I Can't Stop Listening - and Crying - to This Masterpiece
Jake Wesley Rogers pounced on stage and grabbed my heart. He hasn't let go yet. I don't think he ever will.
There’s always someone crying at a music festival. This past weekend, it was me.
While I was at BottleRock, I saw Jake Wesley Rogers perform. Jake is a 25-year-old singer and songwriter from Missouri, a queer kid with music that blends pop, rock, and (to my untrained ears) splashes of country and gospel. I had not heard of him before this weekend.
“He’s a young Elton John,” the person recommending him said. “Even Elton John said so.”
Not a bad vote of confidence.
At the show, one of the first performances the day, the sun was bright and warm. Jake was already on stage when we got there, towering in glittering red pants and enormous boots.
From his piano bench, he reached into my chest and clutched onto my heart.
He squeezed. Hard.
He hasn’t let go; I’m not sure he ever will.
Every song was incredible, but the one that knocked me flat is, “Jacob from the Bible”. By the chorus of his performance, soaring with a gospel-esque sear, tears were falling onto my face, hot and free. The song, he explained in the beginning, is about asking his mom as a kid why she named him Jacob — from the Bible, she would say, because you’re strong like him.
When he sings —
Mama, help me understand
I don't wanna be held down by a heavenly man
Mama, help me carry on
They call me wrong
You call me strong
But I'm not Jacob from the Bible
I'm not even on the page
— Jake’s fist tightens a bit more around my heart.
Perhaps it’s not a surprise that I was openly weeping after the week we’ve experienced. (I continue to have this reaction, by the way, listening to Jake’s music; I haven’t been able to play it without turning into a puddle.) I had already cried once last week, locked in my office, after I saw a video of the kids from the Uvalde school shooting reuniting with their parents.
I didn’t even watch the whole thing: I saw those wide-eyed children running to find their families and felt pressure rising in my chest. When the parent filming from their phone reunites with his daughter, the child weeps “I was so scared”, to which her father says, “It’s OK, we’re here now.” It cracked me wholly open — I turned off my phone and buried my face in my hands, my palms turning wet from the tears.
It’s brutal to watch for so many reasons, the most obvious being that no child, nor parent, should ever be in this situation. And yet, here we are again. That moment between the father and child haunted me for hours – I barely slept that night, up at 2:30am hoping to quiet it.
The father is doing what any parent would say in comforting his child – and yet, what is so deeply upsetting, is that we know his words aren’t true. As hard as this man, and so many other parents may try, we have failed our children once again.
In “Jacob from the Bible”, Jake sings as a queer kid balancing his destiny on Earth against what was outlined for him by religion. He’s put in the unfair place of forgiving his parents for the trauma they created:
Mama, don't worry
It took me years
To say I'm sorry
To see your tears
Mama, forgive me
I grew up too fast
But it's not on you
It's in the past
He’s releasing her from the crushing responsibility a parent must feel after learning their child isn’t safe - here, in the simple act of living as a queer person in a straight society. He forgives her (“it’s not on you”); right afterwards, we learn that she continues to support her child over societal and religious pressures, even as he questions his own self-worth:
You're not wrong
I might be strong
But I'm no Jacob from the Bible
This is how the song opens. OPENS. (See? Tears.) His parents tell him one message, but We the People tell him something else entirely. And what is the truth to that kid?
Of course, his parents are right – he is strong. But, as a queer person, strength comes from building over scars carved into our very being by a designed system – scars that, for me, were ripped right open with this performance. I’ve never experienced art that so perfectly embodies this angle of the gay experience. The song is, quite simply, a masterpiece.
Here’s the thing: we’re going to keep telling our kids that they’re strong, even though others will tell them the opposite — that they’re wrong and need fixing and there’s no place for them in this world. We’ll tell them that they’re strong while others silence them as a whole, including in the very classrooms where we tell them that they’re safe because they have bulletproof backpacks and intruder drills and a crisis center a mile and a half away.
Jake did a second show at the festival, on a smaller stage. There, a hundred or so people gathered, many among them young, queer. Ever the performer (PLEASE go see him if he comes to your town - he also does a tear-the-house-down cover of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”), he made eye contact and interacted with a number of them in the crowd. He showed them, I see you and I know you. I felt like I was soaring. (Again, tears.)
I was so struck but how much I missed not having this music and these stories in my younger days. How I would have loved to hear these songs and read these lyrics that were brought into the world by someone a few years older than me.
That moment, of being part of that audience, gave me hope.
The kids, as they say, are going to be all right.
It’s just a disgrace that we’re forcing them to be all right in the first place. Hopefully they can forgive us.