Carlos Andrés Gómez
The doctor tells me I have a polyp on my right vocal chord. My hands quiver as I type this. Wet snow is falling on a Tuesday morning in lower Manhattan, and the last thing I want to think about today is courage.
My throat has been hurting for weeks. It’s been sore here and there in the past, but nothing like this. I’ve been touring for twelve years and never experienced anything remotely close. You need to understand: what I do is who I am. My voice is my life. My vocal chords are to me what knees are to a professional athlete. My doctor tells me I am a vocal athlete, that the polyp is a result of vocal trauma, and it takes everything in me to not breakdown in the chair, just minutes after I’ve had a camera shoved through my nose and plunged into my throat, until I gag and almost throw up three times.
2013 has been my year of growth. This week had to be like this. With my birthday just five days away, in the year where I faced my fear of marriage, fully realized my path as an artist, finally started to become more of the man I’ve tried so hard to be.
Which brings me to Ballymun: in front of one hundred teenagers, no microphone, less than an hour removed from an overnight flight from New York. I remember being their age – when I hated poetry, snickered, like most of them, at even the thought of anything being recited. In those days when my priorities, in this order, were: girls, basketball, girls.
Before I know it though, the room has fallen pin-drop silent. I am reading my poem about my little sister, Mayita, and I realize I am staring in the direction of a girl in the back row, probably her exact age, and I am watching an ocean bloom from her eyes. It feels like I am saying the piece to Mayita, in this moment, aching for my little brother and sister, for my family, wishing they were in this room.
Afterwards, the kids run up to me and some of the boys rap for me. They line up and go one after the other, like they’re auditioning for a record deal. They ask me to sign their notebooks. The girls ask for pictures and if I’m on Facebook. The teacher, Fiona, smiles like I just took her baby brother to his first Knicks game. Inside I am somewhere else, I am wondering if my voice will hold up for two more performances. The voice that has never let me down, given me everything I have asked of it, whether it was a small classroom or a stadium.
My throat is on fire but I have survived both performances at Axis. Talking to three emcees after the show, I am awed by their openness. I am concentrating hard to absorb each word from these young men’s mouths. They can’t be a day older than nineteen, circled up in a cypher, couldn’t care less that a long line of people are waiting to buy books. It’s what we do. All artists understand this. It’s what we build our lives out of: the moment. And right now, the four of us are spilling our hearts out to each other. All three of the guys tell me I brought them to tears, then each clutch me in their trembling arms as we hug. Their intensity, their rawness shakes me up. I remember who I was when I was their age. I wonder who I might have been if I was as brave as them.
It’s fitting that my year of touring ends in this neighborhood. A place that reminds me of other places I have called home: Bed Stuy, Lower East Side, Flatbush, Harlem. I’ve felt it from the first moment I walked the main street – this simmering urgency, rare and fiery genuineness, desire to connect and share, everyone with their hearts halfway out of their bodies, asking the world to listen. It’s the kind of people I’ve always wanted to surround myself with. The ones who draw out the best of what I am.
Tomorrow I get surgery on my vocal chord. I found out yesterday. I will spend my birthday and Christmas in complete silence. I would be lying if I said this surgery wasn’t one of my greatest fears come to life. But I am also grateful. Grateful to have been blessed with the spirit of my Axis and Ballymun family over this past week, remembering the grace of those three emcees in the bar of the theater, choked up, rapping about their lives. Teaching me what it means to be brave. Showing me who I need to be.