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Baker's Dozen

Beauty From Trauma: Paul Mendez' Favourite Music
Paul Flynn , October 7th, 2020 08:40

Pop is all over Rainbow Milk, the Gordon Burn Prize-nominated debut novel by Paul Mendez. Here he tells Paul Flynn how a love of Marvin Gaye, Beyonce, Solange, Joy Division and Missy Elliott gave him a clearer understanding of his sexuality and racial identity


Solange – When I Get Home
When I Get Home is personal and subjective for me. It was released 1st March 2019. I handed in Rainbow Milk on the 4th March, having flown out the day before to New York for the first time with my partner. We were there three days and then went to Boston to see Thomas Ades perform with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

My whole memory of that time, the excitement of being in New York for the first time, finally handing in my novel and it being accepted is infused with the music of When I Get Home. She’s the closest thing we have to Aaliyah, if she had survived. You can see it in her dress and hair, hear it in her vocal stylings. She has a song called \Down With The Click’. When I first listened to When I Get Home I was ironing, to prepare for New York. 19 tracks? Hmm-mm. 32 minutes long? Hang on a minute. Then you listen to it and there are three fully realised songs on there. The rest are fragments. What are you doing? Who do you think you are? Because we are not used to allowing Black women to be experimental, to do things on their own terms. Then I realised. What is the best part of some songs? The best bit of a song like ‘Just An Illusion’ by Imagination, which I love, is the second chorus. I wish the whole song was just that. Solange has done that. And I’m moaning?

It’s a love letter to her home, to Houston. There are so many of the themes that go all the way through my book in When I Get Home. I did go home at the end of April last year and spent a day, for the first time in 20 years walking around old haunts. I listened to this album on repeat. Very much like Jesse does in the last chapter, listening to Lemonade and A Seat At The Table, to re-programme his trauma, to turn it into something better. I did that with When I Get Home.

‘Almeida’ as a track is one of the best songs ever made. Just the audacity, to go from ‘Fubu’ on A Seat At The Table where it sounds like she’s singing “black, bury the masters”. I’m waiting for all of the right-wing outlets to condemn her and ban her for saying that. Maybe they’re just not hearing it. But it tapped into what I was feeling. The beat, the squelchiness of it, Pharrell producing: just exquisite. It goes straight into the canon for me. I saw Destiny’s Child at the Birmingham Arena and the line-up was Beyonce, Kelly, Michelle and Solange. Kelly sprained her ankle in the warm-up. Solange was travelling with them, so she was there as the third member to dance, while Kelly sat on a stool to sing her bits. I knew of Solange and was invested in her visually since she was 14-years-old. To see her develop from that child, more dancer than musician, through to her releasing A Seat At The Table and When I Get Home? That career growth, that trajectory is extraordinary.

I bet they are just like any other sisters. I’d love to hear a duet between them, but I don’t think they would ever do that. They respect each other so much. They give each other that space. The way Black women are portrayed in the media, we always want to find ways to separate them. Play them off each other. They are aware of that and will never, ever rise to it. I’m so thankful we have them both. They represent something very different in my life, but I love them both equally. That trip to New York was wonderful, by the way.