I‘m really interested in John Keats, the poet,” said Chicago rapper Broadway Muse early on in our interview. “‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ that is one of my favorite pieces.” Upon examination, Broadway Muse and Keats’s 1819 poem seem like a natural pairing. Like Wyclef Jean sampling Enya’s “Boadicea” for the Fugees track “Ready or Not,” listening to one will bring the other to mind.
Broadway Muse had to grapple with her own mortality at the young age of twelve when she was diagnosed with cancer. Similarly, the exploration of mortality is a principal theme in “Nightingale.” The poem posits that life, itself, is transient. Broadway, through her experience battling serious illness, understands life’s transience as an essential truth. “Everything that is a part of this world is pretty much an accessory,” she said. “Anything can happen in any way, at any moment. Even this body. This body that I hold is not necessarily mine, but I have it for here, in order to be here on Earth.”
The diagnosis changed the trajectory of Broadway’s life, reordering her ambition and shifting her focus to new priorities. “That’s exactly when I started writing. I kind of drifted away from being this model and dancer,” she said. “I always felt like I didn’t really connect with my friends too much, only because I thought pretty much more profoundly about everything.” Similarly, in Keats’s poem, the songbird experiences a type of death but does not actually die. It is capable of continuing to live through its song.
One could say that the cancer diagnosis marked the birth of Broadway’s writing career and, simultaneously, the death of her previous ambitions. Today, Broadway is cancer-free because, as she put it, “I got too many things to do.” Broadway continues to write, composing lyrics for poems, songs, and raps—which she performs beautifully.
Listen to an edited interview with Broadway Muse released on SSW Radio:
For Broadway, Romantic-era poetry and rap are not irreconcilably different. She sees the similarities immediately, and compared Keats to rapper Nipsey Hussle. Keats didn’t gain recognition and critical acclaim until after his death, which Broadway said is similar to the growth of rapper Nipsey Hussle’s status following his death. “Most people don’t necessarily know the strength of his music until he passed away, or what he really contributed to hip hop,” she said.
I asked Broadway about the differences and similarities in her writing processes between rap and poetry. For her, composing rap lyrics is the more academically and intellectually rigorous exercise than composing poetry. “So a rap verse… I’m focused more so on how words sound… Poetry is more so just how I’m feeling,” she explained. “Rap is a bit more structure to me than actual poetry… Poetry, I just want to write.” But there’s something in that structure and rigor of rap that’s more liberating for her. “I feel a bit freer actually rapping than I do in poetry,” she said.
Further, poetry and rap are inspired from different places. Beats, for example, speak to her and what she hears comes out in words.“If I hear a beat or something, that might motivate me to want to write in a particular way,” she said.
In her music, there isn’t a single style which anchors her SoundCloud. One could be forgiven for thinking her music lacks a cohesive narrative, but don’t be fooled; the diversity of sound is a flex. It shows her range. Give the woman any style, any beat, she can match it.
“ReRoute” is bouncy and fun, while “Really With Me” is dark and much more drill. Broadway Muse’s lyrical velocity on “SPAZZ” is up there with Twista. She spins like a playground tire swing; it’s jaw dropping.
Lyrically, the tracks are dense. “IDK Feelin’,” for example, is a whole mood. Specifically, how one feels when one’s significant other isn’t coming correct. “I Don’t Know Feelin’ is me just not wanting to keep putting myself in this position of giving my all to someone who is not necessarily showing up… So it was just like, I don’t feel like it. I don’t feel like it anymore… you’re not necessarily taking notes as well as you should,” Broadway said. There’s a deep ambivalence within the lyrics of “IDK Feelin’.” As if the narrator is questioning herself, interrogating her own expectations and wondering if the standard she set is too high. “The idea of wanting somebody to love you who don’t necessarily have the means to or don’t know how to,” Broadway said. The song occupies the space between “I need you to come correct” and “I don’t know if you’re capable of what I need.”
Broadway Muse is a product of the many things she’s experienced in life. Over the course of our interview, she said more than once that her experience having cancer benefitted her in a number of ways. During the worst of her illness, Broadway spent a year in the hospital. That time confined to the hospital presented an opportunity for introspection and reflection on her life. Despite her young age of twelve, Broadway found herself thinking frequently about the opportunities she didn’t pursue.
“I thought about all those missed opportunities that I could have had and what blocked them. And the main thing that blocked them was my mind telling me I’m afraid of it,” she said. “So literally, when I was in college I made it my duty to do things that you know, once my mind told me not to do it, just go do it anyway.” This mindset motivated Broadway to study abroad in Rome.
While in Rome, Broadway spent some time visiting Keats’s grave in the city’s Protestant Cemetery. The cemetery felt more like a garden and Broadway found the city where the poet spent his final days to be a source of inspiration. “It’s amazing to have walked in the same steps of where he walked,” she said. Keats’s personal friend, English painter Joseph Severn, is buried alongside him. The inscriptions on both headstones reference the permanence (or impermanence, as it were) of Keats’s writing and by extension, the immortality of Keats himself. Broadway found this to be like a story within itself. “I’ve actually sat like right there… writing,” she said.
The evolution of her story—from the pain of having cancer, to her decision not to let fear get in the way of doing the things she wanted to do—brings to mind the Ovid quote, “…someday this pain will be useful to you.” Broadway made it to the proverbial ‘someday’ and continues to push the boundaries of conventional career pathways.
In addition to being a musician, she is a docketing assistant at the prestigious Chicago law firm Jenner & Block and aspires to be a lawyer. Poetry and law do not seem the likeliest of combinations. In our interview, I asked Broadway how she is able to reconcile the freedom and experimentation necessary for creating art with the rigidity and structure of the law. Her experience in undergrad with a hip-hop scholarship program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison called First Wave helped her put together a framework for combining her passions. “It [First Wave] was pretty much based on how we can combine activism, art, and also scholarship,” she explained.
When Broadway Muse describes her aspirations to combine law and music, her energy is palpable. “I think if I can master both of those simultaneously, that’d be amazing. And I think that’s one of the goals that I’ve gotta have,” she said. The thing that makes the deepest impression is how naturally she contains her multitudes. For me, as someone who struggles, has always struggled, and will likely continue to struggle containing my own multitudes, the elegance with which she contains hers is inspiring.
The woman knows her own mind. She isn’t confined to a silo, can’t be classified as a monolith. She contains multitudes and occupies all of these spaces, giving her an uncommon bird’s eye view. With such a perspective, she can see more and create more.
In November, Broadway celebrated the arrival of her first child: a daughter, named Lyric. “My little poetry,” Broadway said, smiling, because it is the perfect name.
Clare McCloskey is a Chicagoan. She is usually writing, obsessing about a band, musician, or book, traveling, and prefers to be on the lakefront, between the water and dry land. Her last stories for the Weekly can be found in the 2019 Best of the South Side issue.