intimates of time
and love and hate,
disclosure and deception
From diapers, bibs and cribs to
Tights and tuxes
Tits and teeth
And even when there are no longer teeth
again we twirl upon the needle’s
head and only you can bring me
through the eye –
I cannot tell you, but I do not have
to say because you know…
you know it wrongly, so do I:
Of course – we ARE a single thread
Like a musical theme, the family is all part of a single unit, although each member of it must play their own solo, and even though the closeness of the family unit makes a full expression of the self impossible within the confines of the enclosed musical universe of the family. This is why, I think, family was so important to my brother – because he realized that in all its contradictions, there was something very fundamental about the way one relates to family and the way one relates to oneself, with all the contradictions, difficulties, uncertainties and trials that life may bring.
Billi’s life was full of trials. Billi struggled with questions of gender identity, a struggle many people go through, and one only made more difficult for a young African American in the political and cultural environment in which we live. In a more perfect world, a person would be freer to explore these identity questions without the mortal danger and psychic shocks and stigmas that face these individuals today, but Billi did so bravely and with dignity. His example of extreme grace under pressure could serve as an example to us all in our moments of trial. This isn’t to say there weren’t difficult times. There was a Thanksgiving, I remember, where my mother, my father, Billi and I argued, discussed and went through the tempestuous whirlwind of my brother attempting to explain his difficult position. It was an evening full of tears, shouting, crying, as well as laughter; an evening where we relived many memories and created new ones. In short, it was one of those difficult evenings which ultimately strengthen family bonds.
One of the ways Billi maintained such grace was through his spirituality. Spirituality was central to Billi’s life, and his life was a constant spiritual and intellectual journey. He was always interested in understanding where we as people came from, why we’re here, and what our purpose in this universe is. Like all the most profound spiritual philosophies, Billi’s spiritual philosophy helped him navigate the torrid seas of emotions, desires and disappointments which all people undergo, and navigate them in a way to make him a positive and inspiring example to those of us who were lucky enough to know him. He was secure enough in his spiritual beliefs, and open minded and curious enough about others’, that he was open to long, intense discussions about these ideas, and I’ll always be influenced by his penetrating insight, his humor and the aura of spirituality that he emanated in his best moments.
Intellectually, he was always at work on projects that would daunt most of us. A remarkable self-taught linguist, one of his life-long projects was the development of a new language. This is a project that dates back to our childhood, where the two of us would engage in the project of developing alternate societies while trying to make sense of our own. While I abandoned any such hope of developing my own language (my efforts were mostly pale imitations of what he was already doing), Billi persevered, and continued to develop his Dragat language throughout his life. This is no idle exercise. Between having just finished studying linguistics at University for the last two years and watching my two young daughters grow up bi-lingual, I’d argue that understanding the way humans acquire language is one of the most profound ways to understanding the way that we as people think, and this is an insight that Billi was aware of from a very young age.
Language of course, fails us, when we need it most. All language expresses only inadequately what we want it to express when we’re trying to express our deepest feelings, and there are really no words that I have to express the sadness at our loss of such a remarkable young individual. Billi has always been my greatest source of inspiration and awe, and so when I say that only a eulogy for a musician should be music, it isn’t just rhetoric – it’s an attempt to say what my brother said when he wrote those lines: “I cannot tell you, but I do not have to say because you know… You know it wrongly, so do I: Of course – we ARE a single thread.” As usual, my brother has already, in his poem, better expressed what I’m attempting to express in this eulogy. Because we are a single thread, and the loss of a family member, – for me, the loss of my brother – is a loss of part of the thread that holds me – that holds us – together, and the unravelling that follows is only mitigated by the realization that death is only another aspect of life, and his spirit, as he constantly reminds me, every morning, walking my daughter to kindergarten, is always there with me, in these complex and confounding relationships that build up family, memory and love.
I remember one winter afternoon when I spent the afternoon at my brother’s apartment. He lived right in the neighborhood of Frederick Douglass’ house, and we walked over to the house on that cold snowy afternoon to take a look at this often overlooked piece of history. I hadn’t even been aware of the fact that it was there. We walked to the top of the hill; the house was closed but from up there on the hill you can Washington spread out below, and you have this magnificent sense of history and place blending, where the past isn’t the past, and the dead are still with you, and distance is, like time, relative. In the last few years, living abroad, I’ve been distanced from my family here in the States, and time seems to distance me, as the days pass, from my brother; but then I think back to that moment on that hill where time and place dissolved, and where the past, to paraphrase Faulkner, was not even the past, and I realize that Billi is still teaching me new things, that his spirit remains with me in the musical notations of memory, and that “of course – we ARE a single thread,” and that thread never unravels, because it is the thread of time and space, which connects us all.
May his spirit continue to inspire and elevate all of us.