Freedom House: A Sonic Bibliography
Twenty-five songs that inspired my poetry collection
By KB Brookins
Swimming, Brooklyn, a photo by Camilo José Vergara. © Courtesy the artist and the Library of Congress
Before I knew what a poem was, I was a kid who carried around a CD player and clunky headphones, bobbing along to bops. Today is no different. While I was making the lines, stanzas, and rhymes that would coalesce into Freedom House, my debut poetry collection, I was listening to the likes of Noname, Rico Nasty, Solange, and other folks who’ve saved me times ten. I’m excited to share this playlist in hopes that you get a bit of a peek into what to expect in my book, and are able to see how these songs inspire the rhythm, syntax, and audacity displayed in Black trans poetics. My God. Would there be a Freedom House without the music that made it?
1. “Freedom (interlude)” by Noname
This is the most on-the-nose reference. One of the epigraphs of Freedom House comes from this song—“I thought I was gon’ write a rap but this be baby miracle”—but overall, I feel that I’ve succeeded in writing a good book if I have embodied the energy of one of the best rappers of my generation: Noname. I love her ability to weave together songs using quick-witted humor, syncopated rhymes, and when necessary, dropping off of the sentence altogether. Noname twists syntax into beautiful reflection with a type of rambling that I recognize in my own language; it is purposeful rambling that she does all over her songs and that I attempt to do all over Freedom House. My hope is that when, after someone has read my poems and I tell them that Noname is my favorite rapper, they go: “Yeah. That makes sense.” If that happens, I’ll know I’ve won.
2. “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar
What Black person didn’t need this song at the exact moment in U.S. history that it came out? Man. MAN. I remember so many 2015 nights spent in sweaty bars trying to figure out my body, how it interacted with the always-too-tight pants I wore and the shirts just baggy enough to hide the flesh on my chest I was afraid to make visible. While writing this book, I needed to channel the person I was when this song came out and acknowledge how much I had changed from that person due to transitioning and finding chosen family. So naturally, I spun To Pimp a Butterfly, and this track especially, into the ground, and it made its bittersweet way to this playlist.
3. “Lockdown” by Anderson .Paak
I find this song to be in the same lineage of “Alright,” in the sense that even though these songs came out five years apart, Black Americans are still dealing with the same old shit. We’re dealing with shit our parents dealt with. Police brutality, unrest, and reset. I knew it would happen–white guilt turns to white indifference–since it has happened throughout my lifetime, but damn, I still couldn’t stop myself from seeing it. This song is about seeing, I feel, and I do a lot of seeing of American mess as it’s inflicted upon Black/trans/queer folks throughout Freedom House. It felt necessary to place this one on the playlist, since I always am made possible by other artists seeing what I’m seeing, too.
4. “Super Rich Kids” by Frank Ocean
Fun fact: there was a poem called “Super Rich Kids” in Freedom House that was cut. This book has so many B-sides, actually. I was listening to a lot of Frank Ocean while writing, and I think that though that poem is not present, the energy of it still reverberates across the collection. The childlike wandering throughout this song very much inspired the poems I have where it is some speaker, often a youth, trying to figure their shit out and making bad decisions along the way. Sometimes they are around the wrong crowd. It’s a part of being a kid, I think, this song. And a part of this book, so this song is here.
5. “Grief” by Earl Sweatshirt
Every poet has their “We Real Cool” poem, as in the poem they are (sometimes, annoyingly) known by more than anything else they’ve written. Mine is called “Good Grief,” a poem reflecting on 2021 Texas Winter Storm Uri, which won the 2022 Treehouse Climate Action Poem Prize with the Academy of American Poets. If I may toot my own horn for a second, it is a damn good poem. It would not have been achievable without a mix of reading and re-reading the poem “Not Even This” by Ocean Vuong, and listening and re-listening to this song by Earl Sweatshirt. You’ll get it once you listen.
6. “Summer Madness” by Kool & The Gang
Every time I hear this song I think of a Texas summer. The pool dates, the intense mosquito bites, its way of pulling sweat out of your skin–all of it is baked into this immaculate mix of four minutes and seventeen seconds. I wrote most of Freedom House in May 2021. Inevitably, I had to include this.
7. “I Don’t Get High” by Tank and the Bangas
I mention smoking in at least two poems (lol), but I haven’t indulged in that for at least five years. This book is a lot about leaving behind people and habits that no longer serve you, so go figure.
8. “Lock It Up” by Nascent, Duckwrth, and Saba
In the late 2010s, I was obsessed with the hip-hop that was emerging out of Chicago. Noname, Chance the Rapper, Saba, Smino, Mick Jenkins–all of them feel so much enmeshed in my first couple years of adulthood. To this day, I keep up with everything Saba drops, simply because he’s goated. The lyric “’Fro got too big so I loc’ed it up” especially feels relevant to Freedom House. Throughout the book I mention hair, and how it mirrors my experience of coming into being.
9. “Reality Check” by Noname ft. Akenya and Eryn Allen Kane
Did I mention how much I love Noname’s storytelling ability?
10. “Too Good” by Arlo Parks
If I had a coming-of-age TV show that started with a montage of me dancing in the mirror while brushing my teeth, I would want this song to be playing in the background. This song lends well to Freedom House, which is itself a coming-of-age book.
Freedom House is available now from Deep Vellum
11. “Another Life” by D’Angelo
This song invokes another B-side that was cut from the manuscript. I’ve got this poem called “In Another Life” that is in part about a relationship, but also does what Freedom House still manages to do, which is manifest a future where Black/queer/trans love can live. And by live, I mean be happy! No looking over your shoulder to make sure cops aren’t watching; no happiness only for a moment because the world is invested in your grief. Just unabridged, unworked-for happiness! This song, and D’Angelo’s voice in general, makes me feel happy.
12. “Oak Cliff” by Quint Black & Niño
This is a Texas af song. To this day, you can’t play this at any party in North Texas–my hometown included–and everyone not be yelling at the top of their lungs. It reminds me of home, which I was sorely missing while writing this book. That comes up in poems like “Foodie or: I Miss Every Hometown Cookout.”
13. “Int’l Players Anthem” by UGK, OutKast
A Southern classic if there ever was one. RIP Pimp C!
14. “Insecure” by Jazmine Sullivan & Bryson Tiller
To be any kind of healthy, masculine, and Black, I think, is to get out of your own damn way. The patriarchy is deadly; it’ll have you making shit up in your head just to excuse your bad behavior. Me working through that is riddled throughout Freedom House, especially in “T Shot #7.” Also, God bless Jazmine Sullivan.
15. “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” by Rachel Bloom
This is probably the most wild-card song of the pack. I literally have a poem called “Fuck Me, Jeff Bezos,” which is me fighting the absurdity of billionaires and late stage capitalism with more absurdity. This song mirrors the tone I wanted to embody in that poem, as well as in others that use humor and irony as a means to call out the destruction around us.
16. “Block List” by Rico Nasty
Ouuu baby. Could I be Black and emo and not love Rico Nasty? This song made the energy of poems like “Another relative says KB don’t call & don’t write, again” possible. If Rico Nasty has nothing else, it’s audacity and a stable sense of who she is. Love her down. Love this song and all iterations of Ms. Tacobella that have existed over time.
17. “N Side” by Steve Lacy
“Meet me outside of my palace… Don’t need no approval girl you valid.” I aspire to have an opening that smooth. Steve Lacy is something else entirely, vocally and production-wise. I love the sultriness of it all, and I think listening to songs like this from him made poems like “Greedy Ghazal” and “Finally, a Slow Weekend” happen.
18. “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” by Lil Nas X
Jesus H. Christ. Who wasn’t spinning this over and over when it came out? Homophobes, I guess. I love this song’s insistence on pushing the envelope forward–the Black bratty bottom audacity of it all makes me very proud. Literally, I’d just never heard a song that was so Black and gay get that worldwide with its popularity, and this inspired me. I have a poem, “After the thirtieth play of MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” that is directly inspired by this song, but I would also put it in the same boat as other songs that gave me permission to be audacious–to a lovingly reckless degree–throughout Freedom House.
19. “Smack a Bitch” by Rico Nasty
Once, I was hanging out with a group of friends and we sang this song until we were almost hoarse. Good times—times that made me, even. I went to a Rico Nasty concert for the first time in 2018 and came out the other end changed forever, as a poet and person. I write a bit on this in “Tales of Tacobella, or I Live On Like Black Rockstars.” It is one of my favorites in the collection.
20. “Almeda” by Solange
Idc idc; Solange’s album When I Get Home was the best album that dropped in 2019. Period! I still remember the first time I listened to it. Chills, g. I love how down she is for Houston, how she knew that talking about the magic of the city she called home would appeal to the universal. It surely did for me. I remix some lyrics from this song in the poem “T Shot #4.” This is my favorite song from the album, and this is probably one of my top five poems in Freedom House.
21. “YOU’RE THE ONE” by KAYTRANADA, Syd
Blackness! Queerness! Just wanting to dance! With a pretty girl! These are the emotions I associate with this bop. Though I don’t think of myself as a dancer by any means, dancing populates Freedom House more than a few times. I’d like to think it’s because I was obsessed with this song while writing it.
22. “FREEDOM” by McClenney
A late addition to this playlist, but it is pretty on the nose. Also, stream McClenney, y’all!
23. “Heaven All Around Me” by Saba
This song matches the calmness and clarity presented in the latter half of Freedom House, I think.
24. “Django Jane” by Janelle Monáe
Baby…. Baby! This collection wouldn’t exist without Janelle Monáe, and Black women writing/living Afrofuturism. There, I said it. You would’ve probably hated living with me in 2018; all I did was listen to Dirty Computer! This is my favorite of the perfection that is that album. Shout out to all the fandroids out there. We are thirsty for The Age of Pleasure, Janelle.
25. “Blessed” by Jill Scott
The pure bliss in the lyrics and the voice of this song will always captivate me. I feel its energy most captured in “A List of Things I Want Before this Life Lets Me Go,” and later poems in the book. Simply put, I am blessed to be here! Black folks, queer folks, and trans folks are kith of folks made from the dirt and ruin of oppression; we make a way out of no way. My lineage, the ancestors that saw me in the future, is what makes it possible to discuss a poem, a person, a song with you today. “Blessed” is the perfect song to round out a perfect playlist, imo.
I hope this mix brings you as much joy as it gave me while I was writing. Go grab Freedom House anywhere you get books!
Love, Peace, and Chicken Grease,