I discovered my blackness through Nirvana. Yup: a trio of angsty, grungy, long-haired white guys from Seattle helped me find myself. In retrospect, their guidance—specifically that of frontman Kurt Cobain—makes total sense. Cobain, whether willingly or not, served as a preacher to the freaks, geeks, losers, outsiders, underdogs, and weirdos of the world. He still does.
After all these years, Nirvana’s music still has a powerful impact. Part of the appeal is undoubtedly nostalgia—those of us who are too young wish we could have seen the group live, while fans alive during the moment are left with memories that continue to fade.
I was introduced to the band by my best friend Paul, and the Seattle-based band immediately filled a void I didn’t even realize existed throughout my pre-teen years. I had grown up on fiery, passionate music: James Brown and Parliament from my grandmother, Nine Inch Nails and No Doubt from my mother, and DMX from my cousin. But none of that hit like Nirvana.
I became obsessed. My allowance always ended up in Napster cards (remember those?), which were inevitably spent on Nirvana. The #DialUpStruggle of the late ’90s and early ’00s proved to be a daily dilemma, but that only made me appreciate the listening experience even more.
I downloaded “Smells Like Teen Spirit” first, and immediately put the song on my AAA-powered MP3 player. I banged that track from morning until night, air-guitaring and screaming, “I feel stupid and contagious,” words that were simultaneously self-loathing and liberating.
Cobain’s lyrics brought me bliss. I always felt stupid as a child, my blackness being defined by everybody but myself. Family members, friends—you can only take so many critiques disguised as harmless jokes before you ask yourself, “Is there something wrong with me?”
Questions like ‘Why do you talk like that?’ and ‘Why do you dress like that?’ came more frequently as I got older. I became uncomfortable in my own skin, trying to adapt to a type of blackness that wasn’t my own.
Questions like “Why do you talk like that?” and “Why do you dress like that?” came more frequently as I got older. I became uncomfortable in my own skin, trying to adapt to a type of blackness that wasn’t my own. But Cobain made me feel all right with myself. “Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be,” he sang. Nirvana, and the idea of Nirvana, became my medicine. I bought every Nirvana album I could find and begged my grandmother for a pair of black Chucks, on which I wrote, “All in all is all we are.”
I began to come into my own as an individual. I embraced the phrase “weird black” and began to listen to more punk and rock music. But even as I dove deeper into my Nirvana obsession, I had no idea Cobain committed suicide two years after I was born, and that Nirvana no longer existed.
I can’t remember how or when I heard of Cobain’s death, but I do remember crying. It felt like a personal loss. I wondered why a person so beautiful and creative would take their life so soon, and just… leave. Leave a band that, in a matter of three albums, had redefined rock music on their own terms. Leave a newborn baby. Leave a legion of fans that would’ve done anything for him, because he had already done so much for us. We were all in this together—or so we believed.
In a quest for answers, I bought Heavier Than Heaven, Charles R. Cross’ biography about Cobain, and lost myself in the book. Extensive research and interviews offered a rich portrayal of Cobain throughout his life. That portrayal produced inescapable poignancy: chapter after chapter, page after page, I came closer and closer to that tragic ending.
I took so much from Heavier Than Heaven, but the moment I always come back to is this:
“His mood picked up considerably once he was inside the MOMA—it was the first time he’d ever visited a major museum. Finnerty had a hard time keeping up as Kurt dashed from wing to wing. He stopped when an African-American fan approached and asked for an autograph. ‘Hey man, I love your record,’ the guy said. Kurt had been asked for his autograph a hundred times that day, but this was the only time he responded with a smile. Kurt told Finnerty, ‘No one black has ever said they liked my music before.’”
I reread that paragraph over and over, imagining myself as that fan and wondering what I would do in Cobain’s presence. Would I only ask for an autograph? Maybe a hug? Would I get emotional?
Time moved on and my music preferences evolved, but I always come back to Nirvana. Sometimes it’s for nostalgic reasons and sometimes it’s for comfort. I’ve been listening to In Utero a lot lately, occasionally looping “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle.” The chorus, “I miss the comfort in being sad” still hits home. I recently overcame a depression that overwhelmed me, that clouded my thoughts and stopped me from seeing forward. But as Cobain knew, the uncertainties of the future can be just as daunting as the solitude of sadness.
That’s what made Nirvana accessible to so many different people. Cobain wasn’t making music to get famous or even to share his story—he was singing as an outlet, to ease the insufferable pangs of loneliness and oppression that chased him every day. He felt the weight of being labeled a loser, freak, or weirdo—and even though he wasn’t able to find peace, he helped countless others find it through his music. The questions that haunted me growing up didn’t sting as much after Nirvana. There wasn’t anything wrong with me, because no one had a final answer on what was right, except for myself. My own idea of blackness may not be for everyone else, but it is for me, and that’s all that matters.