On December 31st 2020, I watched Hamilton for the first time (on Disney Plus).
For the first time since the pandemic began, I was fully focused without straining myself to be attentive. I did not reach out for my phone. My mind did not wander.
Most other times, I had to struggle to stay in the moment and to be fully present.
Back then, I wasn’t happy. My mind was constantly active. Never at rest. Frenetic. Seldom at peace.
I am now aware that I used to have a deficit mindset. If my life was a piece of Swiss cheese, all I saw were the holes. Not the cheese.
I used to keep telling myself how when X happens, I will be happy. Until then, I need to work relentlessly towards that goal. That X was a lot of things – a promotion at work, getting to travel after the pandemic was through, achieving financial goals, and other things that kept me on the hedonic treadmill.
I forgot about all this as the curtains were drawn on 2020.
Watching Hamilton, I found myself in rapt attention as I moved through a range of emotions – laughter, awe, wonder, sadness, rapture, delight, excitement. Most of all, as the credits rolled and I wiped my tears away, for the first time in ages I felt hope.
It was an antidote that was given to me in a few days in advance for what was to come.
I sat in the doctor’s office the day Joe Biden was sworn in, waiting to learn through blood test reports why my fingers, wrists, knees, shins, ankles and toes hurt like they’d never hurt before and were constantly swollen to twice their size.
“There’s no easy way of saying this, you have rheumatoid arthritis.”
“Isn’t this something that old people get? I’m in my late 30s.”
“Naah, you have the young people version.”
“Yay, high five!”
Looking back, I can only see the bright spots. In 2021, the process of healing and recovery was a gradual one.
Thanks to the pain, I woke up at 5 AM each day. I couldn’t go back to sleep. The corticosteroids prescribed by my rheumatologist reduced inflammation, and the pain began easing, and created space in my mind for things other than my health. I kept waking up early and formed a routine that consisted of reading, meditation, exercise and doing things that helped me stay ahead of my day.
Each winter morning, as I prepared my cup of coffee, I listened to the Hamilton soundtrack. It was clever. It was fun. Mornings began with positivity and with hope. That same hope I felt as 2020 came to an end.
I learnt about Lin Manuel Miranda and started to love him for his passion, his creativity and for the gifts he gave the world.
His work and his words inspired me. Sparked thoughts in my mind. I felt like I could write again. Write something fun. Nerdy. Captivating. Energising. Authentic.
There was a voice in my head that kept telling me to pick up a pen and go for it. And then there another voice, that of my self-doubt, which kept telling me that I’d never be good enough.
I was done listening to self-doubt once and for all.
At that time, I was struggling. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally.
In interviews and commencement speeches, Lin spoke of how hip-hop emerged out of struggle. How tough times led to growth and transformation. World renowned hip-hop artists got themselves out of a life of drugs, destitution and death. That they picked up a pen and wrote their way out to create something from nothing. To better themselves, and therefore, make things better for people around them.
Until then, I had mistakenly assumed that hip-hop was all about glorifying misogyny, crime and about oneupmanship. Lin showed me that my assumptions were wrong.
I took Lin’s words to heart.
Winter turned to spring.
I have been writing my way out ever since. As I wrote, rap came naturally to me. It felt right. I was guided by intuition and feelings, not by data or by what anyone had done before. This allowed my thoughts to breathe. To have a life of their own.
Of the multiple paths my life can take, there is no version in which I will stop writing. And I will write my way out each day to a better life until the end of my days.
Getting to drop this album, “Man of Substance” is a privilege. It is a win in and of itself.
I am grateful for all the help I got along the way. I am grateful to every person that I love, each friend, each teacher, each artist, every thinker, poet, philosopher, author, and musician that inspired me.
I am indebted to Vlad Tavaniuk who created the beats and music, to Max Reve who helped me record at his studio, to Chris Jones who mixed and mastered the album and to Reuben Bhattacharya, whose album artwork is stunning beyond words. Without you folks, this album would be nothing.
My words are raw. I’ve tried being vulnerable and authentic. I acknowledge that my art is not for everyone. So if my verse doesn’t speak to you, I’m still grateful that you gave it your time.
Rick Rubin said, “Create an environment where you are free to express what you are afraid to express.”
That is what this album, and my future work will be all about. Each day, I move closer to my last. Each day, I have less time than I used to.
And I am not throwing away my shot.
What will YOU do with the time you have left?