When his father was diagnosed three years ago with early onset Alzheimer's disease at age 55, local rapper Lee Shaner dealt with it the way most people deal with traumatic experiences — by internalizing it.
“For a long time, [my family] tried to hide that my dad was sick,” says Shaner, who raps under the name Intuition. “We'd just make small talk, like, 'Oh, he's doing good.'”
Last week, however, he released a song and video, “Imagining,” on his blog that reveals not just his struggle with the illness, but also Shaner's own shaky relationship with his father. Featuring producer Equalibrum's sample of Youth Lagoon's poignant, watery “17,” Shaner's voice is dull and flat at first, then it escalates into anger before dropping once again. The video (below) shows Shaner, drinking a Rolling Rock and alone on a baseball field, and his father (played by an actor), drinking the same and alone in a wheelchair.
The video landed on the front page of both WordPress and Reddit, and Shaner's been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and similar stories. Still, “it's bittersweet that this is the fastest growing video I've put out,” he says.
Who came up with the video's concept?
My friend Kyle Gray directed it. We edited it together and added a few things to make it more comfortable for me. There's a reason for the Rolling Rock. My dad's from Leechburg, PA and it's…his hometown beer. Initially Kyle wanted me to smoke and throw the cigarette down in anger. I was like, no, no one likes a smoker, I'm trying to quit. So I wanted to include that in the video instead of the cigarette. He isn't allowed to drink anymore, but as a young man he enjoyed a beverage or two. When I visit him, I'm like fuck it, you want a beer or cigarette? You might as well be happy.
How quickly did you start to get a response?
The reaction was pretty instantaneous. As soon as I put it out, I started getting letters and comments. People telling their stories. A lot of people were sending me private messages on Facebook. It was all very fast. Thursday was kinda a blur. I put it out at 3 and by 5 I was exhausted from reading all the comments and absorbing all these peoples' pain. I'm very empathetic. I felt like my shoulders were getting heavy. I sat by the computer screen crying and shit. It was very moving.
Why were you scared to release this song?
Didn't want it to seem … well, my dad and I never had the best relationship. So I didn't want it to seem I was taking a bunch a shots at him. Some of the lines I feel are mean spirited. This one line, “I'm glad you treat my mom better” — that's a really mean thing to say, but it's what I needed to say. It's as much me coping with our past as much as his future. It took me a long time to write. I would work on it for a while, then abandon it. it took me over a month to write. Its' scary to put something that revealing out. You don't know how people will react. It's easy to tug at people's heartstrings and that's not what I wanted to do. I needed to write that for myself. And in the meantime it's apparently helped a lot of people as well.
The anger in the song keeps it from being maudlin.
I was actually surprised by the amount of people having that anger. You go through this phase of feeling guilty. Feeling guilty over trying to figure out how to feel about it! “I should be more compassionate” — but that wasn't my initial reaction. I'm angry. Angry that my family's having to deal with this. And I know that stems from being heartbroken about it.
What was your mom's reaction?
I was scared to see her reaction. I told her to watch it by herself. She called, she was very proud. We had a very emotional conversation and we reminisced about the day we found out. She remembered looking at me when we found out and I was just staring out the window. She said she'll never forget that look. It was nice to talk about it. it's a situation we talk about frequently — but symptomatically, not emotionally.
I told my mom to avoid showing my dad the video. There's a lot of stuff in the video I can't say to his face. The song is about wanting to heal the relationship with my father and feeling like I can't. I don't want a Youtube video to be the way I do that.
This has all been very cathartic. Someone posted the lyrics on Rap Genius and I spent the morning breaking them down and telling little backstories. To be fully transparent about it feels really good.