My grandpa was in real estate. It wasn’t easy to find places where he could be successful. My grandparents moved around a lot, often through small towns in the Midwest where they were the only black family in their neighborhood. It was dangerous to be the new people—the new black people—and they dealt with a lot of racism.
When they were living about a half hour outside of Kalamazoo, Michigan, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on their front lawn. It was in the middle of the night, and they didn’t see the people who did it. But they knew it was the work of the Klan. After that, my grandpa sat up on the roof every night for a week, with a shotgun full of buckshot to scare them away. They didn’t come back, but the police never tried to catch them either.
My mom remained close to my grandparents throughout their lives, and growing up as an only child I was also very close to them. My grandma was a Baha’i, and I think what drew her to it was their emphasis on the unity of people of all faiths and races. Even in her old age, she was active in organizations such as the NAACP and the school board, always trying to do whatever she could to improve the situation and find ways to give back to the community. I never heard her say a bad thing about anybody, and she never lost her faith in people. She made a big impression on me, showing me how you can be a good person in the universe.
She was good to me, too. When I was fifteen or sixteen, I had just broken up with my first boyfriend. I was hysterical, crying every day, and my mom was totally fed up with it. She was just really annoyed, and at a certain point not really there for me because she was tired of hearing me whine. But my grandma said, “Oh, it’s okay, sweetie.” That was really huge for me because I was such a mess and felt so unlovable.
Aside from being the kindest person I ever met, another thing that made my grandma stand out were her hats, which she started wearing around the time when I was in fourth grade. I can’t say for sure why she started wearing them, but hair is such a huge thing for black women, such a struggle, that I think she just decided at some point to wear a hat every day.
She often wore hers with the bill in the front, traditionally. But her hats were not subtle—they were always “statement” baseball caps. She would get attached to one at a time and wear it for years. I remember one she had from New Kids on the Block. It was fluorescent and had all their signatures on it. This was way after the band was popular, and I don’t think she’d ever heard of them. At the time, I was trying and failing to be cool and I thought, “How can you wear that!” But I’d really like to channel that spirit now, being over caring what people think of my appearance.
When my grandma got older, she was sick for a long time, and it was really tough. My mom took care of her at our house for years until my grandma needed more medical care than she could give her. My grandma had been so active, and it was hard to see her become weaker and weaker.
She passed away on the night that Trump was elected. At the time La Luz was in Nashville recording our last album. Right around when they were starting to announce the election results, I got the call from my mom. It was a really surreal experience. I was so sad and I mourned my grandma’s death for a very long time, but I was also happy that she passed away before Trump was elected so she didn’t have to see that.
For a few months after my grandma died, she would visit me in my dreams. She would be outside of the dream’s narrative but in the room with me, and when she would appear I would feel illuminated by love. It was such an intense feeling that when I would wake up I would feel sure that we were there together. On my upcoming album, Night of the Worm Moon, the songs “Don’t Let Me Sleep” and ““In Another Realm” are based on those dreams.
“Don’t Let Me Sleep” comes from a dream that I’m sure a lot of touring musicians have had. I’m on stage, the show is supposed to start in a couple of minutes but everything keeps going wrong: I’ve lost my power cable, my guitar has disappeared, there are hundreds of people out there waiting, and I’m freaking out. But this time my grandma appears at the side of the stage, looking at me sweetly, and full of love.
Shortly after my grandma died, my mom gave me the last hat she wore. It’s really special to me because I can’t look at it without thinking of her. It’s such a powerful symbol of who she was.
Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.
Shana Cleveland is a musician, artist, and writer. Musically, she is known as the frontwoman/guitarist for surf noir rockers La Luz and the folk-inspired Shana Cleveland & the Sandcastles. Her new solo album Night of the Worm Moon will be released on April 5. As an artist, Cleveland has been featured in The Believer and Yeti Magazine, and is the creative force behind “Obscure Giants of Acoustic Guitar” (a deck of trading cards she painted for the Tompkins Square Record label). Cleveland’s writing has appeared in publications including Black Clock, the Columbia Poetry Review, Court Green, and VICE.