December 19, 2014

The Tensions and Perks of Being a Misfit

Music makes my life better. I need it with me all the time. I listen to it while commuting to and from work. During work. Running errands. Doing chores. And sometimes when falling asleep. It’s therapeutic. Motivating. It activates my brain to process information. Helps me manage emotions and understand life. You’ll rarely see me without headphones.

My favorite music artists are not easily categorized. It’s hard to neatly fit them in a box. Their stylistic influences and artistic mediums are diverse. They arrange disparate elements to produce songs revealing unique personalities you can see and feel through sound. I love these people because they are one-of-a-kind. Specific. They are unapologetically themselves. I want to be like them.

Pharrell Williams is known for collaborating with music legends and consistently producing megahits. He was a band nerd. Equal parts hip-hop, punk rock, skate, funk, indie, and R&B. He launched an entire website showcasing his creative ventures and included a manifesto encouraging individuality and otherness. It’s a community where misfits belong. Pharrell allows himself to show how much it moves him because he inspired people all over the world.

Kanye West, with his honest and headstrong personality, is polarizing. But without these qualities, his creative point of view probably wouldn’t be as distinct. He’s another master at unexpected sound blending. Late Registration, one of his best selling albums, was a collaboration with Jon Brion, a rock and pop producer, composer, and instrumentalist who co-produced and influenced the the hip-hop album’s orchestral sound. Kanye is bold and experimental.

Missy Elliott treated us to the unusual with her solo debut, leading with creativity and innovation rather than sex appeal like some female artists feel pressured to do. Her sound was unlike anything heard before. Similarly, Lorde brings depth and maturity to a pop culture that can be shallow and youth-obsessed. She’s strange and a little dark. It’s why I like her. Australian soul band Hiatus Kaiyote describe their complex sound as multi-dimensional and polyrhythmic. They don’t look like they sound.

I’m drawn to these artists because they are misfits. They stick out. I can relate. I was usually the only black kid in class. My parents grew up in the rural segregated south. I was raised in predominantly white suburbia. I straddled two worlds. It significantly influenced my taste. Probably why I appreciate an artist like Talib Kweli, who is straight hip-hop and tells stories about real life struggles, as much as I appreciate Radiohead for the somber and haunting layers of sound on their In Rainbows album. My BMI was higher than other ballet dancers. I’m quiet and shy among the socially adept. I like the routine and structure in traditional corporate environments. I also get bored and feel stifled in them.

Three years ago during a conversation with a college classmate I was lamenting (whining) to her about feeling out of place at the conservative company I was working for at the time. “I don’t fit in,” I told her. “Yes you do,” she said. “You’re a round peg in a square hole. You fit. You just have all this extra space around you.” That’s how I felt about Ei. My heart shook when I realized I did’t quite fit here. Some tenets of the program aren’t aligned with my inclinations, strengths, and style. I lean toward more traditional approaches in my work.

I do share similarities with my classmates. We’re risk takers who challenge the status quo. That’s how we got here. I’m also an outlier among them. They are designers, teachers, engineers, builders, programmers, and writers. I want to help designers make beautiful apparel and grow their businesses. I don’t know what I am yet. Or where I fit. I’m molting. Another thing my college classmate told me.

Years later, her insights are helping me reconcile the tensions and contrasts that shape me. I’m learning again that you don’t have to be a perfect fit (or fit in at all) to belong. There are benefits to being an outlier. The host company for my apprenticeship seeks and highly values outsider perspective, which means I get to be the voyeur—a role I enjoy. They embrace different backgrounds to help remix their business. This experience continues to bring me the best of many worlds to create something new. Like my mentors in the music world.

Those music artists inspire me to emulate their careers and ways of working. I’m applying the elements of Ei that resonate. Listening and learning from its rhythms. Laying them over my bassline (my interests and talents). Drawing from existing knowledge and skills. Infusing current and prior influences. And incorporating new learning as it comes. I’m experimenting with life and career. Producing a track with a sound only I could make. I belong here to do it. I’m making it my jam.

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