Thank you for all the wonderful feedback from my first post in my Black Women Who Have Shaped Me series, where I talked about how Maya Angelou’s first book guided my own coming of age and inspired me to tell my own story. This week I’m paying homage to Sade Adu, the British-Nigerian Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter.
If you asked me on a regular day who my favorite singer was, I don’t think I’d have an answer. For all of middle and high school, my favorite singer was Alicia Keys, but for the past 10 years, there hasn’t been a single artist whose albums I eagerly await and download religiously. Truthfully, I don’t listen to music that often. Because I work so much with words — whether blogging or doing academic research — I prefer to do my work in silence. So while Sade’s discography isn’t top of mind every single day, her music evokes one of the strongest human emotions for me: love.
In ancient Greek and Christian tradition, there are four kinds of love: eros, storge, philia, and agape. While most of her music would probably be categorized as songs for romantic love, it’s actually storge, or familial love, that Sade’s music evokes for me, and in particular, for two of my closest relationships: with my mom and with my husband.
I think I had an above average relationship with my parents growing up. Of course, there were many times when I hated them and felt that they didn’t want me to breathe and have a life, but now that I’m older and have heard other people’s stories about their parent-child relationships, I know that we did pretty well. On top of the usual generational conflicts, one of the biggest challenges I faced with my parents growing up was a constant tension between the culture of where we came from and the culture of where we currently lived. There were many times when I was told I couldn’t do something because “that’s not how it’s done in Nigeria” and I would be utterly confused because we were no longer in Nigeria! Now that I’m living my own immigrant experience I know ALL too well the comfort and familiarity of holding onto your own beliefs and ways of life, so I don’t fault my parents at all for being reticent to assimilate to American culture.
But if there was one thing that I can think of that my mom and I had in common growing up, it was a love for Sade’s music. I loved the silkiness of Sade’s voice and the way my mom would belt out The Sweetest Taboo or No Ordinary Love, often messing the words up (lol my mom is one of those people who sings very confidently but will be singing the wrong words. Love you mom!). We didn’t actually listen to anything besides Christian gospel and Nigerian music in our house, but Sade was an exception. I remember getting to college and having people talk about how their parents instilled in them a love for Prince or Earth, Wind, and Fire and I had literally never heard any of their music. But Sade? Those songs I knew by heart (the correct lyrics lol). I suspect, in addition to her half-Nigerian heritage, there was a discreteness, modesty, and simplicity to Sade that my mom was comfortable sharing with her daughter, contrasted to other late 80s pop stars like Whitney Houston (no disrespect to Whitney!). And those moments of humming along to Sade together bonded us in a way that I could always go back to when we were fighting about how I wasn’t allowed to go to junior prom or for a friend’s birthday party. Now as an adult, I have a really close relationship with my mom, but Sade’s music was one of the first ways that storge — the familial love — manifested in my youth.
What Sade means for my relationship with Jonathan is a completely different story, but one that I think really signifies the shift in our relationship from eros love to storge love. It’s a pretty sad story, but a year into our long-distance relationship, Jonathan lost his dad. He had been working in Nigeria and flew back to Kenya just in time to say goodbye. I was in New York, and we’d actually been arguing for several weeks about our timeline and communication. I hadn’t seen him in 7 months and didn’t know when I was going to see him again. When his dad passed, I for the first time felt like I had to be with Jonathan to support and encourage him, not because he was my boyfriend, but because he was my person.
We decided that I’d be more of a burden if I flew in for the funeral, as I’d only spent considerable time with the family 3 months before and didn’t know anyone in Kenya well enough to stay with them. The moment was 1000% not about me, but I felt so useless. Jonathan had been my rock when I’d lost my aunt two years before, and I wanted to return the favor. There was only 1 real way that I could think to convey the magnitude of my support from afar, and that was through Sade’s song By Your Side. It was an apology and a promise wrapped in one. And so I played it over the phone. I sent him parts of the lyrics through Whatsapp. And I continued to let him know that I would always be there, when he was ready to talk, when he needed a shoulder to cry on. It’s a promise I’ve kept for over 10 years, and I will keep for as long as we both live. Although we didn’t officially become a family until 3.5 years after this particular moment in our relationship, By Your Side always reminds me of the moment that I chose to love Jonathan as my family.