It is hard to say when I stopped noticing the sirens. They’re still there, piercing the otherwise normal Wednesday-afternoon noise. But I haven’t noticed them for at least fifteen years. In the central Ohio area, a test of the state’s tornado-siren system takes place every Wednesday at noon. I would describe the sound for you, but even now I can barely remember it. I recall it beginning as a low whistle that bends into a loud howl, but the sound feels distant to me now. It’s indistinguishable from all the other ways this city rumbles its way toward productivity.
When I was a kid in elementary school, I assumed the siren tests happened everywhere. Twice a month, at noon, when the howling began to announce itself, all of us kids spilled into the hallway, and sat on our knees facing the wall. We’d lock one of our hands into the other, put them behind our heads, and curl ourselves downward. It was practice for the actual tornado, which we were told might come at any moment. It might come while we were in our classrooms learning whatever it is elementary school kids learned in the nineties (yet another thing I don’t recall). I never knew this was something exclusive to my school, or schools in my area. I imagined an entire chain of balled-up bodies, trembling against walls in school hallways across the country.
Once I hit my early teenage years, when tornado rehearsals were no longer required of me, my ears stopped registering the sirens. Most people who have lived in central Ohio for long enough echo this sentiment. We know the sirens only by those around us who haven’t been here long. The way they jump, or their eyes widen as they look to the sky, expecting chaos. That’s when I hear the noise again.
I would like to show you the opening scene of the 1998 film Belly, even if you have seen it already. Even if you are like me and have watched it many times. Under your own covers with a phone in your excitement-stricken hands. On a tablet while careening through the sky. On a television while friends hover by the door, waiting to go out, minutes after you’ve insisted just let me show you this one thing.
It isn’t worth explaining the plot of Belly here because the plot is entirely secondary. Merely a vehicle for the film’s focus on aesthetic beauty. I grew up in the nineties with a love for rap music videos, and I sometimes had ways to watch them. If my family didn’t have cable for a stretch, surely someone else’s on my street did. The Hype Williams music video consumed much of my interest, starting around 1994, when I laid eyes on the “Flava in Ya Ear” remix. Unspectacularly black and white, but still captivating, with all its up-close shots and the tenderness of its slow-motion moments.
I liked Hype most in the late nineties. Whatever can be said about the music has and will be said about the music, but rap’s shiny-suit era fit Hype’s interest in visual aesthetics. Bright, monochromatic sets and outfits, and fireworks. Belly came out in 1998, when Hype’s obsession with color was clear and often brilliantly executed. The film starred a cluster of musicians: Nas, DMX, Method Man, T-Boz, and others.
After a DMX monologue, the opening scene of Belly shows the black doors of an SUV spreading open like the wings of a bird homing in on its prey. Four men exit the vehicle and enter a strip club. They are bathed in a blue neon light. Their eyes glow. They are consumed by desire in a house of people consumed by desire. Everything is in slow motion. Something bad is going to happen, but there’s no telling what it is, until the camera cuts to a shot of money on a table, somewhere in the club. And then the men put on masks.
The song driving the scene is British dance-pop outfit Soul II Soul’s 1989 tune “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)” but it isn’t the version that was released as a single in the late eighties, with its relentlessly danceable percussion and handclaps. The backing of that version made the song’s repetitive questioning of “however do you want me / however do you need me” an afterthought to the movement the beat unlocked in your limbs.
The version Hype used was the album version, which is entirely a cappella for the first two and a half minutes. This was the first version of the song, before it was re-recorded for radio consumption. Without any beat churning it forward, the song is equal parts haunting and harmonious. It is patient—it waits for the heart to give in to it, as opposed to the single version, which demanded the giving in of the body. The song’s questioning accumulates into something ominous and accusatory, but still heartfelt.
The opening scene of Belly is most jarring if you know both versions of the song, but especially if you know the more popular version best. If you’ve maybe forgotten that there is a version absent of noise. In the scene, by the time the men have donned their masks and run up the stairs, the vocals have collided into each other and the handclaps have begun wrestling for their own right to swallow some of the silence, and you know something bad is coming even before the guns come out.
Legend has it, the Shawnee tribe called Xenia, Ohio, the Place of the Devil Wind. It has been known for its storms since the late nineteenth century, but (at least outside of Ohio,) it is most known for the tornado that touched down in April 1974. The tornado was a part of the 1974 Super Outbreak, which remains the second-largest outbreak of tornadoes in recorded history. The tornado killed thirty-four people and injured over a thousand. It tore through half of the city’s buildings. Schools, local businesses, and churches were all leveled. It was the kind of devastation that takes decades to recover from. Nearly ten thousand people were left homeless. Some went away and never returned. Sometime shortly after the tornado hit, the city of Xenia purchased five sirens, for the sake of warning.
I was too young to go see Belly when it came out in theaters, and I didn’t hit a real rebellious streak of any value until the year 2000. And so, on a Wednesday at lunch, I snuck out of my high school with a few pals, and headed to the basement of someone who had parents at work and a big-screen television and a DVD of Belly purchased from a kid who sold burned DVDs at basketball games.
By 2000, Soul II Soul hadn’t released a proper studio album for three years. After an impeccable run of top-ten dance hits in the U.S. from 1989 to 1990, the group couldn’t recapture its magic. They were saddled by lineup changes. They stayed somewhat relevant on the UK charts, but as the nineties wore on even that began to fade. By 1998, they’d disbanded entirely. Doreen Waddell, a singer who worked with the group, died in 2002, after being hit by multiple vehicles while she was trying to run from security after shoplifting children’s items from a Tesco.
In that basement in 2000, while our classmates were collapsing into their desks after lunch, and our teachers were rolling their eyes at our absence, my friends and I sat captivated by the opening scene of the film. Not just the striking colors but the song that many of us remembered, though we hadn’t thought about it in years. When “Back to Life” first came out, many of us were just beginning to understand the ways that music could appear everywhere, and the song—in its non–a cappella form—was everywhere. On the bus to my elementary school, the bus driver would play the radio to drown out the noise of small, restless children, and I sat in the back of the bus, humming the chorus to “Back to Life.” With my head down on my desk as a seven-year-old during school-sanctioned nap time, I’d hear my teachers humming along to “Back to Life,” playing on loop in their own heads as it had begun to play in mine. Once, in the hallway, during the silence of one of our tornado drills, it could be heard faintly trickling out of someplace in the school where someone had taken a break and forgotten to turn their radio off.
It is one of the first songs I can associate with specific memories, and the first song I could define as a hit, even if I didn’t know what a hit was, beyond something that is so consistent in its appearance that it has no choice but to embed itself across spectrums, moments, and generations.
When I first watched Belly, I was captivated by its resurfacing. I was doing a bad thing while watching the bad men preparing to commit a bad crime, soundtracked by a song I’d loved once but hadn’t thought to play in years. And, when the guns are drawn and the bright orange fireworks spread out of their barrels, the familiar beat of “Back to Life” fully drops just as a woman is shot backward through a glass window and falls to the club floor below.
Through our youthful excitement, we didn’t hear the door opening. We didn’t notice the parent, home from work on a lunch break, standing at the top of the stairs, waiting to carry us back to school on a wave of curses. I didn’t watch past the opening scene of Belly until two years later, when I skipped a college class.
In September 2000, Xenia was hit with another tornado. It was the second one that had hit the town since ’74. The 2000 tornado followed a similar path through town as the one in 1974. It was not as destructive, but after the town had endured three tornadoes in less than thirty years, the accumulation of anxiety, fear, and grief weighed just as heavily as the damage. The 2000 tornado killed one person, and injured over a hundred.
In 2000, there wasn’t much warning. The storm knocked the city’s power supply out and the sirens purchased after the 1974 tornado didn’t have backup power. Only one of the five sirens went off, faintly. The rest were silent. No warning but for the sky itself.
Columbus gets about one tornado scare per summer. Not every summer, of course, but most of the ones I’ve been alive. I remember them from when I was a teenager, mostly. The sky would go suddenly dark, and the sirens would begin to wail. When it’s not a Wednesday, you hear the sirens. Some parent would call their kids inside, and the rest of us would follow, going to our respective homes and staying away from the windows.
The scares vary, from severe to forgettable. Once, two years ago, I had to retreat to the basement of my apartment building after the sirens lingered and repeated for nearly twenty minutes. People outside my window went from walking gingerly to fleeing for cover. This year, it happened about three weeks ago. Late at night, while my partner and I had people over, the sirens began. At first, the guests started slowly gathering their things, but continued casually conversing. By the time the second siren went off, there was a hastening, and our guests shuffled out the door.
My partner is spending her first full summer in Columbus. She is from a place where tornadoes rarely happen. So rarely that there isn’t a warning system in place. As the sirens repeated, and got louder and longer, her anxiety grew. It was a reasonable anxiety, of course. What will we do if a tornado hits? What’s our plan? Should we leave here and go somewhere safer?
It wasn’t comforting for her to hear that this happens all the time. Nearly every summer. Be concerned, but not all that concerned. There’s no good way to describe the weight of a threat to someone who has never encountered it before. If you know violence only from a distance but have never seen it dismantle a place you love, it can be difficult to comfort someone who fears its arrival. We eventually fell asleep, and woke to the news of a tornado tearing through Dayton, a city only fifty minutes from where we live.
I have been thinking about the value of warnings. How, in my case, I know that something bad is coming from the silence and the stillness. I am trying to honor the warnings that come carried on the back of noise, but life has taught me to be most concerned when a room doesn’t move, or when someone I love stops talking and stares off into the distance. It is why I remain so struck by the opening frames of Belly, which drag along at a glacial pace, backed by a song stripped of its most familiar noise. The quiet is how I know someone, somewhere, is up to no good.
To say that the people of Xenia are resilient is true, of course. Many have rebuilt and rebuilt again, rediscovering their roots and maintaining a warmth and generosity in the process. There are those who have stayed for generations and will stay for many more. But I’ve also got it in me to want people to be defined by more than what they’ve been through. I want places to be defined by more than what’s happened to them. Back in the early aughts, my pals and I would stop in Xenia on the way to shows in Dayton, or Indianapolis. We’d grab food and make good conversation with local folks. I’ve held hands walking along Xenia’s covered bridges with someone I once loved. I’ve grabbed handfuls of strawberries at the Jackson Farm Market. None of this erases the past of a place. But the people who live there deserve to be affixed to something beyond tragedy. A soundtrack of their own making, until some other noise consumes it.
Hanif Abdurraqib’s monthly column, Notes on Pop, muses on the relationship between songs and memory. Read more here.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio.