Setting the Score | A Life Choreographed by Music

Mona Khalil
10 min readJun 3, 2024

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Words are spells.

The Power of a ~3 Minute Song

If you’ve ever been on a Zoom call with me, you’ll recognize this photo as my background—a wall of 10x10 CD albums (plus Beyonce’s Renaissance album). Back in the day, I sold a lot of my CDs but kept a handful. I have a box of DVDs and CDs that moved with me as I made a home from city to city and state to state. I made the background as a creative break from working long hours at TESLA and having classes in the evenings for my MBA program. One night, I needed a creative outlet, a way to exhale. I immediately got a vision, and I ran with it. I created something from nothing. I recreated it when I moved.

Experiences guide me back to who I am at my core. Every single one of these albums means something to me. Throughout my life, music has meant everything to me.

Music is an emotional experience. Music is introduced to us during our innocence. When people see my zoom background, I recognize they could be reminiscing about an album or several in their own way. Linking their present and past selves. Reconnecting to something they may not have revisited in a while.

We are introduced to music before we have the words to express our emotions or life experiences to give it additional context. With each listen, music evolves with us. It’s the human connector across the world. We are having a collective experience with the music and the music is having a one-on-one experience with each of us.

When good songs or albums drop, it still excites me.

“Mustard on the beat…”

Growing up in Los Angeles

Hip-Hop is rooted in Black culture. And Hip-Hop is regional. Growing up in Los Angeles (LA) when Cypress Hill, N.W.A, and Warren G climbed the music charts, the city I called home was represented in the music. I was living in Hip-Hop culture in the heart of LA. We lived near Wilshire Blvd and Vermont Ave. My mom worked at Security Pacific Bank at their headquarters in Downtown, LA. The Security Pacific Plaza, now known as the Bank of America Plaza, is one of Los Angeles’s largest skyscrapers.

When my mom went to school in the evenings during the weekdays and on Saturdays, I would sit in the back of the classroom or a nearby break room listening to her walkman. I fell in love with LA radio. I gravitated to the various genres of music. When I was home with my boombox, I recorded my favorite songs from the radio on blank tapes. I wrote out the lyrics in a notebook and memorized the words. I fell in love with Hip-Hop and R&B. I thought I was growing into a genre of music that was established. I didn’t know I was growing with Hip-Hop.

My First Song

Have you revisited the first song you memorized?

In the 4th grade, the first song I memorized was Mariah Carey’s Hero from her album, Music Box, which was the first tape I ever owned. In the first verse, she sings, There’s a hero / If you look inside your heart / You don’t have to be afraid / Of what you are / There’s an answer / If you reach into your soul / And the sorrow that you know / Will melt away. And then the chorus comes in: And then a hero comes along…

We come across the music of artists and immediately gravitate to it. Gravitating towards memorable songs and lyrics at an early age is a reminder that what you appreciate about the song in the present may become deeper with time. With time, we can interconnect the lyrics we sang at 10 years old with our life experiences in the decades that follow. Over time, you revisit artists’ music catalogues and acknowledge the message and depth that speaks to your life.

In high school, I wrote a poem that ended with: You should open your heart / Now take a deep breathe / Allow that question to lie on your chest / First find yourself / Allow another to wait / Trust me when he does / He will pass through / A loving open gate.

Words are spells.

Hip-Hop Found Me

I wasn’t looking for Hip-Hop — it was in my environment and among my friends.

We bonded over music.

Early days in school I was an introvert. However, in the 5th grade, I gained the courage to join the Drill Team and would later join two of my closest friends on stage to perform Killing Me Softly With His Song by The Fugees at the talent show. We sang and choreographed a dance wearing overalls. I remember the auditorium cheering at the end. The same year, my guy friend invited me to join him and his mother at an oldie’s concert at the Universal Amphitheatre, formerly the Gibson Amphitheater in Los Angeles.

When you bonded with someone over music it felt like a deeper connection, an emotional connection. Without me trying, music deepened my friendships. We gravitated to music independently and communally.

Sittin’ Up In My Room

I spent the money I got on CDs. In middle school and high school I spent a lot of time in my bedroom. Whether it be at my mom’s apartment or my dad’s house, I didn’t want to spend time with either of my parents when I was home. Music felt like a friend I wanted to learn from and spend all my free time with.

I fell in love with the simplicity and complexity of the music. Crossing musical genres created a new sound. Poetry and storytelling over a beat with rhythm. The juxtaposition and range of emotions present at any given time. The internal struggle and vulnerability heard through their voice and vocal range. An art that describes our communities and the political system we were growing up in.

To Live and Die in LA

I vividly remember the day 2Pac died. I was in the 7th grade, on my first day in a new school. We all talked about 2Pac’s career and the tragedy of his death. His discography was on heavy rotation across Los Angeles. Our classroom was similar to the kids discussing the concept of love in Lauren Hill’s album. Instead, here we were talking about our love for 2Pac’s music and his rap battle with Biggie on the East Coast. I shouldn’t have had Hit ’Em Up on repeat the way I did. 2Pac’s Greatest Hits album felt like a love letter to LA. Music representing our coast and city, we felt seen. As kids, we were processing the murder of 2Pac and then Biggie together.

I miss the days when artists would drop an album and it would be what we talked about in school, sharing our insights and quoting our favorite bars.

In high school, I remember when Jay-Z and Nas were in a rap battle. It reminded me of middle school when 2Pac and Biggie lost their lives. Now, we were older. Growing with Hip-Hop. Diss tracks would drop and bar for bar we would discuss them the next day. The classroom continued to be where students discussed the deep cuts by each artist.

Dedicated To

I learned music helped boys express their love and vulnerability in the moment. Young boyfriends dedicated songs to me– Always N Forever (Heatwave), Don’t Leave Me (Blackstreet), Only You (Mase, 112, Biggie), and I Wanna Know (Joe) are the first ones that come to mind. One created a compilation of love songs on tape. Music was a version of a Hallmark card.

My Older Sister L. Boogie

At a young age, I often wished I had older siblings to help me navigate life. Then Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation album dropped the summer before 8th grade. Lauryn Hill’s album became my older sister. Sixteen tracks of timeless lessons. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill has helped me through heartbreak, growth, and transformation throughout the years. With every new phase of my life, her insight and wisdom reverberates. When I heard her lyrics, I connected with the emotions. The layering of the words, cadence, and rhythm. I was hooked.

Lauryn Hill’s bars included subtle intricacies of Christianity and Islam. Everything is Everything, Ms. Hill says, “​​Now hear this mixture, where Hip-Hop meets scripture. Develop a negative into a positive picture.” Later I would write a line in my poetry influenced by Lauryn Hill’s lyrics.

Pronounces. Syllables.

And. Accents.

Recites. Scripture.

And. Hip.Hop. Lyrics.

Poetry. In. Motion.

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In Lauryn Hill’s intro to her song Doo Wop (That Thing), Lauryn Hill says, “Don’t forget about the deen/ Sirat al-Mustaqeem.” Deen loosely means religion or custom in Arabic. Sirat al-Mistaqeem, taken from Islamic scripture, refers to the straight path, which leads one to God. She goes on to say, “A Muslim, sleeping with the jinn.” This refers to a woman who claims to have moral and religious values but in reality, she is going down the wrong path (aka sleeping with the “jinn”). Jinn is an allusion to supernatural creatures in early pre-Islamic and later Islamic mythology and theology. Jinn inhabit the earth, in various forms, and exercise supernatural power. Jinn is also well-known across cultures, they have different guises such as ghosts, demons, spirits, etc. Ms. Hill referenced Islamic scripture and Arabic words throughout her album and I hooked into every word. On my first listen I knew the Arabic words, religious context, and I immediately attached to it emotionally as a safe space because I felt seen.

I felt included in the genre of music I was falling in love with.

Introducing My Dad to Jay-Z

Big Pimpin’ was the most successful single from Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter album, peaking at #18 on the Billboard Hot 100. When Jay-Z’s, Big Pimpin’ sampled the flute from “Khosara, Khosara,” (meaning What A Loss, What A Loss) a cover song by Egyptian Composer, Hossam Ramzy, I knew the instrument sounded familiar. The original track is a 1957 Egyptian composition by Baligh Hamdi performed by Egyptian singer and actor Abdel-Halim Hafez. Khosara, Khosara is a song of Arabic poetry. My dad loved to watch old Egyptian movies on the Arab Radio and Television Network (ART) and listen to Arabic music in the car on tapes. Sometimes I would watch old Egyptian movies with him. When Big Pimpin’ dropped I was excited to play it for my dad. Here I was listening to a genre of music he didn’t understand that was sampling Egyptian music I only listened to while I was with him. The irony of my worlds crossing in this way. And in this case, I wanted him to focus on the instruments and not the words.

Neither of my parents could understand my love for the genre of music. My dad loved his Arabic music. And my mom loved the music she loved. At the end of the day, Hip-Hop was mine to enjoy in my room.

A Vibe

Growing up I often heard my mom listening to Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, and UB40. She loves Elton John. My mom would listen to reggae, soca, and calypso. And when I visited family we went to Caribana, The Toronto Caribbean Carnival. I remember the summer Soca Boys released, “cent, five-cent, 10-cent, dolla.” When that song came on everyone was dancing, including myself. The freedom, the vibe, the fun was contagious. It was a summer I will always remember. Music connected us all in a way everything else didn’t in that moment.

Albums are projects. Artists creatively tell stories as a body of work. Using concepts, wordplay, and metaphors, they create something from nothing. Music reflects our struggles and growth out of adolescence while carrying us into adulthood, shaping our own stories. Music is a thread connecting my past to my present. Music played a supporting role in my life and continues to today. Music is my therapy, inspiration, and drive. There is something for everybody to feel seen and included. Artists create not to impress, but to show up as who they are–and to allow us to do the same. Without even trying, we connect with people who share their art and show up as themselves.

I’m grateful I got to experience my favorite artists performing live at different points in my life. Black Thought, Lauryn Hill, Kweli and Mos Def are artists whose music I gravitated to along with their groups: The Roots, The Fugees, and Blackstar. They’re not just musicians– they are an inspiration to the music and the culture. Their lyrics are an integral part of my past, present, and future.

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Mona Khalil

Name Dipped In Mango | Transformational Leadership Coach & Consultant | Peace Corps, Tesla, LinkedIn Alum | Author of #iwritelettersinmythoughts 🇬🇾🥭🇪🇬