Eminem, I heard your song “River.” I know it well. I’ve sung it before.
My song started Memorial Day weekend. Location: Detroit. The year: 2000.
It was the same week your chart-busting ‘The Marshall Mathers LP” dropped. I remember because it was the soundtrack we listened to all weekend long as my friends and I drove to Hart Plaza for what was the first ever Detroit Electronic Music Festival, an event I didn’t realize was about to be an “I was there” badge in my journey as a party girl, and also a marker for a path of choices I was soon to take.
Looking back, I realize that this moment was my initiation to forging a path—I went into a whirlwind of partying and experimentation that lasted far too long. To borrow from your Marshall Mathers LP, “Drug Ballad” became the song of my cage:
“Cause every time I go to try to leave
Somethin’ keeps pullin’ on my sleeve
I don’t want to but I gotta stay
These drugs really gotta hold on me.”
I won’t lie. It was fun. But there were consequences.
Memorial Day Weekend. Location: Detroit. The year: 2003.
I’m back at Hart Plaza, DEMF year four (now re-named Movement), people are dancing, tutting, breakdancing and popping and locking to Detroit techno, Slum Village is rapping from another stage in the distance. Beers are being drunk and pills are being popped. I want to join in the fun, but I can’t. I’m 6 weeks pregnant.
I’m 6 weeks pregnant and I’m selling pills. “These drugs really got a hold on me.”
Everyone has to come to the end of themselves, there’s no way around that—but, you can do it with so much less mess.
It’s at this moment that I start to realize I’m going to lose my freedom. I call it freedom but the truth is, I’m not ready to let go of the party. By now, I’m a card-carrying member of the scene. Detroit, Chicago, New York, DJs, drugs, parties, pills and… problems. I tell my boyfriend that I’m not ready to become a parent, that we won’t have enough money, that we don’t have the capacity to become parents forever. Even when this child turns 18, they will still be our responsibility. “Are you ready to worry about someone forever?” I feigned adult reasons for not being ready to quit partying.
A week later I got an abortion, I paid for it with drug money. “These drugs really got a hold on me.”
In a way, the song by Eminem was stuck on repeat in my life for 10 more years. Years of failed relationships, catching boyfriends cheating through internet messages and soul-crushing hangovers.
Eminem, your song, “River,” it’s the same old song.
The time came and I too, like you, sang “River.”
“I’ve been a liar, been a thief
Been a lover, been a cheat
All my sins need holy water
Feel it washing over me
Oh, little one, I don’t want to admit to something
If all it’s gonna cause is pain
Truth and my lies right now are falling like the rain
So let the river run.”
How is it that a song fits perfectly between two lives, a rap legend and a girl from a middle-class family in the Midwest?
Because, when we choose destructive behavior, we all end up singing the “River,” just like Eminem.
It’s the same old song. How many songs like this must be sung before we listen—before we get smarter, wiser, better than this?
How many songs must be sung?
“Oh, little one, I don’t want to admit to something, if all it’s gonna cause is pain. Truth and my lies right now are falling like the rain. So let the river run.”
Trent Reznor sang “River” and later so did Johnny Cash, two incredible artists, from completely different worlds, made similar choices and guess what? They both sang “River,” finding their hurt, pain and regret laid bare—yearning for anything and yet everything, clarity, healing, the way—in “Hurt.”
“What have I become
My sweetest friend?
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt
If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way.”
Even ancient King David sang “River,” in Psalm 51. He wrote it after getting a married woman pregnant and having her husband killed.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
They are the same old songs. How many songs must be sung?
Why do we keep falling for the same seductive lies, thinking it will turn out different this time?
Time after time we choose easy-fleeting pleasure thinking the outcome will be different than subtly choking guilt, pain, hopelessness—our innocence given as ransom, our tomorrow quenched before we have even managed to dream about its heights.
That’s the “River”—destructive choices that pretend to bless our today while stealing our tomorrow all leading us to a place where we cry out for the waters that release the cages of our yesterday.
Look around the world, look into history, look in your neighbor’s eyes. We are writing each other songs, warning each other about the wide roads. These songs can be found in books, movies, TV shows, paintings, plays, poems, sculptures, symphonies, speeches, dances and late-night coffee confessions.
Yes, let the river run. But don’t just stand there. Sure, it’ll wash you clean but it can also catalyze so much more than that. Run with it and let it run with you. Let it move you, captivate you and lead you somewhere. That’s when the cry for cleansing becomes a cry of freedom.
Everyone has to come to the end of themselves, there’s no way around that—but you can do it with so much less mess. Listen to the songs. Learn from the songs. Heed them, be changed by them.
So, Eminem here’s my song:
“I’ve been a liar, been a thief
I had a little one that I didn’t want to tell another lie to
but the lie was that there was nothing good to tell
Then a Shepherd grabbed a hold of me
And pointed me toward a river alive
My eyes were opened and my spirit revived
I didn’t stop at just a cry for sins to be washed
I jumped into the river
And it birthed everything”
Zion, sing us a song. Let the river run.