“Can you play it for me?”
I look up from the book.
It is 2:00 AM and the rest of the entourage is busy eating wings and samosas and talking about going out to a club. But his pasta carbonara is untouched and he points to the worn copy of Liszt’s “Un Sospiro” that lies open in my hands.
I put my fingers on the keys.
The opening melody breathes and expands and exhales into the Serena Hotel lounge. Forks pause, words fade into the night as a sigh – un sospiro – settles and fills the space. The song recalls memory, whispers of gilded moments, unveils ancient sanctuaries.
And then the fingers stop. The hands rise, the foot releases, the fingers lower into the lap.
He is silent.
I open my mouth to speak, but before the question passes my lips, he says:
I never intended to go to the concert.
For the past few months, Jason Derulo has peered down from billboards and crooned love songs over scratchy bus speakers on my daily commute to Rwamagana.
Ad agencies plastered Jason’s face and blasted his voice on every possible media outlet in Rwanda to advertise this year’s Primus Guma Guma Superstar Competition.
If I didn’t know who Jason was while I was living in the States (aside from the unmistakable “Jason Deruloooooo” at the opening of all of his songs), I certainly learned to recognize his face within weeks of Primus’ marketing campaign.
One day in March, just as I was leaving the Serena Hotel, a friend invited me to the set-up for the official launch of the competition. At the time, I posted a photo of one of the early announcement banners on Facebook.
Then, in June, my friend had extra tickets and I attended a live taping of Primus Guma Guma (basically Rwanda’s version of American Idol) which eliminated all but four Rwandan artists (Knowless, Young Grace, Jay Polly, and King James) from the running.
At the taping, Primus looped a short video sequence of Jason Derulo expressing his excitement about coming to Rwanda.
I remember thinking, “Oh, he looks like he’s a lot friendlier than Sean Kingston” (last year’s guest performer).
But even with all the noise and multiple mentions of Jason Derulo on my Facebook prior to the concert, my plans for the evening of July 28 were very quiet and decidedly Jason-Derulo-less.
At 8:00 PM, my friends were calling and texting that they were on their way to the concert. But I still had another hour of piano to play at the Kigali Serena Hotel, after which I planned to eat my usual dinner (tomato soup, a plate of mango and pineapple, black tea with ginger and honey), check my email at the hotel’s Business Centre, and then go home.
I told my friends that I would be staying in this Saturday. Then, I turned to page 54 and began to play Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor.
I used to hear President Kagame’s approaching motorcade blare its way through Kigali, sending cars and motos swerving to the side of the road to avoid the barreling line-up. I was usually one of those people on a moto, worrying about whether I had backed up all the important files on my netbook in case I fell into the ditch.
But now I was part of the motorcade.
The DJ and I were in the second vehicle, just ahead of Jason’s. Our driver was driving in both lanes and deliberately rushing toward vehicles that were too close to the line-up. I gripped the handles on both front seats as we came within inches of dozens of pedestrians on our crazed sprint to Amahoro Stadium.
It had all happened too quickly.
Rewind back to 9:00 PM. I was lowering the piano lid when the entourage walked in. One of them waved hi to me. I waved back. Next thing, all of us – except Jason who had gone upstairs to change – were grabbing drinks at the bar and doing introductions. The DJ asked if I was going to the concert.
“Wasn’t planning to,” I said.
“Come with us!” they insisted.
Now, I was in the VIP rooms of the stadium. Bottles of liquor and red bull were arranged on a table, the TV was playing an old episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians. Jason’s personal security guard, a towering 6’8’’ individual who also works for LeBron James, stood in the corner with shades over his eyes and arms tensely crossed. Jason’s brother (Joey) and twin cousins helped themselves to drinks.
The cue came. We stood around the table, joined hands in prayer. A resounding “AMEN!” later and we were off. The event organizers told us to keep our belongings in the room, so I left my wallet on the table and exited with only my phone.
On the way to the stage, a crazed fan peered into the car and asked breathlessly, “Jason?”
I rolled up my window.
We share stories of loss and difficulty that brought us to where we are. Since he was 5 years old he knew he wanted to be a pop star, but as a child, he struggled with asthma. More recently, the death of his cousin and the near-fatal accident in January that fractured his neck gave him a new perspective on life.
On his bucket-list – a family. On mine – a novel.
I share with him, Eudaimonia, a Greek word for “human flourishing,” a meaningfully well-lived life. A life that is more than the pursuit of happiness, a life that strives for true contentment which comes from doing what you love and doing what is meaningful and positive for the world. Maximizing impact.
“What should I do?” he asks, “I want to do something good. Can you create a cause for me, like a Jason Derulo Foundation? Can I hire you to start a project for me?”
I say no.
I tell him to search himself, to think about his roots in Haiti, or his childhood, the issues or difficulties he experienced growing up in Miami. I am tempted to tell him to start a project in Rwanda, but instead I urge him to find a cause that resonates with him – his heart, his identity – something that is part of who he is.
We are running up the stairs. Then I am onstage, greeted by the roar of screaming, cheering, shouting, crying, hysterical fans. With the bright lights and cameras flashing, I cannot see the outlines of the stadium but I feel the electric energy emanating from the masses.
I take a couple steps back and position myself next to the fog machine.
“Just stay next to the keyboardist,” the DJ had told me, when he asked me to take pictures with his iPhone. I enter his iPhone password and lift the phone to snap a couple shots of the crowd.
Girls swoon and scramble over each other to get closer to the stage. I hear several high-pitched voices rise above the others declaring their love for Jason Derulo.
My friends, who had not expected to see me at the concert, are texting me – completely dumbfounded to see me onstage, as are my former students, who will later watch the concert on national television somewhere outside of Kigali.
As fans sing along with Jason’s hits, I focus on taking photos with the DJ’s iPhone and my Android. I wish, more than ever before, that I knew how to dance or to stand somewhat less awkwardly.
And just as suddenly as it began, Jason finishes his last song. He rushes off the stage, the rest of us follow. We jump back into the dark SUVs and drive off.
“I don’t know anybody who works as hard as I do.”
Jason leans forward and stares at the screen embedded into the back of the passenger seat. It is playing a muted version of “The Sky’s the Limit.”
“Why I got to pay the same as Bill Gates?” he says, “I worked hard to make what I have. Why do I have to be punished for being successful?”
In a couple months, Jason will join other celebrities to support President Obama for reelection, but he is frustrated and deeply disappointed with Obama’s tax policies.
His personal security guard disagrees. The guard tells Jason about a relative who “works really hard too” but still has trouble supporting her family. “You made it and that’s great, but not many people do, so it’s a way for you to give back.”
But being taxed fifty percent of his income is unfair, Jason argues, there should be a separate bracket for “intermediate” wealth.
“What do you think?” he asks me.
I have been listening, quietly glad that those around him are vocal about their differing perspectives.
I tell him that I do not know very much about Obama’s tax policies and, yes, perhaps it isn’t entirely fair that he and Bill Gates are lumped into the same tax bracket.
“But at the same time, I guess from my perspective, maybe if the tax system were different I would not have made it here – I would not have been able to afford a college education and be able to do what I’m doing now.”
Back at the Serena Hotel, we watch the concert on Rwanda’s national television.
A couple miscommunications and missed beats draw laughs from the DJ and the band, but otherwise, the team seems pleased with the performance.
The event organizers bring back everything from the VIP room. Except my wallet. Which has my house keys. They promise me that they will find it.
The group starts talking about heading over to K-Club.
“I’m not really sure I want to go,” he tells me.
“You have to. Everyone is already there waiting for you.” I add: “Plus, this is your opportunity to prove that you’re better than Sean Kingston.” I share the story of my unfortunate encounter with Kingston last year. [http://blog.undergradresearch.northwestern.edu/worldisabook/2011/10/09/on-beauty/]
Suite 208 is a mess of overflowing suitcases, designer sneakers scattered over the carpet, white Calvin Klein t-shirts hanging off of tables and chairs.
While J gets ready, the security guard and I listen to Jason’s newest songs – songs that will be released on his next album. [Clue: title of this post].
Earlier, J told me that Michael Jackson was his greatest inspiration growing up, but a search for MJ tracks in Jason’s iTunes turns up 0 results. Why? J says he doesn’t want his work to be influenced by another artist, especially one that has already profoundly inspired his career.
At the moment, J would like to work with Katy Perry – or rather, he clarifies, the writer/inspiration behind Katy Perry.
His favorite actors? Will Smith and Angelina Jolie.
Jams that will get him dancing? OMG (Usher feat. Will.I.Am) and Boom Boom Pow (The Black Eyed Peas).
He has never heard of my favorite, Stereo Love (Edward Maya).
J comes out from his room in a brown skull T-shirt and asks me which shoes he should wear.
I pick the brown ones.
“Hold my hand,” says one of the twins. We open the doors.
Lights. Paparazzi. Screaming. Hysteria.
I can barely see J in front of me as we force our way through the crowd with security behind, on the sides, in front, at the back. People are grabbing at our clothing, shoving their phones in our faces to take pictures. It feels like I am being carried instead of walking.
Inside, K-Club is filled past capacity and the humidity and stench are stifling. We make our way into the VIP booths, I see a couple familiar faces in the crowd but can’t even lift my arm to wave.
“Damn, I can’t breathe,” he says.
The MC stops the music. “JASON DERULO IS IN THE HOUSE!”
Swarms of people push their way toward the booth. All I can see are cameras and phones and frenzied girls.
I look over at him. He is speaking to a waiter, unruffled and seemingly oblivious to the escalating hysteria and pandemonium taking over the club. The twins and personal security guard station themselves in front of our elevated booth, providing a human shield between J and the crazed fans.
The MC is saying something about getting two beautiful girls to dance off and that both will have the opportunity to meet J. Girls start screaming. J shakes his head. He cues the guard, who nods and pulls the curtain. A semblance of privacy.
The DJ starts playing “Breathing” and the crowd roars.
“How do you get used to this?” I ask him.
“You don’t. I mean sometimes it’s really flattering, but no, you never get used to it.”
We talk about traveling. Australia is one of his favorite countries. He tells me about his upcoming dance show “Everybody Dance Now” which he will be shooting in Sydney over the next 2.5 months. He asks if I know Kelly Rowlands. I do not. He has me promise to follow his TV show on Youtube.
I tell him about Paris, about the magic of getting off at a different metro stop every day and walking around and meeting people. I love the intimate immersion into a different culture, the chance encounters, the access to incredible life stories that comes with traveling alone.
The more you experience of other people’s worlds, the more free you are, I tell him.
“What do you mean?” he asks.
Cold showers in Rwamagana, for instance. Taking a cold shower every morning not only develops an appreciation for hot water but also demonstrates that yes, you are able to live without hot water. Just like living without electricity or stable internet; when you see that you can live without former “necessities” and even grow to appreciate their absence, you are able to realize greater freedom. Sometimes, the less you have and the more you experience of other lifestyles, the more you’re able to understand and appreciate your own.
“I don’t know about that,” he says, “I like my hot showers.”
J opens the bottle, pours, then distributes Red Bull across both glasses. He pours my glass into his, pours his back into mine, measures each evenly, precisely.
I raise my glass. “Cheers.”
“Not yet,” he says, “We need straws.”
He becomes defensive when he sees the look on my face. “I can’t drink it without a straw,” he explains. He tells me about how he never touches the door handles of public restrooms, he uses napkins to open doors and flush toilets.
“Sometimes I even use my foot to flush,” he says. He admits that he is somewhat of a germaphobe.
When the straws are not available, J finally takes a napkin and carefully wipes the rim of my glass and then his. He adds ice cubes.
“If I die, it’s your fault,” he says.
We raise our glasses. “Cheers.”
“I want to post something from you.”
I look over. He is grinning over the top of his laptop. The sunlight illuminates the “Future History” skull tattoo on his left arm. “Give me something – a quote or something from yesterday.”
I laugh. I tell him I can’t think of anything profound.
“I should have written everything down,” he says.
I suggest ‘Eudaimonia.’
He pauses. “But I don’t think my fans would get that.”
We go to my Facebook page and look through my list of favorite quotes. He chooses the one from Plato: “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” He types it in and clicks ‘Post.’
“Watch. Every time I refresh the page it’s going to go up by 500,” he says.
He refreshes the page. The quote already has over 700 likes and over 50 comments.
“And check it out on Twitter too,” he says.
I start reading the comments.
“You can do so much,” I tell him, “You have the capacity to do so much.”
He tells me about the time when he donated fourteen inches of hair to Locks of Love.
He looks over. “You got lots to donate.”
“Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” I say, and quip, “Maybe when I’m happily settled and I know I no longer need it.”
Like most people, J begins his mornings by surfing the “news” – but instead of reading the New York Times or The Economist, J gleans his “news” from celebrity gossip sites such as www.justjared.com. We discuss the recent scandal with Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, which he hadn’t known about previously. He starts perusing articles about Chris Brown, Beyonce, etc.
I call my house guard to pick up the extra set of keys from the cleaning lady so that I can return to the house.
We start to talk about Rwanda. J likes the sound of Vision 2020 and starts mumbling “2020 Vision. Vision 2020. That’s good.” I claim that Kagame had a large following on Twitter. J finds the page and shakes his head. “72,000 followers? That’s nothing.” He clicks “Follow.”
“How many followers do you have?” I ask.
“Over a million.”
It is 11:30 AM and it is Solid’Sunday – the last Sunday of the month when Solid’Africa serves food to vulnerable hospital patients. I have to be at the hospital (CHUK) in one hour. I tell J about Solid’Africa, about its mission to aid recovery and help the sick, about the big heart and selflessness of its leader, Isabelle Kamariza. He cannot believe when I tell him that only two blocks away from the five-star hotel people are suffering from sickness and hunger.
My house guard calls. He has the keys. “Okay, I got to go,” I say, “Good bye?”
“I’ll come with you.”
“To the hospital ? Are you sure? You don’t have anything else planned? You’re sure I don’t have to say good bye right now?” I cannot contain my smile.
He grins, assures me that he has no plans except to pack and head to the airport. “Okay, look, here’s my number. Just give me a call when you get back.”
I walk to the door, and look back. I want to preserve this moment, the memory of him sitting on the couch looking at his phone. Just in case.
“See you!” I say. I exit.
“C’mon man, let’s go,” said the security guard. “What’s the problem?”
The driver refuses to budge. All of J’s suitcases are packed and already sitting in the trunk. I notice one of the event promoters standing outside my window. I roll it down.
“Where are you guys going?” he says. He looks stressed.
“CHUK,” I reply. I explain that we are going to serve food with Solid’Africa at the hospital. I ask about my wallet. He shakes his head.
“Listen, man, let’s go,” repeats the security guard to the driver, clearly getting frustrated, “She knows where it is, just follow her directions.”
The event organizer nods at the driver and the vehicles move out of the hotel.
At the hospital, Solid’Africa members are waiting at the entrance. We leave the cars and walk to the ward.
Hospital patients, some with missing limbs, many hooked up to IVs, struggle to sit up in beds and stare curiously at J as he walks in. Whispers begin to circulate through the ward, and people start to call out “Jason Derulo” and reach out their hands toward him. Excitement quickly builds.
Behind a line of food buckets, J joins Solid’Africa members to serve rice and vegetables into an eclectic assortment of plastic bowls and plates and cups. Photographers and media crowd the small hallway and push me to the back, but when I see the glow in J’s face I do not feel the jostling and I forget to take photos. Even he seems to be in wonder as he ladles food and smiles at each eager patient he serves.
Too soon, we have to go. He follows me out of the hospital, takes photos with Solid’Africa members and several delighted hospital patients. And then we are walking back to the car.
“So how’s the germaphobe feeling?” I ask.
He laughs. “Do you happen to have that hand sanitizer on you?”
I shake my head.
He is still smiling. “No worries. It’s fine.”
We get in the car and head to the airport.
J is silent for a while. “I’m still kind of in shock,” he finally says.
He falls silent again. “I mean, it’s crazy.” He shakes his head, looks down. “Look,” he says. I turn and see him pointing to the food stains crusted on his pants.
“But you were right,” he says.
“You’re right. I’m more free now.”
“Damn, I can’t complain anymore!” He puts both hands on his head and sits back, lost in his thoughts. “And I complain about everything – my room, my clothes, people.”
“And these people, they don’t even have food. F***, I can’t complain no more.” He quickly apologizes for his language.
“I am so glad we did that,” he says.
We have to finish the interview so I pull out my computer and ask the remaining questions. “Why did you decide to visit the hospital before you left Rwanda?”
“Well, you see, there was this girl – ”
I look up. He is grinning. “Okay, okay, nah, it was because…”
We arrive at the airport, and drive past the guards through the VIP section. Fans and paparazzi are waiting by the entrance, fortunately not permitted to cross into the VIP parking section. As the others unload the cars and line up the suitcases on the sidewalk, J comes to me.
We stand for a moment. “Let’s take that picture,” he says.
“Oh, right.” I take the lens cap off my camera. He calls over the security guard.
“Can we do something different?” I ask, “Like not your signature pose.”
We take a silly faces picture, and then a normal faces picture. Fans are calling to him from the side, J walks over for more photos and autographs. I stand at a distance.
J comes back to me. “You have my number, right?”
We stand. The others are ready to go into the airport.
“Good luck with everything – your music, Australia, acting,” I begin. Suddenly the words are coming too fast. I hope that you remember this and that it meant something and that you’ll come back to Africa again.
One of the twins calls him over. The group starts walking toward the security line.
“Wait a moment,” I hear the security guard say.
And then, suddenly, they are all turning and they are coming back to me. The security guard picks me up in a huge bear hug and lifts me high, high into the air.
“Thank you. This has been really great,” he says, “Thank you for everything.”
The twins come over and hug me good bye. They thank me for taking them to the hospital. Joey hugs me and says good bye too.
I look up. J is standing at a distance. He is the one person that I do not hug.
“Eudaimonia,” he says.
“I got it.” He winks. Then, he turns and walks away.
For a moment, I stand by the two empty cars. The group moves into the security line and the paparazzi and girls follow them.
Then I cross the VIP barrier and return to my life.
The next few days, I wandered and became lost within the old framework. I went to meetings to discuss the next K-TEAM event. I took motos to the Remera bus park, then the Stella Express to Rwamagana. I taught class.
When I went home, I went through the pictures. I downloaded a couple songs. I called representatives of the event promoters for updates on my wallet. They did not respond to my calls or texts.
I called my parents.
“I guess it’s just that I’ve never been in this situation where I’ve made such a great connection with someone and they’re just not accessible, like I will never be able to talk to him or see him again, but he’ll always be there and I’ll see his life in the news, I’ll dance to his songs at the clubs. I’ve met so many great people who have inspired me and we’ve had great conversations and connected. But this is different. I feel as if I have lost someone. And that I was wrong. I am so wrong that the experience meant anything.”
I told my parents I couldn’t explain it.
After two days, I called his number. It went to voice mail.
After three days, the New Times published my article [http://www.newtimes.co.rw/news/index.php?i=15071&a=56576]
That evening, I finally received a call from the event planners. I asked whether they had updates on my wallet.
They told me they had not responded to my calls because they were pissed. They accused me of having “hijacked Jason Derulo” and completely ruining all of the PR they had planned for Jason’s visit. I learned that, apparently, the morning that Jason had come with me to CHUK, they had stationed dozens of media representatives and important sponsors from Primus, Bralirwa, East African Promoters at an orphanage in Nyamirambo.
And Jason never showed up to the orphanage.
“But he told me he had nothing planned,” I tried to explain.
They claimed that the artist is never responsible for his program and he is simply supposed to follow the program that had been set by the event planners. It would have been fine if Jason and I had “gotten coffee”, they said, but how could they explain to CEOs why Jason Derulo ended up at another event.
I apologized. I said I was sorry. Over and over. I explained that I had not known, that the visit to CHUK was not premeditated. I did not intentionally sabotage their plans. I begged them to return my wallet.
They said they would get back to me.
After 4 days, Jason’s face had been peeled off of the billboards. I sent a text into the unknown.
Lydia [August 2, 6:14 PM]: Hey Jason – did you get to see the article about you and Solid’Africa? Hope we can stay in touch, I really appreciated our conversations.
After 5 days:
Jason [August 3, 7:04 AM]: I saw a few… Don’t know which one u did. We should absolutely stay in touch. You’re doing amazing things!!!
After 6 days:
Jason [August 4, 12:13 PM]: On another note, where can ppl find more info and donate to solid Africa?
On August 7, Jason Derulo posted on his facebook page and Twitter with a link to a Youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qotbeWFZNAM
And today, I responded:
August 26, 2012
Spreading the Eudaimonia!