| Arts & Culture
Music Listening to Kelis Taught Me to Embrace Anger
Her anger had made its way to her music; my anger couldn’t find a home outside my own head.
It wasn’t hard to tell that my ex-girlfriend no longer wanted to be in a relationship with me. She had been dishonest; I had been lonely and furious. But it wasn’t always like this.
We met on the first day of college and over time, our relationship became the most important thing in my life. After graduation and five years of dating, marriage seemed inevitable: a matter of when, not if. But as we transitioned to adulthood—her pursuing an advanced degree, me working full-time—our relationship decayed to a point where we purposefully avoided each other, which led to her seeking fulfillment in someone she told me was just a friend. For months, I hid my anger under a facade of fake smiles and hollow affirmations.
A week or two after we broke up, I walked over to my college best friend’s apartment. He pulled a bottle of D’USSÉ out the freezer, set out two old-fashioned glasses, and invited me to sit on the barstool. I told him I was still figuring out where I was going to live, what I was going to do with the apartment, but didn’t mention how I felt. When I told him that my girlfriend had broken my trust, he said, “Shit, you’re better than me,” amazed that my only reaction had been to leave. I thought that my anger was always wrong, too hostile and violent, undeserving of space.
A month after the breakup, I moved from our shared apartment to my childhood bedroom at my mother’s house. At night, I often lay in bed watching old music videos on YouTube—a distraction, an alternate reality. After watching an Erykah Badu performance, recommendations led me to a live version of Kelis’s “Caught Out There” on HBO’s The Chris Rock Show .
Kelis stands at the front of the stage sporting a pink Afro and matching cut-up shirt. She starts, “This is for all the women out there that have been lied to by their man. Maybe you didn’t break the way you should have broke, but I break.” She had my full attention. “When you don’t come home to me, can’t deal, can’t bear,” she sings, before revealing that she’s been cheated on. She goes on to yell, “I hate you so much right now!” twice, then screams as she hunches over and grabs her hair.
Her screams echoed in my mind. Why didn’t I have the same fire? I had always feared and second-guessed my anger, believing it selfish, unworthy of my breath. In Kelis’s performance, she stands tall in her rage, refusing to alter her delivery for anyone. Her anger had made its way to her music; my anger couldn’t find a home outside my own head.
My mother is the only woman I have heard scream louder than Kelis.
Once, after she told me to go outside and play, she let loose the loudest shout I’d ever heard. The further I walked into the backyard, the louder my parents seemed to argue inside the house. I darted around imaginary defenders with a football, a roaring crowd in my mind until I knew my mother had reached her limit. Before the divorce my mother never yelled like this. Eventually, she came out and asked if I was okay. I instinctively nodded, seeing the red in her eyes. No older than eight, I only understood that something between my parents had gone wrong.
After my mother moved out, I split time between my parents’ homes. They still argued over the phone about the divorce, probably custody, things they didn’t make my business. I often crept out of bed, sitting atop the stairs to listen.
Once, I was called into the kitchen to speak to my father. Before my mother handed me the phone, she reached a level of rage I have never forgotten, yelling as she paced. I put the phone to my ear, unable to distinguish between my father’s instructions to hang up and my mother’s yelling. I dropped the phone and ran to my room, hoping I could outrun their argument. This is one of the most vivid memories I have from their divorce, and I didn’t realize it shaped how I process, or avoid, my anger until now. I see it in the way I run from anger today, afraid of losing myself—and others—in moments of rage. I don’t let myself go that far.
I didn’t see my father as often after the divorce. I worried that one day, the courts would separate us permanently, or he would do the separating. As my parents moved on and rebuilt their lives without each other, I was unsure where I fit or how to cope. What good was talking about their divorce—or being upset, sad, or angry about it—if nothing was going to change?
Before moving out of the apartment I shared with my girlfriend, I used to look for excuses to avoid going home. I hung out at bars with friends, walked around museums, and ate at restaurants alone—anything to avoid sitting in separate rooms with the doors closed. My mother and I spoke almost every day, about everything except the breakup. One Sunday night after dinner, as we watched a movie on TBS and chatted, I tried to find the right moment to tell her what happened in my relationship—that the trust had wavered and ultimately dissipated.
When the movie ended, I finally opened up to my mother. But I awkwardly stumbled through my explanation, giving as few details as possible. I tried to convince myself, and my mother: “I’m fine. It was for the best.”
“It’s okay to be upset,” she told me. I cried in her lap, still unable to find the words for how angry and disappointed I was. I let myself feel the shock and sadness instead.
My mother doesn’t have the same problem I do expressing anger, even though her anger can’t be too public. As a Black woman, she doesn’t have the privilege of showcasing rage without consequence, and neither do I as a Black man. I’ve often had to try to stay calm for the sake of survival. To be angry while Black can be fatal.
I’ve often had to try to stay calm for the sake of survival. To be angry while Black can be fatal.
As a child, I witnessed what my parents’ anger was capable of, and vowed to never showcase mine the same way. I didn’t want to lose anyone after seeing what my parents suffered through, how they were driven apart. While not expressing my strongest emotions might have gotten me farther with some people and helped me avoid arguments with others, it came at the expense of feeling powerless and beholden to everyone but myself.
The summer after the breakup, I routinely went to the gym before work, Kelis on repeat for the fifteen-minute drive. Listening to her music allowed me to feel a rush of the emotion I shied away from at all costs. I sang and shouted along with Kelis in a way I couldn’t elsewhere, out of fear my feelings would be brushed aside or misunderstood. Being in the car, alone, was my only emotional safe space.
As I listened to Kelis, I was finally able to conceptualize rage outside of the way I did as a child, or an adult man afraid that the expression of anger might not be safe. I can’t say there was a car ride where it all came together—that I had a sudden breakthrough and got out the car ready to confront and process my anger about my breakup. But listening to Kelis over and over again made me think about my own feelings, and wonder if I could find valid ways to own and express them without so much fear.
Every time I got in the driver’s seat, I felt relief acknowledging my anger, but foolish that I only let it happen there. I had fifteen minutes to be human, be myself, then still acted like nothing was going on for the rest of the day. I had convinced myself that suppressing my anger was the only way to move on. I wish I could have been more public with it. I wish I had told my parents sooner, instead of waiting weeks. I wish I had called my friends to vent about how I felt, so that I hadn’t been so alone.
One day, after a call with my ex-girlfriend, I sat outside my office wondering why I didn’t stand up for myself; why I still bit my tongue and held in all my anger and sadness. Kelis used her anger as an action item, her rage constructive, telling her ex-boyfriend exactly how she felt and reminding him of the boundaries he’d broken. My mother’s rage functioned similarly; it wasn’t the thing that broke their marriage, but it was the tool she tried to wield as it was falling apart. Her infrequent but powerful moments of anger were not intended to destroy her relationship with my father, but to let him know that she, too, had boundaries. Her words were declarations of her truth, looking to draw a needed line.
At the end of “Caught Out There,” Kelis yells directly into the camera, seemingly forgetting about the song as the mic rests in her outstretched arm. She has reached her breaking point, but it doesn’t look like breaking. It looks like relief. Afterward, she laughs—her rage may not have changed her situation, but expressing it seems to alter how she feels about it.
I found Kelis’s music as I was struggling to put myself back together. Over a year later, I have barely pushed past recognizing my anger when I feel it. I don’t know if I will ever be able to fully own and express strong emotion the way Kelis and my mother do. I’m still waiting to find comfort in Kelis’s audacity to rage, then walk away and find clarity. But now I can see that my emotions are valid, and that they do not have to be violent or shattering. They are present, and must be recognized. Maybe, if I keep listening to Kelis, I’ll be able to feel and give voice to my anger without fear.