Brother Ali’s Song about Losing His Dad to Suicide

I’ve seen Minneapolis-based rapper Brother Ali in concert several times, and he strikes me as someone who’s as kind as he is talented. When I told him at a Chicago show that I had previously chatted with him in Orlando, he tried to remember me. He told me that he doesn’t recall faces due to albinism-related vision issues, but he recognizes people through reminders of previous conversations. He rapped about his experiences in “Us”: And I go with the feeling from the start/Blind in the eye, so I see you with my heart/And to me all y’all look exactly the same/Fear, faith, compassion and pain.

All of this is to say that I’m a Brother Ali fan and my expectations were high for his 2017 album, All The Beauty In This Whole Life. I think it’s a musical masterpiece, and “Out of Here” is a standout song. The lyrics are a detailed expression of his feelings and thoughts after losing his dad to suicide. In this post, I included all of his lyrics (in bold) and my comments (in italics) with some links to relevant research.

I recommend watching his performance of the song before reading the rest of the post:

Okay so it might appear
To an outsider that you found your way up out of here
They’re saying you died of suicide
People who are suffering may view suicide as an escape from a painful life. I like how Ali phrases the third line, because it removes the stigma associated with other phrasing (e.g., commits suicide).
That’s the last thing I want to hear
They tell me that it’s hardly fair to blame myself
What a hell of a cross to bare
You didn’t say it in your letter
But the fact that I failed you is loud and clear
Suicide can be a particularly painful kind of death to grieve because 1) it means someone you love was deeply hurting and 2) there may be more of a sense that you could have prevented it, if only you had acted differently in some way. It’s a common response for people to tell you that someone’s suicide is not your fault, and yet, it can be hard to refrain from blaming yourself for not stopping the person.
Found out the amount of fear
You would drown when you found yourself naked staring down a mirror
And partners are supposed to lay the cards bare
I left you playing solitaire, and I promise you that I’m sincere
When someone dies by suicide, it might feel like there was a misunderstanding or even a kind of dishonesty between you if you didn’t know the person was contemplating suicide. I think Ali is saying that his dad might have been trying to tell him how he felt (‘lay the cards bare’), but that Ali felt like he failed him by leaving him ‘playing solitaire.’ Powerful imagery.
If you’re looking for some judgment, you won’t find it here
Let’s be honest here
I can’t say I’ve never known that kind of despair
When the clouds appear, how’s life fair
Some people erroneously perceive people who die by suicide as selfish or weak. However, Ali feels compassion and humbly links it to his own experiences. He may also be fearful about his own future (e.g., will his suicidal desire increase to the levels that his dad’s ultimately did?).
I just want to draw you near
As he sorts through the different feelings, there’s a basic desire just to be close to his dad again.
Not to make it about me, but how could you check out
Before you really allowed me a chance to sit down and hear?
I think I would’ve listened
Or were you saying it all along and I just missed it?
You sang your swan song, we all dismissed it
Ali acknowledges that the suicide isn’t about him, but feels a frustration about his father leaving without trying to ask Ali for help first. He then changes course and tries to look for signs that his dad *tried* to reach out, but that Ali missed or ignored it.
Because you filled the room with laughter
I watched when you thought no one was looking at you
In hindsight, I wonder where your smile went
When the party ended and you swallowed it
I saw you swallow it
Sometimes, people who have lost someone to suicide say they saw it coming, but others feel completely shocked. It can also switch back-and-forth in the mind of a person as they try to make sense of it.
Okay so it might appear
That you took yourself up out of here
How many cries soak through your disguise
Before you drown in your silent tears?
Okay so it might appear
That you took yourself up out of here
How many times can you fight for your life
Before you throw that white flag up and volunteer? (x2)
Here, Ali seems to be trying to figure out the threshold that was crossed before his dad killed himself. I don’t know if this is Ali trying to understand if his own life obstacles and past suicidal ideation might ever exceed that threshold or if he is trying to understand his dad’s experience better (or both).
I’ve had car accidents
Where everything is slow motion no matter how fast it’s happening
Every second that pass stretches so that you can watch it unraveling
But can’t always react to it
Your whole life might flash before your eyes
The minute when you transition to the other side
But what can actually happen in that time?
In-between the leaping and the moment you collide
In-between the trigger and the blast
In-between you let go of the wheel and you crash
In-between the moment when you swallow the last pill in the bottle
Turn out the lights, roll the dice on tomorrow
Is there a moment to reflect, can there be regret?
Is there a wait, not yet, let me reset?
Or is it just too painful to accept?
That maybe death just seemed best
I think Ali is trying to imagine what his dad was going through at the time he died by suicide since he cannot ask him about it. He’s wondering if he crossed his dad’s mind or any reluctance emerged that could have prevented his death. Or was it more like an uncontrollable-type of experience where he felt like he was watching himself but could not change the outcome?
Suicide prevention researchers, such as Thomas Joiner (1,2), have argued that an innate drive for survival and fear of death saves the lives of many people who desire suicide. I have heard Joiner describe this as a ‘flinch’ that people might experience right before or during a suicide attempt. He has presented compelling anecdotal evidence of this through stories of people who survived suicide attempts. Kevin Hines, a suicide attempt survivor from the Golden Gate Bridge, said he felt instant regret after he jumped. Along with others, suicide prevention researcher Mike Anestis, has proposed that this window maybe an opportunity to prevent some suicides through means restriction during high risk periods
I heard this as Ali arguing for not taking one’s life, even in the face of repeated, seemingly unjust hardships…’you can go down swinging.’
Okay so it might appear
That you took yourself up out of here
I’m trying not to resent you
But you left me defenseless in the life we share
Every man before me in my fam died by his own hands
How am I supposed to understand my own role in the plan
When nobody who grows old stands a chance?
Ali lost both his dad and his grandfather to suicide. He’s wrestling with sympathy for his dad and his own feelings about being left behind.
What about this mysterious dance
Made you cut the cord to the curtain in advance?
But these are questions I can only ask
The person looking back in the looking glass
Ali recognizes that he is full of questions that now must go unanswered.
I’ll close by saying that I am truly sorry if you’ve lost someone to suicide – this post is dedicated to you. I’m especially thinking of a friend who is going through this now. Research by Julie Cerel and colleagues suggests that each suicide affects a large number of people (even larger than previously thought). It’s imperative that we increase the effectiveness of suicide prevention efforts. If you need support, please consider some of the resources below.
Resources
You can find a therapist through the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy, and you can find a support group for survivors of suicide loss through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has an online chat option, and their phone number is 1-800-273-TALK.
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Teaching About Mental Health through Music

Clinical psychology graduate student, Samantha Myhre, and I bonded a few years ago over our love of music. We both like to see live shows and get super-close to the stage. For example, here are some pictures Samantha has taken:

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Eddie Vedder on the left; Chris Cornell on the right

And a few I have taken:

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Aesop Rock on the left; Against Me! on the right

 

 

The connections we each have personally with music (discussed in more detail in this podcast episode) carried over to our Abnormal Psychology classes. We both found that adding class activities with music components engaged undergraduate students. Anecdotally, they enjoyed looking more deeply into lyrics than they had in the past. Some also said they experienced increased compassion and comprehension for mental disorder symptoms through the connection to music.

I posted our combined list of mental health-related songs below in case it’s helpful for people teaching these topics. If you have any that you think should be added, please let us know!

Anxiety:

  • 19th Nervous Breakdown (by The Rolling Stones)
  • If I Ever Feel Better (by Phoenix)
  • Breathe (by U2)
  • Flagpole Sitta (by Harvey Danger)
  • Intro to Anxiety (by Hoodie Allen)

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder:

  • Wrong (by Depeche Mode)
  • A.D.H.D. (by Kendrick Lamar)
  • Epiphany (by Staind)
  • Bouncing Around the Room (by Phish)

Autism Spectrum:

  • We’ll Get By (The Autism Song) (by Johnny Orr Band)
  • So It Goes (by various artists and parents)
  • Missing Pieces (by Mark Leland/Tim Calhoun)
  • I’m In Here (the anthem for autism – written from perspective of child with autism

Bipolar Disorder:

  • Manic (by Plumb)
  • Bi-Polar Bear (by Stone Temple Pilots)
  • Manic Depression (by Jimi Hendrix)
  • Lithium (by Nirvana)
  • Secrets (by Mary Lambert)
  • Down In It (by Nine Inch Nails)
  • Given to Fly (by Pearl Jam)
  • Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands (by Elliot Smith)
  • I Go To Extremes (by Billy Joel)
  • One Step Up (by Bruce Springsteen)

Depression:

  • Fell on Black Days (by Soundgarden)
  • Cleaning my Gun (by Chris Cornell)
  • Hurt (by Nine Inch Nails)
  • Lithium (by Nirvana)
  • Save Me (by Ryan Adams)
  • Today (by The Smashing Pumpkins)
  • Sway (by The Rolling Stones)
  • Turn Blue (by The Black Keys)
  • Twilight (by Vanessa Carlton)
  • Come Around (by Counting Crows)
  • Lost Cause (by Beck)
  • You Know You’re Right (by Nirvana)
  • Oh My Sweet Carolina (by Ryan Adams & Emmylou Harris)
  • Philadelphia (by Bruce Springsteen)
  • Someone Saved My Life Tonight (by Elton John)
  • Spaceman (by The Killers)
  • Go Tell Everybody (by The Horrible Crowes)
  • Danko/Manuel (by Drive-By Truckers/Jason Isbell)
  • Fade to Black (by Metallica)
  • Nutshell (by Alice in Chains)
  • Keep Steppin’ (by Atmosphere)
  • Adam’s Song (by Blink 182)
  • Whiskey Lullaby (by Brad Paisley & Allison Krauss)
  • Screaming Infidelities (by Dashboard Confessional)
  • Rhyme & Reason (by Dave Matthews Band)
  • Gotta Find Peace of Mind (by Lauryn Hill)
  • Creep (by Radiohead)
  • Everybody Hurts (by R.E.M.)
  • So Many Tears (by Tupac Shakur)
  • Dark Times (by The Weeknd)
  • Electro-Shock Blues (by Eels)
  • Quiet Times (by Dido)
  • Comfortably Numb (by Pink Floyd)
  • Hate Me (by Blue October)
  • Girl With Broken Wings (by Manchester Orchestra)
  • Jumper (by Third Eye Blind)
  • Miss Misery (by Elliott Smith)
  • Best I Ever Had (by Gary Allan)
  • A Picture of Me (Without You) (by George Jones)
  • Behind Blue Eyes (by The Who)
  • One of Four (hidden track, end of Maintenance by Aesop Rock)
  • Down in a Hole (by Alice in Chains)
  • Keep Steppin’ (by Atmosphere)
  • Picket Fence (by Brother Ali)
  • Rain Water (by Brother Ali)
  • Sullen Girl (by Fiona Apple)
  • That Hump (by Erykah Badu)
  • Rock Bottom (by Eminem)
  • Boulevard of Broken Dreams (by Green Day)
  • Moonshine (by the Gift of Gab)
  • Mad World (by Tears for Fears)
  • Black Clouds (by Papa Roach)
  • Trouble in Mind (by Nina Simone)
  • Much Finer (by Le Tigre)

Eating Disorders:

  • Ana’s Song (Open Fire; by Silverchair)
  • Demons (by Imagine Dragons)

Intellectual Disabilities:

  • This Isn’t Disneyland (by The Sisters of Intervention)
  • I Am (by Liz Longley)
  • We’re Just the Same (by Terry Vital)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder:

  • Monster (by Paul Walters) is a song by Paul Walters who was on A&Es Obsessed. This song was created after his decade long battle with OCD
  • Ana’s Song (by Silverchair) does a nice job of highlighting compulsions)
  • Obsessions (by Marina and the Diamonds)

Panic Disorder/Panic:

  • Be Calm (by fun.)
  • If the Brakeman Turns My Way (by Bright Eyes)
  • Circus Galop (by Marc-André Hamelin)

Positive Body Image:

  • Nobody’s Perfect (by Hannah Montana – nice Disney Channel throwback)
  • Stay Beautiful (by Taylor Swift)
  • All About That Bass (by Meghan Trainor)
  • Dumb Blonde (by Dolly Parton)
  • Just the Way You Are (by Bruno Mars)
  • What Makes You Beautiful (by One Direction)
  • Try (by Colbie Caillat)
  • Fat Bottomed Girls (by Queen)
  • Born This Way (by Lady Gaga)
  • Beautiful (by Christina Aguilera)
  • Flawless (by Beyonce)
  • You’re Beautiful (by James Blunt)
  • F**kin’ Perfect (by P!nk)
  • Beautiful (by John Mayer)
  • Hips Don’t Lie (by Shakira)
  • Fight Song (by Rachel Platten)
  • Love Me (by Katy Perry)
  • On My Own (by Miley Cyrus)
  • Unpretty (by TLC)
  • Feelin’ Myself (by Nicki Minaj ft. Beyonce)
  • My Kind of Woman (by Justin Moore)
  • I’d Want It to Be Yours (by Justin Moore)
  • The Perfect Woman (by Bo Burnham)

Here‘s a playlist my class made with positive body image songs.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder/Trauma:

  • Wrong Side of Heaven (by Five Finger Death Punch)
  • Hidden Wounds (by dEUS)
  • Drum + Fife (by Smashing Pumpkins)

Schizophrenia/Psychotic Symptoms:

  • Jump They Say (by the late and great David Bowie) was a song written about Bowie’s brother who had schizophrenia and died by suicide while experiencing auditory hallucinations
  • Basket Case (by Green Day)
  • Is There a Ghost (by Band of Horses) is about Band of Horses member Ben Bridwell’s experiences with paranoia
  • Annabelle (by Dessa)
  • Shine On You Crazy Diamond (by Pink Floyd)
  • Going Crazy (by Jean Grae)

Social Anxiety:

  • Social Anxiety (by Nicola Elias)
  • The Quiet One (by The Who)
  • Things the Grandchildren Should Know (by Eels)

Substance Use:

  • Everyone’s At It (by Lily Allen)
  • Never Did (by Perfume Genius)
  • Sober (by P!nk)
  • Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth (by The Dandy Warhols):
  • Needle and the Damage Done (by Neil Young)
  • Under the Bridge (by Red Hot Chili Peppers)
  • Rehab (by the late Amy Winehouse)
  • Detox Mansion (by Warren Zevon)
  • Cover Me Up (by Jason Isbell)
  • Super 8 (by Jason Isbell)
  • Choices (by George Jones)
  • Stockholm (by Jason Isbell)
  • Starting Over (by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis)
  • Amazing (by Aerosmith)
  • That Smell (by Lynyrd Skynyrd)
  • Gravity (by A Perfect Circle)
  • Numb (by Alanis Morissette)
  • Save You (by Pearl Jam)
  • You’re Gone (by Diamond Rio)
  • Sunloathe (by Wilco)
  • Unforgiven (by Hal Ketchum)
  • Uncle Johnny (by The Killers)
  • Drug Ballad (by Eminem)
  • The Man I Knew (by Dessa)
  • Habits (Stay High, by Tove Lo)

Suicide/Self-Harm

  • Asleep (by The Smiths)
  • The Ledge (by The Replacements)
  • Vincent (by Don McClean)
  • King’s Crossing (by Elliott Smith)
  • Suicidal Thoughts (by Notorious B.I.G.)
  • Last Resort (by Papa Roach)
  • Like Suicide (by Soundgarden)
  • The Great Escape (by P!nk)
  • Hold On (by Good Charlotte)
  • Don’t Try Suicide (by Queen)
  • 1-800-273-8255 (by Logic)
  • Out of Here (by Brother Ali)
  • Moment of Truth (by Gang Starr)
  • Jeremy (by Pearl Jam)
  • Coming Apart (by Friends of Emmet)
  • The Pretender (by Jackson Browne)
  • Keep Livin’ (by Jean Grae)
  • Keep on Livin’ (by Le Tigre)

Here‘s a playlist my class made with songs that give them hope when they’re feeling down.

While I have you here thinking about mental health and music, I recommend checking out Dessa:

 

A Note to Chris Cornell Fans from a Chris Cornell Fan

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Chris Cornell in Minneapolis, October 2015 (photo credit: Samantha Myhre)

When I learned about Chris Cornell’s death this morning, I was filled with disbelief and sadness. Chris was a remarkable musician

and a humanitarian.

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When I learned that he died by suicide, I couldn’t help but think back to how painful it was to learn of Kurt Cobain’s death by suicide years ago.

kurt

a bench turned memorial outside of Kurt Cobain’s former house

If someone you don’t know can have such an impact on your life, it’s hard to fathom how much pain Chris’ loved ones are experiencing right now. My heart goes out to them. I hope they receive all of the support, respect, and privacy they need in the face of their tragic loss.

There will be (and already are) amazing pieces dedicated to Chris’ legacy as a musician, as a humanitarian, and his personal impact in his roles as a friend, father, and husband.

What I want to focus on here is something that came to mind as I recalled MTV’s interviews with people about their reactions to Kurt’s death. In particular, I was thinking about people who had suffered from their own mental health problems and looked to Kurt as a symbol of hope. I know there were people who looked at Chris, who had been open about past mental health struggles, in the same way. When you see someone you look up to survive and thrive in the face of mental health struggles – it’s inspiring. When you lose that person, it can dampen your own hope.

To the Chris Cornell fans out there:

First, I am so very sorry for your loss and all of the hurt that goes with it.

Secondly, I want you to know that mental health problems are treatable and that suicide is preventable. Please take care of yourself – reach out for help and support. There is strength in seeking help, and mental health struggles are nothing to be ashamed of. You matter – please stay.*

For information about suicide warning signs and suicide prevention, please go to the American Association of Suicidology website.

A useful resource for finding mental health help can be found here.

If you are having thoughts about suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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*#STAY is a t-shirt campaign for suicide prevention started by Live Through This. You can find out more about it here.

Body-Positive Playlist

My class created a body-positive playlist that you can access here.*

Eating disorder researcher and clinician, Dr. Christopher Fairburn, likened having an eating disorder to having a DVD play on repeat in your head. Once you are in recovery, the DVD can slip back into your head and influence your thoughts and behaviors. The key for relapse prevention is to work with the client to recognize when this happens, so that they can cope effectively. This is a simplification of the concept, but Dr. Fairburn said that clients really resonated with it, and that they often consequently felt empowered to “eject” the eating disorder DVD if they noticed it was in “play” mode again. He said that one major way that clients do this is by seeking social support (e.g., planning an activity with a friend) and through healthy distracting activities (e.g., going to see a movie). Dr. Fairburn also mentioned that some clients have found that having a body-positive music playlist helped them. I thought this was a great idea and asked the students in my Abnormal Psychology class to submit body-positive songs.

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*I have screened out songs and videos that may be offensive or inappropriate, but it’s possible that I missed some.  If you see a video that you find offensive or inappropriate, please let me know, and I will remove it.

If you are concerned that you may have an eating disorder, please seek help through information on the Links page or by e-mailing me at kathryn.gordon@ndsu.edu for referral information.