It’s the first snowstorm of winter in Boston, but on Monday, it’s like a cold summer.
Hundreds of young brown and black women flood the stairs of the House of Blues, so happy off of Summer Walker’s hourlong, sold-out performance that they can’t let go of the night.
A fan kicks off “Session 32” before demanding, “Y’all better sang.”
Everyone joins in as they make their way outside into the frigid air and slippery sidewalk, singing
I thought it’d made me feel better
I finally got you out my bed
But I still can’t get you out my head, ooh
The Boston stop was one of the last nine shows Walker promised to do when she abbreviated her “First and Last Tour” last month while her debut studio album, “Over It,” climbed the charts.
Currently number 10 on the Billboard 200, when it came out on Oct. 4, it earned the biggest on-demand streaming week for an R&B album by a woman — 154.7 million streams. But success doesn’t resolve angst.
“I truly appreciate all the support and love. As you know, I have been very open about my struggle with social anxiety,” she posted on Instagram. “I want to continue to be healthy and to make music for y’all, so I have decided to cut down some of the dates on the tour. I hope you all can understand.”
it sucks when you’re not a people person, but you live in a world filled with... people— SUMMER WALKER (@IAMSUMMERWALKER) November 10, 2018
The backlash was harsh. So-called fans wanted to know why she had no problem posting on the gram, twerking at the club, or just outright doing life but clammed up during meet-and-greets and big stage moments. Empathy is hard for folk.
“Girls Need Love” featuring Drake was a summer anthem. But Walker has the kind of anxiety that makes live performances hard. Her NPR Tiny Desk concert became the subject of criticism because she sat still, almost numbly, clutching her emotional support stuffed animal while somehow still belting out the most beautiful songs for brokenhearted black and brown girls who are over it, too.
“Performing gives me so much anxiety,” Walker recently told Billboard. “I would be more at peace if I could just record music and slide it under the door.”
On stage Monday night in Boston, in fuschia fog among the flashing laser lights, Walker hid in plain sight while giving us the best she had for 60 minutes. Two dynamic pole dancers put on a sultry show so she could sing our blues. She sang.
Walker counts Erykah Badu, Amy Winehouse, and Marvin Gaye as her influences. She may not have their stage presence, but sis has vocals and can strum a guitar, too.
Her voice is both raspy and sweet, raw yet refined. Her notes carry on as long as her legs. When she mashes up “Potential” with Badu’s “Honey,” it more than works, it wows. And she repeats the feat all over again with “Off of You.”
She gives a few dance moves but is most comfortable clutching her mic. It somehow lends to an intimacy — a bunch of girlfriends in their bedroom — a scene you don’t expect but love to see.
When Walker won the Soul Train Music Award for Best New Artist in November, she shyly took the stage, making her thank you as brief as possible. Twitter turned her into memes and made fun of anxiety as if we haven’t seen Kristen Stewart or Bob Dylan anxiously accept awards before. Like Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez haven’t taken mental health breaks.
But black girls are expected to grow up fast, every action perceived as offense, so any show of softness is something to exploit. Or devour. We can’t get enough of someone who reflects our ugliest struggles and makes them sound like a healing salve of harmony.
Walker is not alone. Her friend Ari Lennox, another new school soul queen, also has considered quitting to avoid depression.
What does it mean when two of R&B’s rising stars, with two of the biggest albums of the year, are exhausted by fame already? They’re human.
We’ve seen this before. It just looked different.
Like Walker did this year, Mary J. Blige won the Soul Train Best New Artist in 1993. She, too, was 23 and battling with mental health challenges.
She was depressed, on drugs, and in toxic relationships. There was the time she threatened to beat down Veronica Webb. But because Blige performed with swag and sang so soulfully, we chose to consume her rather than acknowledge a woman singing for survival.
Back then, social media wasn’t around to hound her every move. That next year, she gave us “My Life,” one of the most important albums of the last 25 years. Blige was honored at the 2019 BET Awards with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
She opened up about her struggles. She got therapy. She had room to bloom. And because of that, she gave us the pages of a particular kind of black woman’s diary. Blige also gifted us with a blueprint for healing. It’s all there in the words of “My Life.”
Life can be only what you make it
When you’re feelin down
You should never fake it
Say what’s on your mind
And you’ll find in time
That all the negative energy
It would all cease
What might Walker grow into if allowed? She’s not Queen of Hip-Hop Soul Mary J. Blige, but Walker is a queen for a new age. This week, she became a Forbes 30 Under 30 music honoree.
In just one year, she’s cultivated a following that feels her on a soul level. At her concert, it’s as much a Summer Walker performance as it is a sing-along. The crowd clings to those lyrics like warm blankets. We are all singing the words to “Grave” like a mantra.
Walker is not the fluff and stuff of manufactured pop. She is an artist.
“Clear,” the four-song EP she wrote and released ahead of “Over It” this year, was recorded and engineered by her in an Atlanta treehouse. She plays guitar. She sings. She’s only 23 and speaks to splintered hearts, her music acting as a 2019 bullet journal full of sex positivity, love, and rage against a sexist, lying machine.
When she plucked her guitar strings and sang “Riot” on Monday night, her body was timid but her voice was fierce and free.
You said you want love, babe
You said you could give it to me just how I, I need
And you think of roses and daisies
And I think of flashing and fire like Hades
You say all the time, peace and quiet
But for my love, I need a riot, a riot
More than once, different women in the crowd yelled out to Walker, “I love you, bitch.” As her boyfriend, London On Da Track (“Over It” producer) takes stage, the crowd is overjoyed for them.
This is a bad girls club. We’ve been waiting for a love like this — a space for good girls with scrapes and cuts and wayward ways but finding a path to self-love and wellness, because most of us have been in this war with self before.
There is no judgment in this House of Blues. This is our cold summer. We don’t know if this truly is the first and last tour. We just know this is a season to remember.