BY Harmony Holiday in Opinion | 08 JAN 21

Celebrating MF Doom (1971–2020)

On the eve of his 50th birthday, Harmony Holiday pens an elegy to the late rapper, whose death was announced last week

BY Harmony Holiday in Opinion | 08 JAN 21

MF Doom, Daniel Dumile, is dead at 49.

The mundane has become so jarring and a harness. I finished a virtual yoga class like any other pandemic day, my phone is chirping while I stretch except today Otis has text during the class to tell me MF Doom is dead. The text just says ‘Damn. RIP Doom.’ And three brown thumbs down. He died on Halloween and even his closest friends didn’t hear about it until New Year’s Eve.

We must not fetishize death. Should we even emphasize it? Is denial sanctuary now? Are our shrines our blindfolds and low-res reproductions of the zombies we keep alive in our machines?

The sudden proximity of the other side is clear, a rivalry between here and the hereafter; metal-masked mirror, friendly but exclusive. Intrusive, but let it intrude.

I’d been reading about and watching Michael Jackson leading up to this news, another masked Black entertainer, maybe hoping if I pay closer attention MJ can be redeemed and overcome himself. I think I’m looking for evidence that he found peace anno domini – stall the domino with me. Theirs aren’t demon songs, or else we owe demons everything. That’s too symmetrical. All falls are inconclusive and no one knows what too soon is when they lament in echo, gone too soon.

It’s strange that when people die – and only then – do we hope they are met with peace and rest, demonless.

MF-Doom, 2008. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

To me peace is simply the desire to be doing everything I am doing, whether conjured or natural, the ability to enjoy this very moment and in this moment I am relaxing in a hazy kind of mourning and the giddy glow of new beginnings – paradox, glory, seven candles burning, space heater clapping, phone still chirping sporadically, strong urge to emphasize MF Doom and the way he swings language gallantly, entering and bringing sense to its knees, like it could go on infinitely in a spiral of Black cackling.

When some Black people die it feels like theft. That’s how this feels, like a myth stolen before we had the chance to finish writing it, a good dream ending in the middle, or gorgeous nonsense suddenly forced to narrate itself and acquire a plot, a trap.

Just yesterday on Zoom, Fred Moten and I and some friends in the UK discussed Denzel in Training Day (2001) and how we need more Black villains. MF Doom was one, self-proclaimed. I defend his goofiness by understanding that he was too smart for this world, had to play to keep himself grounded in it, that the calamitous and the comedic were one in his music because he processed things that fast. In that way he’s like Sun Ra and not unlike Michael Jackson. The great ones possess blatant fantasies, pathologies and open secrets. History cannot help itself, it’s always been this way. The great ones are great villains. The great Black villains are great Black men and women.

MF-Doom, 2011, poster illustration. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The border between us and the impossible they make evident is thinning. One Black villian who died on the Day of the Dead, when the border between this life and the afterlife is said to narrow, reminds us where we must travel in the language and that no one is going to be our surrogate anymore, we have to swing ourselves, to become our own momentum.

It should be less messy, to profess baffled love. Doom himself said ‘it’s a miracle how he get so lyrical’. It’s a miracle how grief is so literal in the body – the metal armor and the mask on the inside too, burdening the blood, turning into ideas and words and oblivion.

‘What am I gonna say to my sons, that death cloaks the Potomac in a scarlet shore,’ Archie Shepp wrote when Malcolm X died.

Yes, I think that’s what I’m gonna say, and that death is as friendly as any day except you always feel like there was something you forgot to say to the dead, and the only way to say it is to become a poet and speak to them and not flinch when they talk back, confess, and then grow as quiet as ballads you forgot were playing, become pulse passing for ghost on the spinning, grinning, phonographic machine.

Doom’s voice sounds a lot like Etheridge Knight’s, they both have an agonized smile at the core of the utterance that lets it unfold like a scroll.  ‘I know their dark eyes, they know mine.’ Knight wrote. Doom’s timbre answers.

I love hearing them as a duet across distances. Love is here to be indulged when you notice it, even as it hesitates and recoils, ashamed of its obviousness. 


MF-Doom, 2008. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Everything is becoming more obvious. That is a victory we don’t know how to account for yet. We pay our respects in neon, anonymous, or dancing alone to Accordion and pretending the state is next, to disappear or be overcome by song. We still admire tender ruthlessness and that’s what this is. Puckering and residual from last year’s feeling, born like this, into this.

There are parallels between Doom and Charlie Parker that I’m just seeing or inventing – their irreverence, the growl in them, the endless cusp of laughter switching like a runway model or a blade in the sound, genderless aggression settling or deciding to tend toward uplift. And a resistance to tired clichés that is martyr-like, though no one wants to consider the vulnerability of men like them, or how being themselves was a calculated risk and a little lethal, ‘a little alone’ as Fred says.

This is the end of lethargy, we’re alert now. Heartbreak is what kills even those who die laughing or loosening their belts after a meal. We don’t really know how anyone dies, we don’t know how anyone survives. In light of this unknowing, humility is liberation: go forth knowing nothing and telling no one, wear your version of the villain’s mask as omission.

Doom was a kind of exile, denied re-entry into the US though raised here. Borders cause so much trouble, disavowal, bloodswell. He loved Charles Bukowski and flowers, chaos and restraint, his nature and his armour. As if America needed another Black spirit to haunt her.

He was born January 9, the same date Amiri Baraka died. I say this is a blues form, this conversation between birth dates and death dates, a whirling baton, deliberate. Poets sharing an eternal day, talking to one another in star patterns, getting out together from whatever borders tried to grip them. Listen to them saunter off …

No good music is opportunistic, but so much grief is.

No grief is good, most of it is as contrived as bad music.

Doom would ask us to celebrate for him, with him, to keep the music vivid and free, and to speak with his spirit, to stay in touch.

Main Image: MF-Doom, 2011. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Harmony Holiday is a poet and performer. Her books include Reparations (2020) and A Jazz Funeral for Uncle Tom (2020). Her latest book Maafa will be released later this year.