How J. Cole Taught Me To Love Minez

J. Cole started his career with a dollar and a dream. I started this blog with a wish and a prayer to interview J. Cole. I had the nerve to believe that I could get him–Jermaine Lamarr Cole, the man whose music had changed my life–to agree to sit down and talk to me. Oh, did I mention he’s also the most elusive rapper out there? Or that I’m a student with no social media presence or music industry background? My quest wasn’t for clout, it was to have the opportunity to be in the same room and shake his hand and to tell him that his music helped me find the self confidence to read my poems at my first open mic and apply and be accepted into the Master’s of Creative Writing at Antioch University. The interview hasn’t happened, yet, but my attempts have led me to a reflection of my first encounter with J. Cole’s music and how it has given me the freedom to accept myself as I am. Or, as he would put it: to love minez.

It was the summer of 2016 when I first heard his words; I was stuck in traffic trying to get to the eating disorder treatment center on time, my usual negative talk reel screaming inside my head—You’re too fat, no one loves you, you’ve got no talent—the voices of every person or failure in my life that made me feel less than. Then, over the car stereo—No such thing as a life that’s better than yourz, I’m tired of living with demons cause they always inviting more. The words took me back to a time when I wasn’t burdened with the weight of emotional demons. They let me breathe. For those three minutes and thirty seconds I felt no self-doubt, no insecurity, no regret. I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

No such thing as a life that’s better than yourz.

But happiness had always been for someone else: someone thinner, someone who was loved, someone with talent, and I have been an emotional eater almost my entire life. When I first heard the lyrics to Love Yourz, I was 5’ 7” tall and, at 389 pounds, was the heaviest I’d ever been in my life. After years of unsuccessful dieting on my own, I made the decision to ask for help. My doctor was supportive and referred me to a treatment center, but my already low self-esteem was dipping to new depths. The treatment center taught me that my eating habits were a tool I used to avoid dealing with deep rooted traumas from my past. I decided to face my old scars and threw myself into therapy. These were the hardest months of my life. I participated in group therapy, one-on-one therapy, food and emotional journaling, meal planning with a nutritionist, learning proper portioning and mindful eating, all in order to rewire my brain to view food as fuel and not an emotional crutch. And I had to do it without being able to run to food. I almost quit, several times, my negative voice telling me, why are you bringing up all these terrible memories from your past, people always let you down in some way, reminding me, food was always there for me, always tasted good. It could have been easy to forget that I got out of breath walking the few feet from my car to my job every day, or that I was already in the largest size clothing my local plus size store sold. Then I discovered J. Cole—I hope one day you hear me…you ain’t never gon’ be happy til you love yourz. I let his lyrics run on repeat in my mind instead of doing what I always do: quitting on myself. I decided for once to see what would happen if I gave myself the support that I find so easy to give my students or to friends when they want to give up on themselves.

No such thing as a life that’s better than yourz.

On Mondays, the treatment program opens with weekly intentions. Before the negative voice could stop me, I raised my hand. “I intend to go to Da Poetry Lounge and sign up to read my poetry.” My negative voice went bananas. Danger! Danger! Emergency! Take it back! This is the worst idea in the history of bad ideas! One by one the entire group responded, “I support that intention.” Usually the pressure of all of their encouragement would drive me to binge eat and hide, but on that day J. Cole’s lyrics followed me everywhere—I hope one day you hear meI heard him in each person in that room offering me their support and allowed myself to accept it. I left treatment at 1 p.m., brought my pre-packed snacks and the poems I wanted to read, and drove to Fairfax High School, J. Cole’s “Love Yourz” playing on the stereo. I felt like I was bringing a friend along. Hearing his song was like pushing a mute button on my inner negativity, I could feel the negative thoughts rattling around inside my head but I could ignore them.

Dante R. Basco, founder of Da Poetry Lounge

I arrived to the open mic venue and watched the line grow, before long it wrapped around to the parking lot. I stood in line alone and listened to other people’s conversations of memorable performances, listing off names of performers people hoped would read again tonight. I watched people rehearse the poems they wanted to read. I looked over the pieces I wanted to read until my nerves blurred my vision. People could tell I was nervous and I received a lot of encouragement, which felt comforting and helped me relax.

Writing is what makes me happiest. But even in my writing I couldn’t escape my insecurities. I have written little stories and poems as long as I could hold a crayon but I never felt I was smart enough to write a book. And my family never supported my dreams of being a writer, so I hid my writing and never shared it with other people. But I never lost the desire to write, infusing stories with my experiences or my experiences with the stories I wish I had until eventually I had a finished first draft of my first Young Adult novel, Wannabe.

Set in the 80’s, the novel tells the story of Brook Kinsey, an overweight teen living in L.A. who comes from a dysfunctional family as she tries to find a way to accept herself as she is. I worked on that book for over five years, writing, getting frustrated, putting it away, taking classes, feeling inferior compared to the other students, putting it away, rewriting, workshopping, putting it away, rewriting. The day I finally finished the first draft, I found my story was stronger for having taken the risks of writing, sharing, and allowing other people to offer their feedback. I learned to accept that there was always room for growth and change in my writing. Even still, the prospect of reading at Da Poetry Lounge terrified me.

Standing in line waiting to fufil my intention I was overcome with the vulnerability of sharing my poem—a piece of myself—and with the fear of being rejected. All I heard was J. Cole’s voice—Heart beatin’ fast, let a n** know he alive. Listening to it, I felt like I did at communion. I wanted to say amen when the sign-up clipboard was passed to me. I looked at the list and saw that number three (my lucky number) was open. It felt like my own little miracle.

But the negative voice was still pounding inside my skull. What are you doing? They’re all going to laugh at you! You can’t do this! But I had my invisibility cloak on—blackout shades and hoodie pulled as far over my face as possible. And I had J. Cole’s voice rapping in my head—Don’t be sleepin’ on your level cause its beauty in the struggle n**. And when I stood at the mic at last, shaking so bad I had to hold the paper with both hands, my three minutes ticking by, slipping away, I made some mistakes: I forgot to say my name and I didn’t look into the audience once. But J. Cole’s words had already carried me to the mic. No such thing as a life that’s better than yourz. My hands shaking but my voice sure, I leaned in and said:

What Do My Clothes Say About Me

I want to be invisible in this skin
I’m in I want the world to walk by and never see
All my scars
Across my chest
That make up me
Mistakes
Regrets
Flaws
I want to be invisible
But that’s not free
The shame
The guilt
Weigh heavy
Your eyes still see
Right to the broken bits of me
Imperfections
Complications
I want to be invisible but until then
This hoodie protects me
From the stares
Judgments
Comments
Lies
Disappointments
Fears
I can’t tell you to fuck off
So it does it for me
Stop
Turn around
Back away
This bitch is dangerous
Just walk away

J. Cole, K.O.D. concert

I stepped down and returned to my seat, heart pounding for the next hour, unable to hear anyone after me because of the mixture of nerves and excitement. But a lot of people came up to me to tell me how much they liked my poem. I felt great about myself. I had found my people. My place. My home. My reason for being. I discovered that I am supposed to share my writing with people and that I have a voice worth hearing.

And life can’t be no fairytale, no once upon a time

But I be God damned if a n** don’t be tryin’.

Alisha Mercier is a Writing For Young People MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She is the Lead Editor for Flash Prose, and an Assistant Editor for the Young Adult genre on Lunch Ticket. She lives and writes in L.A. where she is currently working on her second novel and continuing the quest to interview J. Cole.