Tuning out the Berkeley Bubble

Cutting Room Floor

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While his lips moved to form the word “cunt,” all I could hear through my headphones were J. Cole’s voice rapping “first thing’s first, rest in peace Uncle Phil.” Judging from the man’s furrowed brows and flailing arms, he was probably screaming. Judging from the spit that sprayed my face, he was probably mad. And judging from the concerned look from all of the passersby, I should have probably run away from the homeless man who — for some reason — was bothered by my existence.

But I chose to raise the volume of my iPod instead.

Sometimes, the hustle and bustle of the city wore me out. As much as I loved staying on my feet, the fast-paced atmosphere that enticed me to sign my SIR grew heavy after a while. The constant fear and agony over the little academic details that didn’t even concern my personal safety consumed my mind like rat poison. Constantly thinking about the grades and internships my surrounding peers gloated about was exhausting, let alone having to worry about crossing the street without getting harassed or cat-called.

Sometimes, I just needed to stop thinking about surviving and let myself daydream about why I’m here to begin with. But my feet couldn’t carry me fast enough, the AC Transit was never on time and I could only afford to ride the piss-scented BART on the weekends — if that.

None of the options for physically escaping the Berkeley Bubble catered to my academic schedule. So I found another solution in the form of strong female voices belting in my ear, fast rap verses that quickened my pace and even smooth jazz that could make the strip in front of Amoeba seem classy.

I found my temporary yellow brick road that saved my sanity in the form of sound waves and decibels.

Music helped me tune out the worry when I needed to. My headphones — which became a staple accessory — helped me figure out what was actually going on in my head when the curtains closed.

As much as I loved Berkeley, I needed that brief relief. I had a love-hate relationship with our school, but it didn’t come with an “off” switch, so I had to make my own because if I didn’t press play with the volume loud enough to drown out the noise, I suffocated.

I needed to know there was a world outside of bCourses and Bearfacts, and focusing on someone else’s life for a change helped. I didn’t have the time to sit down and relax with a sitcom for 30 minutes, but I could definitely listen to Chance the Rapper sing about getting suspended from high school for four. For three minutes and 40 seconds, I could pretend to be Rihanna demanding her money. Music let me escape into a world where I could be anyone, anywhere.

Sometimes, I just wanted to be in a place where deadlines were “tryna make it back home by Monday mornin’” and life’s direction was just “up up up can only go up from here.” It was a nice reminder to know that there are seven billion people in the world outside of the 30,000 or so of us at UC Berkeley. And hearing some of their voices accompanied by guitar solos and drums helped.  

In a way, music actually helped me appreciate the diversity that came with the Bay Area. Soaking up the Bay’s murals with Tune-Yards for a soundtrack or walking down Durant Avenue at night with Mac Dre in the background amplified the culture that came with all the commotion. It’s not always a burden — just tiring at times. And just like suburban kids go to the city for a break, my city heart needed to listen to some Keyshia Cole with the volume all the way up so I could keep breathing.

Music was my tool to balance Berkeley’s clatter, and in the suburbs, it was still my way to escape and dream big. So headphones in, I retaliated against the ambulances that whizzed past me, the one-drink-too-manys that screamed around me and the overambitious students loudly announcing their accomplishments in front of me. Armed with the play button on my iPhone, I fought back and let the music wash out the tiring sounds of Berkeley when I needed it most.

Contact Ilaf Esuf at [email protected].