Perception, for what it’s worth, can be everything. While we can never fully understand the totality of somebody’s humanity, through tight-knit relationships - with their shared experiences, common bonds and intimate conversations - we are able to peel back the ornate onion of a select few and build well-rounded, two-way understandings. Conversely, I find myself all too often meeting somebody for a minute - or even bumping into them for a handful of seconds - and forming a negative opinion from that one run-in. While it sounds ignorant, we’ve all done it, judging someone’s entire character from a pebble of their existential mountain.
Perception, then, is based on our limited knowledge of whatever it is that we’re perceiving. Many of these situations seem to be extremely low-stakes, but these context-clue judgments can lead to much more explosive and detrimental outcomes. This is where prejudice and acts of racism are rooted; where malicious acts of police brutality stem from; where a ghastly disregard for the homeless, the handicapped or the mentally disabled sprout.
The common bond of humanity is inexorable: we are born, we live similar lives and we eventually die, moving onto a realm of existence that is either indiscernible or nonexistent. As musician Open Mike Eagle once rapped, “I feel a strange kinship to every man.” Yet, in between these bookends, we develop personalities as unique as snowflakes, growing and blossoming into autonomous individuals with multi-faceted lives of technicolor idiosyncrasy. We each comprise a kaleidoscope of different aspects, traits and proclivities, and this is what makes the human condition so unique. We’re not carbon copy, cookie-cutter beings, but ever-morphing individuals that evolve with age and with every experience we undergo, every book we read, every conversation we have, disseminating throughout us in often subconscious ways. And this is something indie-rapper Open Mike Eagle understands as well as anybody.
Eagle, a 38-year-old musician who coined the term “art rap,” divulges the inner workings of the human condition on nearly every release. On his 2017 underground masterpiece, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, Eagle personifies the Chicago project building his aunt lived in, claiming in an abstract sense that he himself is the building.
On “Brick Body Complex,” Eagle raps with urgency in his voice, again and again pleading with us to not simply chalk him up as a rapper, or more abhorrently, as a racial slur. Instead, he pleads the case that if he has to be any one thing, then let it be the 30,000 lives the Robert Taylor Homes of Chicago once housed, ranging from doctors to criminals to children and everything in between
He raps with a rising intonation, “Stood here for ten million snows / Windchill is all in my bones / Indivisible, in divisible, kids and criminals young and old.” Open Mike Eagle can’t stress enough that a project building doesn’t house monsters with violence on their mind; it’s home to real, actual people who look, talk and think the same way we all do. A lack of financial stability and a differing culture shouldn’t disqualify someone from the ranks of humanity - doing so is inherently racist and inhuman. Mike Eagle is a person, with a varied and far-reaching identity constituting all that is his complex personage, and one who shouldn’t be reduced to merely a surface-level interpretation by those that come from a different walk of life.
Eagle translates these thoughts more broadly into the beautiful, heartbreaking song “Very Much Money (Ice King Dream),” from his 2014 album Dark Comedy. Eagle harmonizes on the hook, “My friends are superheroes / None of us have very much money, though / They can fly, run fast, read Portuguese / None of us have very much money, though / They know judo and yoga, photography, politics / Some of them leap over buildings / Writers, magicians, comedians, astronauts / None of it mattered when n***** was hungry.”
Eagle details the varied magic each of his friends carry within but explains they’re unable to reap any profit because of their disenfranchised position. “Very Much Money (Ice King Dream)” is equal parts light-hearted and soul-wrenching, and Eagle, while doing so with an embellished, cartoony flair (and a reference to “Adventure Time”), breaks down the dynamics of white privilege and what this means for those not afforded its luxury. Despite their beautiful individuality, his friends are unable to prosper; this in and of itself is an appalling systematic calamity.
Listening to his music, you soon learn Eagle is exceedingly transparent about his emotions, resulting in vulnerable art that’s attracted a cult-like indie fanbase. With that being said, being vulnerable isn’t exactly how the American man is historically expected to act; we’re supposed to be the hardened burden-bearers, carrying secrets to our grave with our chin up and our chest out. Eagle shatters this typecasting, spilling his heart out onto countless songs about his fears and anxieties.
On “Dive Bar Support Group,” Eagle raps in the first verse with a biting edge, “I'm my father's son / I hold up the legacy / Macho, masculine all in my pedigree / Angry and cold / Bold and intense when you're / Trying to not be so overly sensitive / Fail, fail, every day, damn.” Eagle rejects the role he’s given as an American man, and his confession of expressing his emotions is belted out with the strain of a lifetime being told to keep them suppressed.
This strain can be felt throughout his latest offering, 2018’s What Happens When I Try to Relax. On the EP, Eagle grapples with many things: his status as an independent artist, having a primarily white fanbase, earning a middle-class income, struggling to reach more people of his own creed and feeling dissimilar to those around him. The latter manifests in the EP’s opening track, “Relatable,” where Eagle belts out his lyrics, vociferating over lightning-struck production as a means of catharsis; if he can convince himself he’s relatable, then maybe he can alleviate the daily anxieties that have left him vexed.
The dichotomy Eagle presents in the song, of being uniquely relatable while feeling out of place, of being happy with himself and also dissatisfied, further displays the many faces he contorts in his music. His humanity is complicated; this comes with the territory of being an empathetic, emotionally-cognizant and introspective person.
Open Mike Eagle’s eccentric and powerful music has held a tenacious grasp on my understanding of the human condition. Through many difficult, transitional times in my life, from being riddled with anxieties to maturing into young adulthood, Eagle’s music has been able to speak to me in ways almost nothing else has. His music is confrontational while being soft-spoken; thoughtful while being boastful; a comforting hug that comes with a prescient whisper acknowledging the pain you’ll continue to feel. Simply put, Open Mike Eagle gave me confidence in times of self-doubt. He showed me it was okay to be vulnerable and shed the phony shield of masculinity in order to be open with my emotions and heal. When he rapped on the exuberant “Legendary Iron Hood,” “My old self locked away, no key to the cell / They shooting spells at my head, it's up to me to repel (yeah) / Ain't nothing gonna stop me now,” I can’t tell you how many times tears welled up in my eyes as I hoped to keep trudging on through the difficult times, just as he seemed so determined to do.
Humanity is an odd burden, but also an odd blessing - one that you can float through with less strain when you cast aside the negative thoughts, the judgmental cynicism, and aren’t afraid to laugh at yourself, cry with yourself and do the things you love sans apprehension. Maybe the best piece of advice Open Mike Eagle has ever shared comes from his song “Smiling (Quirky Race Doc),” where he rapped:
“Just be a person / That's the bottom line, be a person / And fuck the rhyme scheme, this time just be a person.”
It’s simple, but sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of this shared kinship. As complex a person as we all are, as far-ranging and all-encompassing as our individuality is, sometimes we have to cast aside this beautiful minutia to realize our shared humanity.
Fuck the rhyme scheme, this time, just be a person.