I remember being utterly floored upon hearing James Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream” for the first time. Its cascading and crescendoing bass lines, set to rubbery guitars and sparse beats, paired with Blake’s unassumingly plaintive yet aching voice, sounded like nothing I had ever heard up until that point.
In 2011, the song’s moody, minimal sound and repetitive lyrics were both at odds and in conversation with the boom-bap, maximalist EDM sound of its time. The song never did turn out to be a “hit” in the conventional sense of the term (it peaked at a dismal #136 in Blake’s home country of the UK), but true to its sonics, “Scream” steadily shaped up to be one of the most defining pieces of music for the course of popular music throughout the last decade: Madonna professed love for his music. Beyoncé featured him on Lemonade. Frank Ocean churned out hymn-like nuggets with him. Travis Scott roped him in for a VMA performance.
Over a decade later, Blake’s soulful solemnity may remain unchanged, but his lyrical point of view has understandably shifted from the starry-eyed angst of “Scream” (“I don’t know about my loving anymore / All that I know is I’m falling… Might as well fall in”) to the quiet resignation of “Friends That Break Your Heart,” the title track to his fifth studio album.
“And as many loves that have crossed my path / In the end, it was friends who broke my heart,” Blake laments over slow-burning acoustic guitar, a rare instrument in his oeuvre, and distant, haunting piano accoutrements. Somehow, even the starkness of “The Wilhelm Scream” didn’t feel quite this cutting or devastating. In a discography replete with emotional catharsis, “Friends” had me floored like no other James Blake song preceding it, even surpassing 2016’s vocoder-heavy, tears-inducing stunner “Meet You in the Maze.”
Perhaps because this time around my listening experience of “Friends” and its parent album was imbued with a brand new pain. Perhaps because the loss of friendship is strangely not a theme often explored in music, popular or otherwise. Perhaps because with the passing of a decade, I have been through the wringer in many aspects of my life, especially my friendships.
“With romantic relationships we know what to do and we know what to expect,” observes Blake. “Love songs and films have told us and other people know what to expect of us when we’re heartbroken in that way. Friendship breakups don’t carry the same level of acknowledged gravitas. People just go, “Well, you can get more friends. There are plenty more of those.”
Chalk it up to my Libra Moon in the Eleventh House, but my emotional world is usually thriving whenever I’m surrounded by like-minded companions. As I came to learn over this past year, it took being unapologetically vocal about veganism, animal rights and environmental issues to cost me years-long friendships — never mind that the entire world lives under a pandemic with zoonotic origins. Like, excuse me for caring about our one and only habitable planet and the welfare of all the animals, human or non-human, in it.
“Why won’t you do the same?” I’d like to ask these people sometimes. When everything is so interconnected, I figure this is supposed to be a shared responsibility. Even when seemingly on the woke and progressive tip, most of the people in my long-held circles (like most people in the world, for that matter) couldn’t or refused to connect the dots and extend their ethical bridge to other species when it literally costs them nothing to do so.
“Even though your choice to stop eating animals was deeply empowering and you feel a profound sense of purpose and inspiration in your life, you also feel distressed in no small part because of the disruption this choice has caused to your relationships. You feel like nobody understands your experience. You feel invisible, including to the people you were once closest to…”Melanie Joy, “What to Say to Vegans – According to a Psychologist“
The first half of this year was a profoundly lonely time as I cut ties with one friend after another, whether consciously or unwittingly. Friends that I rocked it out at the karaoke for years with. Friends that I went to marches and protests with. Friends that I had countless late-night chats, hangouts and/or sleepovers with. Friends that would go berserk on Facebook tags or comments with me. Friends that I made Spotify playlists with or for. Friends that paid for my meals and drinks when I was dead broke. Friends that, in the end, broke my heart.
As I became increasingly disillusioned with not only the ways of our modern world but also the social circles that I had been entangled with, I began to run out of people to turn to, to relate with, or even to hang out with — to feel good hanging out with — and I believe it was the same for them. It was me who had changed. And I couldn’t make anyone change if they believed it to their soul that there was nothing to change.
I remember stopping by a friend’s place for a small gathering sometime last year when I was not yet an out vegan but already known for refraining from red meat and chicken.
“Are you still not eating chicken?” he asked me right off the bat.
I was flabbergasted and hastily responded, “Well yeah, of course!”
He let out an exasperated sigh. “We’re having KFC tonight. Can’t you just eat it this once?” he demanded curtly.
I ended up pretending to eat a fried chicken, shredding it into edible pieces before swiftly scooping them into a paper bag, all the while feigning a conversation with these, um, friends. Inside, I was mentally apologizing to the chicken that had no other choice but to be murdered for this feast I hadn’t even asked for. I went home not long after and gave away the shredded corpse to the cats in my neighborhood. They’re the carnivores, not me.
I already touched upon some of these grievances in my debut piece for Across The Culture. At the point of its writing, the idea of having a new community seemed totally elusive and even unthinkable. As the months rolled by, however, it slowly but surely came to fruition and I did not even have to seek it out. I simply responded to wherever fate was taking me and, come the end of the year, I have, in fact, cultivated a new group of friends and networks who are equally passionate about veganism and animal rights.
I wrote about feeling overwhelmed to “witness the sheer severity of our collective existence, every day, everywhere, all the time, caused by our fellow mortals.” This does still hold true, but also feels a tad more bearable now that I am flanked by people from Indonesia and beyond who share similar concerns about speciesism and carnism yet are also progressive, inclusive and forward-thinking in their politics otherwise.
I suppose my sentiments were born out of that unrelenting sense of isolation, that creeping, all-consuming loneliness and inevitable doomism that I could not help but be besotted with for the better part of the year. Am I necessarily hopeful today? I’m not sure. But I can definitely say I feel less alone. And even if the path (cue that Lorde song!) gets lonely, it’s comforting to know that there are people within my proximity whom I can not only share said loneliness with but also get what it’s about.
With these people, I will never have to worry about feeling forced to hang out at a McDonald’s, or hear one of them spew out shit like, “Let’s just live and let live. I respect your choice and you respect mine.” They already know that this so-called “choice” should not entail the murder of other sentient beings and understand that veganism is so, so much more than what you do and don’t eat. Most importantly, veganism isn’t about the vegans — mine is certainly not about me. Recognizing, understanding and operating from the mindset that all sentient beings deserve to lead full, dignified lives is not supposed to be an identity marker; it’s an awareness and a principle that every one of us had better live by.
I can only hope that this is understood by … well, everyone. I’m grateful for the minds that have been opened by my relentless advocacy, old friends or even coworkers who came up to me and professed that I prompted them to slowly but surely change their ways too. It’s a nice thing to learn, but then again I don’t need people apologizing to me for eating steak on a date five years ago. Maybe apologize to the cow whose body part they devoured? That would be more like it.
“I might not make all those psychopaths proud / At least I can see the facеs of the smaller crowds,” James Blake muses, rather sardonically, in the muted and contemplative “Say What You Will,” which finds him bidding farewell to his young self, recounting moments of being “normal” but also “ostracized … like a comet blazing through an empty sky” yet also congratulating himself for finding his way in life “with no superpowers.”
As I and my newfound friends move further along in our efforts to make this world at least a little less carnist and speciesist with more actions, protests and campaigns, I also hope to leave behind the memories of friends that broke my heart and instead focus more on those that helped me mend it, make it a little fuller, a little more excited, and a lot more humane.