Loneliness, Love, Hope and the DeBarges 

Dreaming of love


in First Person • Illustrated by Esther Lee


I peeled a tangerine, left it on the side till its wrinkled
orange skin, grew crisp and when 
it touched my lips it stuck there, like an 
envelope waiting to be sealed sending 
a message home, I bit down and the 
tracing paper crispness retreated to a wonderful
onslaught of sweetness. 

I hope you will excuse me if I share with you an obsession, a compulsion maybe, borne from the constant search for solace. No one knows how these obsessions manifest, but they come, a salve for a bleeding soul, sometimes late at night when YouTube on autoplay presents a song that raises you from stupor, you connect with the sinews straining in the singers voices, the brightness and energy of the dancing, the closeness you could palpably feel, the familial love oozing from the bright laptop screen from each one of these performers. Obsessions need no justification, to ask what heals me, what soothes me, settles my countenance would be to disrespect the miracle of the art. And so I have been listening to DeBarge on repeat, constantly, compulsively. I have been taking walks and moving with this brilliant but tragic family through their hits and their lesser-known songs. Work has moved swiftly as I listen to El sing “I Like It,” my mornings are filled with a little more spice, verve and dance with “Rhythm of the Night.”  Emotions sit on top of every note that is sung, they draw out joy with every guitar solo or trumpet, they make me itch with every crawling feeling of love and affection with their vibrating voices. And loneliness, they sing about loneliness, with every different tension possible: gracious, forlorn, hopeful, wistful loneliness. A loneliness so rich it stays in the mouth, sits there like lemonade too sweet, it taints everything you taste for the rest of the day. 

I love a nighttime walk. I have the privilege of living close to Central London and like to walk through the city at night. I want to wait till every office worker has left the grand buildings they work in, I want to walk when the baroque office blocks relax in their emptiness, and I want to walk when it’s hard to not just get caught up in the rat race and the cool wind and dark night lets your mind wander through the different avenues and muses hidden in the city. My mind goes to a strange place at those moments. I take the time to stew in regrets and lost love, I find it an exercise in dealing with heartbreak. I put on a certain song by DeBarge, “Who’s Holding Donna Now?” when walking through the many green spaces of the city, the graveyards of burnt and bombed-out churches. Sitting in St. Dunstan in the East, just before the sun sets, watching families take pictures in the beautiful ruins of a godly home, I see couples swinging arms, and posing around the rising tendrils of plants, and I think this is much more holy. 

At those moments I tend to wallow in sadness, a grief perhaps of lost love. I don’t mean romantic love, no, there is a whole other playlist for that, but familial love. DeBarge, made up of the eldest sister Bunny, and brothers Marty, Randy, El and James, sharing writing, production and vocal credits, built a musical family that constantly sang about loneliness. Biracial children, running from abuse, delving into the solace of music, their songs hit me hard, coupled with the recent death of the family matriarch, gospel singer herself, Etterlene DeBarge, it is only right that I obsess. I love my family, but we are apart physically and emotionally, the rare moments we get together seem like music, the riffs come back, the improv, the blind loyalty to a fault. We make hits, we are a concert in that long bank holiday weekend, constantly performing our love. After the weekend, though, we separate, become individuals and our petty fights, insecurities and grudges have space to breathe, to grow, to simmer. Like the DeBarge family, we are at our best together, separately we are floundering, and it hurts. 

Sometimes a love won’t let go / hard as I try I know for sure 

I miss something that I can’t get back, I miss my brothers, I miss their terrorizing and their kindness, I miss that they would scare bullies off and quite worryingly didn’t really mind how young those bullies were. I was one of the more sensitive kids in the family and they never bullied me about that. They would stand up for me when I wanted to just sit inside and read, they told my parents that it’s okay for me to study English and pursue writing. 

I miss my sisters, I miss their constant mollycoddling, their adoption of me as one of their own, the influence of the oldest on me as a poet and lover of all-things Italian. The rebellious nature of the middle sister was misunderstood when I was younger, but I am for it now. I miss the naiveté of my little sister, how all the world still shone in glory in her eyes. 

As I walk to Holborn, I sit on the steps of the St Mary Le Strand Church, and wonder who I am in the DeBarge family. I scroll through my DeBarge playlist, skipping past the more upbeat songs, I linger on “All This Love” and remember how close I am with my older sister. I wish I could show her more affection, more pride, more something. She was a poet, excuse me, she is a poet, and she is the coolest person I know. I lived with her on and off for several years until a big bust-up and I have seen her only three times in the last four years. I learned everything from her, I went to her for advice, her love of Italian culture rubbed off on me, and I went to live in Florence on her recommendation. I love American poet and writer Lucille Clifton because of her. I love DeBarge because of her. I want to give her so much stuff, I want to show her all that I have learned, I want to give her all this love. But I can’t. 

As I walk over Waterloo Bridge, weary, my feet dragging with the pain I’ve dredged up through music. The song that I keep coming back to is “Life Begins With You” written and sung by Bunny DeBarge. (Please don’t mistake my affinity for Bunny DeBarge to mean abuse by my parents, they were on the contrary, very attentive!) The eldest sister in the DeBarge family, Bunny, was never really interested in instruments; she focused on songwriting and producing, which helped her career as she co-wrote many of DeBarge’s hits. Bunny’s voice on “Life Begins With You” is otherworldly, she holds the romantic, the forlorn, the painful, the loving in her hands and whispers in between them. She holds this center point for the entirety of the song. It’s a bombastic ’80s love ballad, but I can’t help but feel like she has given herself to hopelessness, she will never find love, even though she sings of it. The pain of not knowing life is a joyful one because, hopefully here comes love to show her. 

Bunny had a hard childhood — abused by her father from the ages of seven to 13, and bullied in school for her biracial heritage, she dropped out of high school to get married, then developed a drug problem. I cannot think of anything more tantalizing for a person with such a hard history than love. Whenever I hear her sing, the images that flit through my mind are of Adam and Eve, the first example of love in the face of hopelessness. Imagine that rush of love, with a sword of fire heating your back, looking out into an unkempt earth, banned from a beautiful garden. You look at the person beside you and think, ‘Imma stick beside them.’ 

Imagine that gutting rush of survivalist love, knowing that you need each other to survive, knowing that you were made for each other, and your maker has abandoned both of you. Imagine finding love in that abandonment, imagine the first kiss shared in the wilderness of the world, imagine sharing hopelessness, imagine that’s when your life begins. 

I wonder how much understanding, how much longing can be impressed into singing about love from people who experienced loss or a lack of love. I know Bunny and her siblings couldn’t perform on the same level as solo acts. Their solo albums were flops, or were produced and written entirely by other people, but despite the many reasons one could think of — their constant struggle with drug addiction, prison sentences and lack of marketing from studios  — I would like to think it was because they missed each other. The only people they truly loved were their family, and to not have that love was debilitating to their talent. 

I notice that these songs that carry that special quality of love just after loneliness, joy just after sadness, usually come from marginalized groups, groups that experience an exclusion which gives a more potent, illustrative outlook on positive emotion. I think about Nina 

Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” a song that is light and sprightly, dancing over sugary keys of piano, tapping with the light drums of a marching band and being buoyed by the jovial trumpet. No matter how joyful that song sounds, it evokes some sadness within me, because all of the things Nina wants are nothing but wishes, and I tear up at how much joy she can evoke from just the hopeful expectation of freedom. 

Joy and Loneliness are intertwined, the moments of joy exist because of loneliness as the brilliant Pixar movie Inside Out showed us. As I walk through the Lower Marsh, another Bunny DeBarge song hits my headphones. “A Dream” famously sampled by Bink! And Teddy Riley for Blackstreet’s “Don’t Leave Me.” Like Nina Simone’s wish to be free, Bunny is always dreaming of love, of the return of love, of the fantasy of perfection. 

At times, late at night, when my father, probably a little drunk, sends the family group pictures of all of us, I can take some comfort in the fact that I’m not the only one hoping for a dream. We are scattered across the UK, from Northumberland, through the Midlands to London all the way to the Southern coast, expensive rail fares make frequent visits impossible and the more our individual families grow, the harder it is to visit him in Ghana. But I also think it important to keep dreaming, our understanding of the love that once existed moves us to look for it again. Nostalgia, in music, is borne from truth and fear; the knowledge of joy, love and happiness, and the fear that you’ll never have that again. 

I get back to my house, and the final DeBarge song “Stay With Me” plays, this fear of loneliness is illustrated wonderfully. El sings to a woman, calling her into his fold, asking her to stay, promising her everything. And isn’t that a siren’s call, the call to comfort. 

Don’t go / don’t go / don’t go / I love you so 

At times, there exists moments where leaving is necessary, when we have to walk away from a lost joy to find another, to look for comfort and company in someone else. I think about my parents, I think about all parents, who watch their children leave to form their own families. How in the building of those families adult children realize the faults in their upbringing, the glaring emotional voids that contribute to their daily struggles to build their own healthy families. Most times, these thoughts are rationalized as human moments, but, other times, anger is the response. Genuine care meets anger with confusion which results in an inevitable isolation. My family is lost to the responsibilities of our individual lives, forgetting to cultivate a constant habit of reminding each other of our love, and we gather all this love for the few moments we see one another, and afterward push it to the back of our minds, dusty but still beating, still ready, still willing… 

My parents — like El — are calling to us, to join them again as a familial unit, but maybe this frantic world is something we need to master before we go back. It is a comforting thought, to know that we are always welcome. 

This pain of having to leave someone is also something that marginalized people do well in music. Tyler The Creator, founder of juvenile rap collective Odd Future, spent his teenage years rapping using homophobia, graphic violence against women and black humor in his lyrics to rebel against the system. He was banned from performing in the UK, Australia and New Zealand but watching his growth into a mature artist, these restrictions to me are just the growing pains of a brilliant artist. He came out as bisexual in his Grammy-nominated album Flower Boy and was praised for his maturity and his honesty on the project. I keep thinking about how Tyler must have felt, leaving the angry, anarchic child and adopting a thoughtful multi-instrumentalist rapper/singer persona, one who loves ’80s ballads like me and is constantly trying to recreate ’80s pop songs in his albums. Was he frightened he would be shunned by all his rabid teenage fans who loved his horrorcore lyrics and crazy antics? Did he ever feel that he would be left alone as he attempted to grow

Stay the fuck away from me / stay the fuck away from me / stay the fuck away from me / i ain’t done with you myself / but stay the fuck away from me 

Tyler The Creator’s best album IGOR is a tribute to lost homosexual love. To what could have been, to obsession, to healing, an understanding of love deepens with every track — the album moves from love, to anger, to pleading, to acceptance. He moves towards a sound reminiscent of DeBarge at the conclusion of the album in “GONE GONE/THANK YOU” and in an incredibly empathetic use of a pitched-up voice a choir of children sing “my love’s gone.” At the end of a moment his life hasn’t ended, he’ll be fine, and rather he opts to thank this nameless man he loved. 

I can’t wait for the moment we all can say “thank you” in earnest, our negative feelings gone, lost to a synth and a beautiful harmonizing voice. 

Bunny DeBarge swirls in my mind through all these deliberations, her name lost to the tragic ending of many of the DeBarge family, El is still struggling with drug addiction, Bobby died of AIDS-related illness, Tommy is on kidney dialysis, Randy and Mark have incurable illnesses and James is in prison for drug offenses. Still, holding on to that understanding of loss, Bunny successfully completed rehab, moved back to Michigan and is now touring as relaxation. I would like to think that she moved past the necessity for love in someone else, I would like to think she nurtured with that wonderful voice of hers, those who already loved her, I wish sometimes when “Rhythm of The Night” or “I Like It” or “Stay With Me” plays someone says, “That’s Bunny!” Whenever the songs that sampled Bunny-composed music play, I wish Mariah Carey and Puff Daddy and Blackstreet would pay their respects to Bunny! I hope that she knows that life began for her the moment the world heard her voice and fell in love with it. I hope these flowers reach her.•


Labeja Kodua Okullu is a Ghanaian-British writer who lives in London. After studying English and Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths, he went on to complete The Novel Studio writing course at City, University of London and is currently working on his first novel. Labeja has published poetry with Forward Poetry and the Rattle:Poetry magazine and has contributed a poem to Interior Realms published by Theatrum Mundi. He co-edited the flagship research project publication Urban Backstages Theatrum Mundi. He is also the programmer for Theatrum Mundi presents, an artist moving image film event that highlights new artists and their short films.