Grace comes in surprising packages.
Sometimes grace, that hard-to-define-but-easy-to-recognize quality, arrives in a kind word from a friend, an extra week to pay a bill, a soft breeze on a sweltering day.
Two weeks after the terrorist attacks in September 2001, for me grace arrived, unannounced and unexpected, in the form of a jazzman.
It was the first Saturday night after life forever changed on 9/11. People waiting patiently to enter the Park West Theater in Chicago were unusually quiet as security guards checked and double-checked IDs, even for those who didn’t intend to drink. A queer pall of uneasiness hung in the air.
Many of the smartly dressed folks waiting to hear the jazz vocalist Kurt Elling sing selections from his album Flirting with Twilight had had to force themselves out of the house that night, had to take a deep breath, say a few prayers, and put on something festive, even though that was the last thing they were feeling.
Inside, the nightclub glowed warmly with candlelight; a few concertgoers milled by the bar ordering cocktails while others found seats set up clubstyle in the intimate venue. But still, that nasty pall hovered.
Elling took the stage with his five-piece band and played the national anthem.
Everyone stood. Everyone sang. Some people cried.
Then grace entered the room.
“I came to sing for you tonight because someone wants us to suffer,” Elling told the hushed crowd. “Someone wants us to fail—as a nation, a culture, as a people. We fold? They win. We stay home in fear or depression? They win. Culture must continue. Joy must come out. Life is stronger than death.”
Then Elling, a Grammy-nominated jazz musician and all-around hip cat, quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures. The book of Job: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.”
“We are not encircled by darkness. We’re surrounded by a circle of light whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere. We have beheld this glory; it is full of grace. If we were to ask such a God of grace, what do you think God would say?” Elling asked.
His band answered, playing the first few notes of “Not While I’m Around,” a Stephen Sondheim tune from the musical Sweeney Todd.
Strange choice? Listen to the words:
“Nothing’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around. No one’s gonna harm you, no sir, not while I’m around. Demons are prowling everywhere nowadays. I’ll send them howling, I don’t care … I’ve got ways.
“No one’s gonna hurt you, no one’s gonna dare. Others can desert you, not to worry, whistle, I’ll be there. Demons’ll charm you with a smile, for a while. But in time, nothing can harm you, not while I’m around.”
Yep. There you have it.
There was hardly a dry eye in the house, and the pall blew away.
“It was a special honor and a challenge and a service, a moment of being a servant for whoever showed up,” Elling told me a few days later, reflecting on that night. “People needed to be fed. I wanted to make sure they knew that they had access to this other way, that you listened to this music in this other way.
“I do have a belief that what is happening is a sacred thing.”
Elling is a really interesting fellow. A Rockford, Illinois, native, he’s the son of a music minister from the conservative Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.After college, where he studied history and religion, Elling enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. Were it not for a pesky German exam that he never passed, he says he’d have a divinity degree. Not that he ever intended to be a collared minister, or to use his jazz pulpit for anything more than singing.
Elling, who refuses any religious label for himself apart from “artist,” is definitely not the Michael W. Smith of the jazz world.
Still, his deep spirituality and religious background permeate his music. Just not in the way you could sum up on a bumper sticker.
That Saturday at the Park West, Elling was funny and profound, sexy and spiritual, following in the footsteps of other jazzmen like Duke Ellington. Elling wove songs about soul food and romantic love in between quotations from the German poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Friedrich Hölderlin, and from the Bible.
“I think music has this service to play. Most of the time it doesn’t need to be explicit,” he said.
“People will accept whatever information that you lay on them in a way that they’re ready for. I don’t think that it’s about spoonfeeding anybody what the deal is. Part of the beauty of it is the discovery of the individual. It’s a beautiful thing because you’re discovering art.”
And, occasionally, grace.
From GG’s first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006)
Editor’s Note: First off, please let me offer heartfelt apologies for taking more than a year to share this little gem of a conversation with you. In June 2015, on a Midwestern musical odyssey road trip from St. Louis to Chicago to see live performances by Mumford & Sons, My Morning Jacket, The Flaming Lips, Dawes, and U2 (among others), I had the great pleasure of catching up with two of my favorite people on the planet—Lin Brehmer and Terri Hemmert, legendary DJs from Chicago’s WXRT (i.e. the best radio station in the country, if not the world.) I lured them to Heaven on Seven with the promise of all the cajun food they could eat and a conversation about stuff we like, namely music and all things spiritual. Specifically, I wanted to hear what they had to say about spiritual or religious or transcendent or whateveryouwanttocallit experiences they’d had at live concerts for a journalistic project I was working on at the time.
What follows is the transcript of our conversation, edited gently for flow:
GOD GIRL: I don’t know two people who have been to more live music events than the two of you. And you’re both spiritually bent, though some are more ‘bent’ than others…
LIN: I’m very spiritually bent.
TERRI: Psychedelic, too.
GOD GIRL: Have you had a spiritual experience at a concert or live performance you can talk about and if so, what was it like?
LIN: I can go first.
Woodstock ’94. I’m there in a professional capacity, part of the professional national radio broadcast team. And I spent most of all these concerts in a truck looking at videos of these people performing. But occasionally, in the evening I’d get out to see artists perform. The headliner the last night was Peter Gabriel.
So I manage to get out to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers before Peter Gabriel, and that was fun, they were fine. And then Peter Gabriel came out…and he does all these songs that have this real emotional, powerful effect on me and, as he often did, he ended the show with one song that always lays me to waste. But first he passed out candles—somehow he managed to pass out candles to thousands of people, so there are thousands and thousands of people in this field in upstate New York at 11 at night and it’s just a forest of lit candles. And you hear the strange percussion that just creeps up your spine of the beginning of ‘Biko.’
And I go, oh my God, he’s going to do ‘Biko’ now and I’m not going to be able to handle it. Because that song just destroys me. It was business as usual in whatever room it is in the lyrics and goes into ‘Biko.’
By the end you have 40,000 or 50,000 people all with lit candles lifted in the air chorusing, ‘Biko, Biko, Biko…’
(Lin’s voice cracks with emotion and I get all verklempt here myself )
And I generally tear up when I hear ‘Biko’ on a stereo, but that, I said, well this is a moment that some day I’ll tell Cathleen Falsani about.
(Terri starts laughing)
GOD GIRL: I was in seminary at the time, so you planned that well.
LIN: In ’94?
GOD GIRL: Yep….Lord, you almost got me goin’ there. That song!
TERRI: That song is just amazing. That’s a great story.
LIN: (to Terri) Come on! You can do better than that!
GOD GIRL: It doesn’t have to be a story about something that happened to you. The idea is, is it possible to have this spiritual or religious experience, whether it’s the audience or the performers themselves, and not even realize that it’s happening?
TERRI: Does it have to be live or could it be recorded?
GOD GIRL: I guess it could be recorded. Why not?
TERRI: Because I’ve had many spiritual experiences listening to recorded music. But one that comes to mind just off the top of my head is this: my sister was killed in a car accident more than 30 years ago. A 19-year-old kid. Somebody took my baby—I was 16 years older than her. Just a wonderful kid. Off a college. Somebody fell asleep [at the wheel]…so that’s why I started going to St. Clement’s. I thought, no amount of therapy or anything is going to help me through this. I need to pray. So if I go here for six months, I’ll be fine.
That was more than 30 years ago and I’m still there.
So I was really close with a couple of high school kids there—Lin knows these folks—Erin and Aileen—and out of the mouths of babes: they came to me once and said, ‘We think you should join the choir. We’re going to do the Mozart Requiem and we think this might be therapeutic for you.’ I thought, how did they think of that? I mean, they’re 16 years old. And I said, ‘I don’t have time. My schedule’s really busy…’ And they said, ‘Make time.’ Then they started really badgering me. So finally I talked to the choir director and he said, ‘You can miss rehearsals. It’ll be fine. I understand.’ So I said, OK I’m going to commit to this, I’m gonna do it.
And they were absolutely right. It was the most therapeutic thing, getting up and going to rehearsals for this thing, and understanding the requiem mass and how it reflects the whole spectrum of grief, and how healing that music is. So I did it and it was amazing. We did several performances and every time we’d get off stage I’d go off and find a place and cry. Amazing.
Well, not too many years later then, because she was getting ready to go off to college, Erin was in a near-fatal car accident a block from my house. I’d just seen them. I’d been out on the block at the choir parties. She was DOA and they resuscitated her. She was literally six weeks away from being in college where she was going to study to be an opera singer.
And, of course, she had to change her plans because [the accident] ruined her vocal cords and all kinds of stuff. She was in a coma for a week. And she walk up and had a head injury nightmare for years. Now she’s in her forties…
LIN: I can’t believe she’s in her forties now!
TERRI: It was just really horrible…but she finally worked it all out, and she’s wonderful. We’re still really good friends. She’s a musical therapist. …The moment I remember vividly was she was in a coma. I learned a lot about how to read the monitors and REM and different levels of [consciousness.] You think of someone in a coma as if they’re sleeping but they’re not. It’s pretty chaotic. They have a lot of anxiety and it’s really not pretty to watch. One day I came in with a Walkman—it was that long ago—with a cassette and I had our recording of Mozart’s Requiem and I came in and put the headphones on the pillow next to her head and turned on the Kyrie. And all of a sudden I saw her leaning her head toward the headphones, and I started reading the monitors and she had calmed down. She had a moment of peace that she hadn’t had in like five days. And it took my breath away.I thought it would be a nice thing to do but I had no idea she would have such a physical and psychological reaction.
I’ve encountered that piece of music over the years. One time I was having a hard time. I was in Door county—I was just thinking about this because I was just there a week ago. I was on the bay side and I couldn’t sleep at all. I was having a really hard time. So I finally got up, got in the car, drove across the peninsula and watched the sun come up with the Mozart Requiem playing on cassette—the same cassette of our performance—and I thought, you know what? I can do this. I can get through this.
It was a moment of feeling a strength I hadn’t felt in quite a while.
So for me, sometimes listening to recorded music when you’re alone, even more than when you’re in a big crowd, can either mess you up or take you out of whatever gloom you’re in. Sometimes I find it even more intimate because they’re aren’t any people around. But your story (she’s talking to Lin here) is amazing.
LIN: I think we’ve both had moments at work because we have a very insulated experience. We’re in a sound-proof booth and we can be in there hours without people interfering with us, less so for me because I do have a producer—the pesky Mary Dixon—
TERRI: I love her. She’s the best.
GOD GIRL: Love that Mary. Give her a hug for me, please.
LIN: And depending upon what’s going on in your life, music can really whipsaw you. There are a few songs where it’s kind of beyond understanding, where you don’t know why this song does what it does to you. But you et caught up in it. And you can be alone in the studio with no one else around, and it doesn’t have to be a sad song—like Garland Jeffrey’s ‘R.O.C.K.’ rock anthem that came out in 1980 that nobody listened to and nobody cared about, and I think we’re the only station left that probably still plays it, but I consider it one of my theme songs.
The chorus is, ‘R-O-C-K rock saved me from a fate worse than death.’ It’s a music-for-salvation kind of song. And when I’ve had rough patches in my life or am caught in a moment of reflection about what I’ve done with my life and what I’m doing with my life, and there I am in the studio doing a radio show for literally dozens of people in the Chicago area, and I think, I haven’t played this song in a while. It starts out with this in-your-face piano fill, and it builds. And that first guitar chord hits and I’m like, Oh shit, here it comes. And I melt.
KELLEY: I think it’s amazing when you don’t even know, when it’s not the lyrics. Sometimes it’s just the music, just a chord progression or all of a sudden you find yourself weeping at just the sounds.
LIN: I have explained to people that whatever else happens at my funeral—and I hope there’s a lot of whisky and a lot of beer—but at some point the John Fahey song ‘Sunflower River Blues’ must be played because of all the acoustic, instrument music I’ve heard, that song—it’s almost got an Indian Hindu drone—that song completely takes over my mind.
Because in my mind, it’s very much like the Second Movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. That has a progression that sounds like a man trudging to the end of his life. Aaaaa aa aa aaaaa … What happens at the end is that the song resolves itself musically baaaa bump bump baaa bump… so there you are, you have this struggle, but at the end of the song it slides you back up again. It’s kind of the same thing with that John Fahey song.
TERRI: Well, you’ve got to carry that weight a long time. I wrote that to Mavis [Staples] once when she was going through a hard time. I said, ‘Well, you know what the Beatles said, boy you’ve gotta carry that weight a long time.’”
You know there’s another piece that has that same kind of progression, Mahler’s Fifth, the fourth movement. I do a lecture series on the symphony and what I do is I throw a box of Kleenex in the audience and I say, take one and pass it down. Because by the end of this, if you don’t weep I don’t want to see you here next week because you’re not my friend.
GOD GIRL: Because you’re dead inside.
TERRI: I’m serious. … It’s not a four-movement symphony, it’s five movements, so it’s not the last movement. I said, usually you can feel the progression, you can count the bars—one, two three four; two, two three four—and you instinctively, physically move with the measures. But with this, it’s more like water swirling. It’s almost Eastern. There’s not that Western, Beethoven kind of thing. I said to him, ‘He wrote this for his wife, who was pretty weird. She was kind of like the Yoko Ono of her time, and not in a good way.’ But I said, ‘He loved her passionately. How many of you have been in a dysfunctional relationship?’ And everybody raised their hands. I said, ‘In the wrong hands this movement can sound like a Hallmark greeting card, isn’t everything beautiful. But when it’s played well, like by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra does, there’s a subtle sense of angst and just a little bit of dissonance that just takes your breath away. Because in every beautiful thing there’s that push and pull, a complexity, that everything isn’t just that simple. It’s a beautiful piece of music because it takes you first into this dark place and then takes you out into this gorgeous, shimmering piece of music. I can hardly breathe when I hear it.
LIN: And she’s noted publicly how much Mahler looked like a young Lin Brehmer.
GOD GIRL: Is that true?
TERRI: Yep. I actually did that on a blog. I put their pictures side-by-side and he does! But you don’t live with a psychotic woman, Lin.
I don’t know if these experiences are strictly spiritual or religious or if they’re just overwhelming emotionally or if there’s really much of a difference between religious and overwhelming emotionally, but when my two brothers and I get together at least once a year—they’re all very bad musicians; I play guitar, my brother David plays banjo, and my brother John plays mandolin—and my son Wilson is a very good guitar player. Really the only time we play our instruments to any great extent is at our family reunion and because we’re such bad musicians the only kind of music we can play is old-timey folk songs. And one of the things my father loved beyond all measure when he was still alive was to have all three of his sons and his grandson singing Woody Guthrie songs and singing songs from the songbook of O Brother Where Art Thou? We’d sing ‘one fine morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away,’ and with my son, who is actually musical, we’d get a two- or three-part harmony going and it was really, for a bunch of amateur brothers getting together, it was really beautiful. And my father would say, ‘Boys, no matter what else happens, when I die, I want you to promise me that you’re gonna get together and sing this song for me.’ So when my father died, we had a little service for him … in the retirement home’s little auditorium with a stage. My dad was a very affable guy, everybody in the community knew him. So it was a packed house in this little auditorium of these old people and some of the family that we had that flew in, and my two brother sand my son on stage singing, ‘I’ll fly away, O Lordy, I’ll fly away…”
And that song now, when I come across it in the soundtrack while watching the movie or hear it someplace else because it’s a fairly easily reproduced song and you hear folks singers play it all the time, it takes me to a very special place.
GOD GIRL: I think the Irish call that a ‘thin place.’
LIN: I love that.
TERRI: What is it?
GOD GIRL: A thin place. It’s where the veil between this and the more, or this world and the next is so thin it’s gossamer—you can almost put your hand right through it.
LIN: Oh yes. That song brings me to a thin place in a small hour….OK. No more crying.
TERRI: Music will do that to you!
LIN: We have based our entire careers on a belief that music can make people cry and it can make people laugh and it can make people say “I’m gonna get through this day because I heard ‘You saved me from a fate worse than death, R.O.C.K. rock!”
TERRI: Radio is a thing where we can’t see our audience so we can’t see how they’re responding. And once in a while, someone will come up to me, like this one guy who said, ‘We were listening to you in the hearse on the way to bury my father and you played “Hey Jude” and that was just perfect.” I had no idea.
And then there was this other guy. I had just played ‘Don’t Give Up’ by Peter Gabriel—
LIN: OH GOD!
TERRI: “—and he said I just want to tell you that I woke up this morning and I was very depressed. I was going in to be tested for HIV. I got up and got ready and I was running early so I just sat there on the couch, zoning out with the radio on. I’ve heard that song a hundred times but I’ve never heard it like I heard it today.’ He said, ‘I had this transformational moment while I was sitting there on the couch listening. And I’m calling to say thank you for playing that, and no matter what happens, I’m not going to give up. I do have friends. I do have a reason to live, no matter how long it is.’
Who knows how long we’re going to live? You don’t have to have AIDS to know that. It could be a minute.
I said, ‘Would you please call me back and let me know how this turns out for you?’ And a few days later he called me back and said, ‘I’m OK. But I’m living like there’s no tomorrow. That song renewed me and gave me a sense of purpose.’ He was just a lovely guy.
I know two people who came out of their comas while listening to the radio and later told me, yours was the first voice I heard coming out, and my friend would put [you on the radio] because they knew I’d like it and recognize your voice.’ The voice is like the human musical instrument and it does have a lot of power.
GOD GIRL: You were on the air, Terri, on 9/11 right?
TERRI: Yes. You were too, Lin.
LIN: I was on the air when it happened.
GOD GIRL: I was driving into my office at the Sun-Times during the hand-off from you to her and you two were the voices I was listening to as I drove down Lake Street into the city, looking at the building ahead of me going, ‘Please God, no.’ We didn’t have any idea how many more planes were in the air or what might happen next. It was terrifying. I don’t can’t remember what you two said, but I do know that just hearing you was comforting.
LIN: Well, that was the day we stopped playing music and we just talked to the listeners.
TERRI: This showed me how weak newspapers can be in their coverage. Somebody wrote an article about how radio stations responded to 9/11 and they said they turned into ‘XRT and ‘they were playing the same old blues song.’ Do you know what I was playing? It was right before we cut off the music. I was playing Pop Staples’ ‘Hope in a Hopeless World,’ goddamit. That was a damn good song to play at that moment, and this guy’s saying I blew it off. He didn’t call me to ask what the song was or if there was a significance to why I was playing it. And, my God, I couldn’t have picked a better song.
So it’s been more than a year since Kelley and Terri and Lin and I had lunch and talked about the power of music and the spirit. After lunch, Kelley and I headed to the United Center to see U2 perform. They played “Gloria” live for the first time in many years. It was the first time I’d watched them up close and in person perform the song that, as a 12-year-old, jump-started my soul and set me on a trajectory that I’m still following today, 30-odd years later. The first time I heard “Gloria” on my friend Rob’s living room HiFi in the early 1980s, it felt like my soul did a back-flip. When I heard it again, live for the first time, at the United Center, my soul did a full floor routine with flips and round-offs and splits in the air, while tears streamed down my face and goosebumps covered me from head to toe.
Frederick Buechner famously said:
Pay attention to the things that bring a tear to your eye or a lump in your throat because they are signs that the holy is drawing near.
Behold, the spiritual power of music.
Amen and Hallelujah.
My conversation with Terri and Lin originally was meant to be research for a series about spiritual experiences at live music events. Sadly that series was killed before it took off. But my brilliant soul brother Tripp Hudgins has picked up that ball and runs with it at Sonic Theology. From time to time we conspire together on such things, too.
We’d LOVE to hear about your own spiritual/religious/woo-woo experiences at live concerts or in your encounters with music elsewhere, so please tell us things in the comments or send us your stories via email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll share them here in future posts.
Today one of the finest people I ever worked with as a reporter resigned from my former employer, The Chicago Sun-Times. Dave McKinney is a gentleman and an outstanding journalist who I was honored to work with for a decade in Chicago.
Dave didn’t deserve this. Journalism doesn’t deserve this. I mourn the Sun-Times of bygone years. I thought you should see what’s happening in too many quarters of the once great Fourth Estate.
It is with great delight that I share some (personal) breaking news: At the end of the month, I will be joining the staff of the Orange County Register as its Faith & Values Columnist.
I’ll be on sabbatical until then, but I am thrilled to be joining the Register in this new era, with a publisher, Aaron Kushner, who believes in the power and necessity of excellent newspaper journalism. In the last few months, the Register has hired more than 70 new reporters, columnists, editors, and designers.
When I visited the Register offices in Santa Ana late last year, I found something I hadn’t seen in more than a decade and feared I might never see again: a thriving newsroom. Every seat filled. Humming with the sounds of reporters doing their thing. Bubbling with energy and excitement.
I was beyond thrilled to meet astute and creative editors who understand the importance of covering issues of faith, religion, values, morals, ethics, and belief that are a vital part of the fabric, history, and future of Orange County.
During the 3.5 years since my family relocated from Chicago to Orange County, I have fallen head-over-heels in love with this magical place, its lively and diverse community, and the extraordinary people I’m blessed to call my neighbors.
I can’t wait to dig in, discover, and tell their stories.
It’s an unexpected new chapter in my life for which I am deeply grateful.
Thanks to all of you for walking with me these many years and for joining me on this new adventure.
A Sort of Homecoming:
God Girl returns to Chicago 4/29
Join me at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 29 at St. James Cathedral (Huron and Wabash in Chicago) for the inaugural address of the new “Consider This …” series, sponsored by the Sunday Evening Club, The Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, Seabury-Western Seminary and St. James Cathedral.
I’ll be talking about grace and will be interviewed by my esteemed colleague and friend, Manya “The Seeker” Brachear of the Chicago Tribune.
A pre-reception begins at 5:15 p.m. Admission is free.
Some days he looks weary. Occasionally it seems he might be the tiniest bit angry.
But most of the time, the man in the mural with the piercing yellow-hazel eyes who stares across the trashy vacant lot at the corner of Lake and Damen looks like he’s got something to say.
His disembodied head floats there on the side of a building like a modern Wizard of Oz. Like an urban oracle.
At least a couple of times a week since the mural appeared in summer 2001, I’ve forsaken the Eisenhower and taken the scenic route to work, heading east on Lake Street through the West Side, hoping that the light at Damen would be red so I could stare at “the 50/50 guy.”
I call him that because painted alongside his face is, inexplicably, the red-white-and-green logo from a 50/50-brand soft drink.
For the longest time I couldn’t decide if the mural was a work of art or a high-concept ad for lemon-lime soda. Either way, I wondered if the man with those haunting eyes was a real person.
Was he a figure from African-American history I should recognize but don’t? A neighborhood hero martyred in street violence?
Maybe it was a self-portrait of the muralist, or simply a character from his imagination.
On Monday, in a fit of this-is-the-day-I-must-know-and-by-God-I-shall-induced curiosity, I learned the truth.
Actually, I met the truth.
His name is Oba Maja. He’s a street poet in Wicker Park.
Oba Maja stands next to Jeff Zimmermann‘s mural of him at Damen and Lake in Chicago.
And yes, his eyes really are that color.
Oba, 61, is the father of 12, grandfather of 22—at least that’s his best guess—and a graduate of St. Patrick High School. He changed his name from Wayne to Oba (which means “possessed by the spirit of the king,” he said) during the black power movement of the 1960s.
Jeff Zimmermann, the Chicago artist who painted the mural called “Top of the World,” on the southern wall of 215 N. Damen, told me where I could find Oba.
He usually hangs out near a quickie mart on Milwaukee next to the entrance to the Flat Iron Building, Zimmermann said. That’s exactly where I found him around noon, standing on the sidewalk with a tall cup of coffee in his hand.
Were it not for the dark sunglasses he was wearing, I wouldn’t have needed to ask if he was the 50/50 man.
“Are you Oba?” I said.
“Yes, ma’am, I am,” he said, removing his sunglasses and his gloves to shake my hand.
There they were. Those eyes, those magical eyes. I felt like I was meeting a movie star. Or Harry Potter.
A tear was running down his thin, left cheek, the product, I assumed, of the cold wind. So we went inside a nearby cafe, where the staff greeted him by name, and settled into a table in the back where he told me the story of the mural.
Oba isn’t homeless. He wants people to know that. He has a nice place on North Avenue near Laramie with a color TV. He pays $45 a week in rent.
But he does make his living on the street, selling poems to passersby. Sometimes he recites them. Other times he sells photocopies of his handwritten work.
That’s how he met Zimmermann several years ago. “I’d always see Jeff and he’d never buy one of my poems,” Oba said, adding that he’s sold his poems for as little as a dime and as much as $375. “He said, ‘I’m not gonna buy one of your poems, but I am gonna make you famous.’ And he did.”
Zimmermann tells the same story. The artist has painted several murals around the city, always featuring real people as characters. He met Oba and liked his face—”a real character,” is how he describes it—took a few snapshots, and the poet wound up as the centerpiece of the mural.
Standing in the alley that runs in front of the mural, which also features a smaller portrait of an African girl and a giant crumpled Fritos bag with the silver lining showing (Zimmermann calls them “urban tumbleweeds”), Oba looked up at his face and smiled. “Yeah, Jeff did a great job,” he said.
Directly across Lake Street is a public housing complex that has seen better days. It’s what Oba’s face stares at day and night.
The poet said he’d like to think he inspires the people who live there.
“I’m offering hope,” Oba said sweetly. “I’m offering beautiful thoughts. . . . I make people realize the value and the beauty of watching a sunset, the beauty inside themselves.
“I wrote a poem called ‘The Cosmic Twins.’ I say, well, you have the eye and then you have the ‘I,’ the person. And sometimes you put too much emphasis on the ‘I,’ the self, by always looking into the mirror of ourselves. And we don’t notice the beauty around us, the people. Nature.
“Sometimes we need to pay attention to both ‘I/eyes.”
If I ever were to leave Chicago there are three things I’d want to take with me that wouldn’t fit in any moving van: Terri Hemmert’s voice on the radio, the aroma of Blommer’s Chocolate Factory on a hot August afternoon, and the mural with Oba’s face.
I told the poet as much. He thanked me for the compliment and offered something I could take with me by reciting his poem of the day.
It was a simple, if awkward, meditation on materialism that ended with the phrase, “Tomorrow is not promised to nobody.”
He called it, “Twilight at the Crossroads.”
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UPDATE, FEBRUARY 16, 2017:
A friend and I just were discussing public art and artists and I remembered this column I’d written more than a decade ago about a piece of public art and the man behind it, which sent me digging through my archives to find and read it again. Then I Googled, as you do, and learned that the beautiful soul that is Oba Maja passed from this earth on Oct. 16, 2015. May he rest in peace and his words and blessed memory remain with us always.