Risa Tirado ’26
Bronx Dreaming & Dark Nights
It was December 2018, the last day before winter break, and the entirety of the High School of American Studies was crammed into the theater for the talent show. Anticipation for vacation filled the hall, accompanied by the tune of off-key clarinets playing “Frosty the Snowman.” Thirteen -year-old me in the back of the theater was half-asleep through most of the performances—until Jonny walked onto the stage.
Despite being a public high school in the Bronx, HSAS was a majority white, wealthy school. It was a far cry from the environments I had grown up in. I had never expected to be told: “You’re from where my maid is from!” or to be asked for help with Spanish homework by people I had never talked to otherwise, or even pitied for my lack of a second home in the Hamptons. I had never felt so isolated from my peers before.
Jonny was in a similar boat. Bronx-born and raised, Dominican, son of a preacher, and definitely not the most welcomed by his richer, whiter counterparts. He sat at a grand piano and introduced his song “In the Dark of the Night.” He had written it at the lowest point in his life, talking about his struggles with mental health and feeling isolated from those around him. Saying something so personal to a crowd of four-hundred people was shocking but motivating to me. If Jonny could heal, I could heal too. He went on to talk about his reasons for writing the song. One reason was to put his feelings on paper – and in music – to provide him with a sense of peace. I understood that reason. When I was overwhelmed, I’d scribble my jumbled feelings into my notebook until they became something more fluid, something that made sense to me. You could hardly call it journaling with my unfinished sentences and arrows drawn to different blobs of text around the page, but writing was a release of sorts. Jonny’s other reason for writing the song, however, was something I had less experience with. He wrote it in hopes that someone else would hear it and feel like someone understood them. His ballad of pushing through isolation was meant to help others push through isolation and find a supportive community around them – and if not in others, then support and peace from within themselves.
As his fingers rushed across the keys, and the crowd clapped along to the beat, my eyes were glued to the stage. I had never met him before, but it felt like Jonny had taken a walk inside my brain and rapped about his findings. I had always viewed music as art, but Jonny’s music was poetry that happened to be accompanied by beats or piano or beatboxing. This stranger who had to hide parts of himself at home and in a school where people led completely different lives than he did seemed to understand me more than I understood me.
Post-talent show, I found all of Jonny’s music on SoundCloud and kept it perpetually on loop – apparently so on loop that Jonny got a notification that I had streamed his music more than anyone else. He recognized my name and would say hi to me in the halls, but in typical 13-year-old me fashion, I was nervous. I avoided him in person but remained his biggest fan online. Then, he found my art and, to my surprise, asked me to make the cover art for his new song, “State of the Union.” It was a rap song about racism in America and in our school during the course of the Trump presidency – a message I supported wholeheartedly. His writing didn’t just have the power to make you feel, but to make you think. I reflected on what shaped my worldview and how narrow our worldviews could be, about how our environments can be microcosms of the sociopolitical landscape we live in. Writing opened my eyes to experiences other than my own, in the way that I hoped my classmates’ eyes would be opened.
Over the course of high school my classmates’ eyes did begin to open, while not as much as I’d hoped for. In 2020, the newly-founded Committee for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion wrote a letter detailing the school’s racism, both within the student body and within the structure of the school itself. The self-proclaimed history high school taught history from a Eurocentric perspective, with many teachers’s lessons tailored to an upper-class white audience. The letter was filled with quotes from students of color feeling isolated by their peers and school administration, and set clear goals – for the school to diversify their curriculum, to establish an independent micro-aggression task force, to foster an accepting environment for all students, and have 1/3 of their students admitted by the Discovery Equity program. The letter gained over 700 signatures from students, parents, and alumni – one vocal signee being Jonny, who had since graduated. I was so moved by the letter. It had put a powerful voice to everything I had been feeling throughout my time in school, similarly to what Jonny’s music has done the year prior. I became involved in the committee, ultimately becoming its co-chair in my senior year. Jonny and I remained in contact, and he’s currently working on Chaos, an album he’s been writing and rewriting since 2019. I look forward to seeing all of Jonny’s work come to fruition, as well as hopefully work on more album covers for him in the future.
Looking back, the “State of the Union” cover is definitely not my best work – but it’s still work I’m proud of. Finding Jonny’s music showed me the impact that writing could have. Writing could make you feel seen and tell stories you’re not used to hearing. These stories can shape who you are and provide you with a sense of direction or clarity. Writing can help you express your innermost thoughts, and help you provide direction and clarity to others in unexpected ways. What started as a possibly boring talent show became a deeper appreciation for writing as I knew it that continues to grow and develop.