“[We Are a Haunting’s] wide-ranging, multivocal, quick-shifting style—which incorporates frequent allusions to literature and visual art, brand names and the neighborhood prestige attached to them, and a mixtape element—serves admirably to emphasize the book’s ambition, which is to capture and to celebrate not just these characters, this family, but the community and the city they emerge from, serve, and love. An intelligent, gritty, discursive group portrait of working-class New York from the 1980s to now.”
In his own words, here is Tyriek White’s Book Notes music playlist for his novel We Are a Haunting:
There’s a particular lineage of Black music that runs through my debut novel, We Are A Haunting, artifacts of migration across regions and the resiliency of ever-expanding traditions. The book is an archive, a preservation of the journey of Black music (and arts culture in general), rooted in the blues and soul, preserved through the ancestors—Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, The Gap Band, Dionne Warwick. Then, there is the next generation–Shirley Murdock, the Mary Jane Girls, Whitney Houston, Eric. B and Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest. Music helped me shape the material lives of the characters in this story, but also the emotional resonance of their experience.
This is the playlist I used during the process of writing We Are a Haunting. More specifically, these songs helped me write myself into a certain scene, moment, or character.
Static – Ari Lennox
Ari Lennox is in conversation with a tradition of Black soul and jazz music, particularly of the 1970s and ’80s. “Static” pulls artifacts from the song “Look Into The Sky” by RAMP, produced by Roy Ayers, an early architect of the contemporary neo-soul. Ari writes of pleasure in such fulfilling and honest ways, even when the relationship is not relationship-ing. In moments spent with her lover there are details all around—the memories tucked in late 90s analog, a Sony television and its antenna, the white noise that feels all-consuming. A drowning. Memories somehow take the singer out of time, as it does most of us, making us feel things from years or decades ago. It bleeds into the spaces we inhabit, the objects around us, to the point where an old television set can trigger an old flame. The novel is very interested in nostalgia and concerned with archival cultures of the late 90s and 2000s in order to explore the materiality of the characters’ lives and the New York of my childhood.
Too Fast – Sonder
There is a pitch-perfect darkness invoked in the production thanks to Atu and Dpat, early champions of the ubiquitous Soulection sound, the duo stripping away elements until there is only drama unfolding. Brent Faiyaz is in his bag, headed for certain destruction, either by nature of the situation or by one’s own hands or both. Death is personified (“he’ll take me soon, he’s making room”), lurking at corners and stop lights. I imagine my main character Colly riding the train or walking through his neighborhood, the stoop of his building, cars he can’t see into, all under the glowing street lamps. He could die, as he has seen others go right in front of him. There is a problem in the world, in its design, that makes his life and everyone around him matter less than others.
Lightning – Orion Sun
“Lightning struck the house that we used to live in.”Orion Sun sings about the loss of her childhood home and fleeting relationships, yet somehow finding a way forward, a path toward restoration. Colly’s relationship with his sister is challenged by how they process (or don’t process) the loss of their mother. Toya grounds him, sees through a lot of what he puts on because she knows him. They’re the only ones who understand what they both are going through. Like the song, a near seismic event has altered their world, a natural disaster that has pulled the family apart and the children are left with what remains.
Zion Wolf Theme – Jai Paul
A survival theme; an off-kilter bounce across a digital palette, muted drums and synths that struggle to reach out to us, but then explode. “In the company of wolves,” invokes a wilderness—the city. The bravado of self, of community, of being crewed up. “Will I make it through the night?” What does it take to survive (and remain whole) in certain places? Colly sits outside his building with his crew, but struggles with his place in the world.
Will they steal away my life?
Will I go down without my fight?
At the core is a song about forming a connection with someone, despite our brokenness (or the world’s brokenness).
Mother Maybe – Kadhja Bonet
Kadhja Bonet’s dream-invoking composition travels across generations, channeling retro funk with a bop and plunging bass line shaped by more soulful elements—her own ephemeral voice layered thick. It is trance-inducing, a realm of bright acrylic. There are moments in the novel where Colly sees his mothers ghost, feels her presence in his sleep, filling up the space of the entire room. This is how he views Key, how he idolizes her, and when she dies, how she becomes larger-than-life, almost to the point where he has to relearn that she also made mistakes. “Mother Maybe” and the novel both deploy the second person to address the motherlike-figure, a conversation that takes the form of an elegy. In an interview, Monet mentions this song is more talking to the mother she may be in the future. Key talks to her child from a time and place that has not yet arrived. I felt a connection with the character and the music because they both think about the parallels between motherhood and creation.
Air Forces – Mustafa
When Colly and his best friend visit the Hole, they stumble around the borderless land where the road ends, a community of houses, some dilapidated, a criss-cross of laundry lines and abandoned cars. There is a horse ranch nearby, a black riding academy across the boulevard. It is what is said between the lines, between friends, how young black boys navigate questions of mortality, the intimacy in collective dreaming, in dreaming
I wonder why God keeps us alive?
To what are we even destined?
Will we have wives and children
Or is that not written for you and I?
Mustafa’s voice is gorgeous yet disillusioned, soft against a minimalist drum beat and an acoustic guitar. There is the backdrop of the migration and its effect on families for generations, the remnants of a homeland through sounds and melodies indigenous to Sudan. The cacophony of voices act as call-and-response, a tradition rooted in black music and African American religious exchanges. The reckoning with self, the pursuit of survival, becomes an almost holy thing.
Over – Baby Rose
Baby Rose has the rare voice that feels timeless, a husky contralto in the vein of Nina Simone or Ma Rainey. It is the blues tradition Rose invokes, how to wade through the ruptures, something to do with how her voice gives shape to the idea of home or origin. I picture grandma Audrey working in her little garden, a plot she revived behind her building. There is the specter of her dead husband watching her, waiting for her in the corners of rooms, in her house. His memory haunts her, in more ways than one.
Where You Belong – Little Dragon
My favorite songs use words that carry stories, gesture to whole histories within —children who have grown, relationships that have come and faded (“We lived and we loved/Forever you livin’ on”), a life fully lived. “Where You Belong” is a wave of joy and affirmation tinged with the small grief of nostalgia, a soulful blend of pop and funk with eccentric flourishes, where belonging isn’t a process of fate, but somewhat autonomous from it.
you been there all along
Right where you belong
Belonging is a central theme to the novel, whether it be to a place, to an identity, or to a certain time—all of which are transient and ever-changing. Each character seeks their own version of what it may feel like to belong. Colly starts to see when he is older that all he went through led him to a place of understanding—of himself, of his mother, of where he grew up. All for a reason, but that reason is up to him.