phyllis hyman made anthems for the lonely

February 15, 2019
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The pain of loneliness is not easy to capture in music. It can linger on cliche and self-deprecating in a way that feels melodramatic. For me, this is because heartbreak and loneliness are not special. Heartbreak and loneliness for the human being are common and to make art about it is to somehow, to me, suggest that your loneliness or heartbreak is somehow deeper, more horrific, more in need of immortalization than others. To make me believe this, the pain has to debilitate me on the record. The heartbreak has to be generous as to say that you are so broken that you have plenty of sadness to share. The loneliness can’t just exist, but it must whistle and be accompanied by warm saxophone solos. The loneliness must be lush.

“You’re the one I’ve been waiting on forever,” Phyllis Hyman sang about finally finding her lover but the melancholy in her voice is palpable as if to suggest that although she has found her lover and the elation found in new love — betcha by golly, wow! — it has still been an emotionally strenuous wait and fight. And finding love alone does not erase that sadness, it becomes a part of you. Phyllis Hyman was a soul singer in the 70’s and 80’s, but she should never be removed from being seen as a blues singer. The pain and depth Hyman’s voice carried to songs both written and not written by her puts her musical storytelling approach in the direct lineage of Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Tina Turner and, in modern times, artists like Alice Smith. Phyllis Hyman’s job was to inject the soul, the blues, that deep feeling of humanity into each song she sang that has been primarily the responsibility of the Black blues singer.

During my first breakup, I had decided that nobody knew this depth of loss or heartbreak I was experiencing: it was worse than death because there’s a corpse to project the mourning onto, there’s a God to blame, or a universe to curse. However, for me, at the tender age of 20, I had to mourn and grieve alone because there was no corpse or tragedy to project this heartbreak on to, it was just two people that changed the agreement of their relationship. But to me, that truth didn’t hold the emotional devastation that I was going through and how unique in my own pain I felt.

At the end of Phyllis Hyman’s “Living All Alone” she whistles. She takes a sound that is usually associated with a jovial, carefree moment and attached it to the end — as the climax — of her pain of being alone and having dreams of togetherness, romantic love that just seems impossible to create. And as if no other lyrics or vocal approaches could satisfy her deep pain that she rejected finding more fantastical noises to describe her pain, and just opted to whistle like one does while walking in the rain, perhaps too preoccupied by the storm happening in one’s own love life to be distracted by the downpour. Therein lies what made Hyman’s heartbreak and loneliness different to me: the generosity. She invited us into her blues. Phyllis Hyman made anthems and blueprints on how to survive sadness through her own vocals and both the lyrics she wrote and appropriated.

The tragic thing about my patron saint of loneliness is that she ended her life by suicide, and selfishly I mourn her music and her unique relationship with sadness. Of course, her life, existed outside of her career and even her sadness, she was a real woman with a complicated interior life and relationship with her darkness. But by golly wow, if she did not make the very human conditions of heartbreak, desire, loss and sadness into fantastic anthems for the lonely.