The words “sheltered” and “isolation” seem to come up a lot in my conversation with 24-year-old Orion Sun, to the point where the words just spill out of her mouth effortlessly. In between our thoughts, the pockets of silence echo in my ear and disappear into the emptiness of both of our suburban homes.
With silence comes a weight, and Orion Sun wants to fill silence as best she can with Hold Space For Me. South Jersey-raised, Philadelphia soul singer Orion Sun uses rumination to begin the process of healing through love, grief, and confrontation.
For Orion Sun, the squeaky-clean suburbs of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, hid tension. “I didn’t experience racism too much,” she contemplates, “But there were little jokes here and there. I remember a boy told me black people were good at basketball because they knew how to jump, shoot, and steal.” She recalls moving into the town’s first affordable housing community named after Ethel Lawrence, a civil rights activist, and the protests to keep it out of upper middle class backyards.
Being an outlier in an already sparse town that lacked a proper arts scene, Orion Sun’s mother encouraged her to delve into culture, and she found a spark in the songs of icons like Billie Holiday and Nancy Wilson. In church, with a sense of community came the kindling of dreams.
“They always told me I’d become the best Christian singer, and I thought about it!” Orion Sun recalls. She also tells me fondly about wanting to be an astronaut and then a fashion designer, both of which her mother encouraged with books, documentaries, and long-winded trips to the fabric store. Music prevailed, and her mother purchased Orion Sun’s first guitar.
In many ways, a lot of Hold Space For Me features glimpses of this childlike yearning, mixed with an emotional depth that can only be possessed by someone who had to grow up quickly. Orion Sun has taken this hyper-awareness of her own identity as a queer black woman and has turned it into her art, using music as a journal to chronicle her healing process and the love that follows. The opening track “Lightning” begins with the lyrics “Lightning struck the house that we used to live in / It ain’t a home no more / Just a property building.” The destruction and redefinition of home hangs over the album like a phantom.
For Orion Sun, home can mean many things, and she has led a nomadic lifestyle throughout her late teens. At 18, she got a one-way ticket to California and did non-profit work across the country for a North Korean human rights advocacy group. A week after moving back home with her mother, they had to move again. Eventually settling in Philadelphia, she found herself joining a collective called The Forest after being kicked out of her home due to her sexuality. Orion Sun found kinship among these rappers, and found herself in the middle of a bustling underground music community.
“When I first came here [Philadelphia], I was estranged from my family so it was awesome to have this friend family especially in such a vulnerable time,” Orion Sun recalls. “But as time went on, I realized that isolation is the best for me because people give up.”
With the trauma of being kicked out of the house and navigating a new city alone came other traumas. In 2018, after a confrontation at a friend’s home, fellow The Forest member Jericho was killed while protecting a friend and her baby. The now-defunct collective reunited in the wake of Jericho’s death to mourn but couldn’t attend his funeral. “His Family was not as accepting. So, because we were queer, not all of us but most of us, we couldn’t go to the funeral, so we could only go to the memorial.”
The track “Grim Reaper,” an R&B jam injected with a chilling ambience, serves as the send-off Orion Sun always wished she had. She asks, “Where do you go when your soul leaves the physical?” as she pieces together her grief for some resolution. The song ends with a disconnected phone message, coming face-to-face with the finality of death. “There was definitely a point in time where I would call just to make sure,” Orion Sun says, with the silence hanging in the air again.
During this time, Orion Sun attempted to rebuild the home around her and make sense of it for a wider audience. Following 2017’s A Collection of Fleeting Moments and Daydreams, which feel like a well-loved scrapbook of moments in time Orion Sun wanted to capture, there was a desire to create something a bit more intentional. Hold Space For Me captures the little moments of receiving validation and intimacy while asking for the same in return from the listener.
“Holy Water” is a sensual homage to Orion Sun’s girlfriend, a fellow musician who goes by DJ Haram. It’s tender, reminiscent of the aching intimacy found in a warm bath together and brushing each other’s hair, rather than sexual intimacy. The line “Summers be hot like the stove be / Cooking with you is like therapy” is a beautiful display of love, as the kitchen can be both sacred and an arena for conflict. Here, we get small glimpses into what home means for Orion Sun, and whom she finds it in.
The “whom” is important, so I ask Orion Sun if she’s fulfilled in her relationships and if she’s receiving the love she gives. Underneath a loud sigh, she tells me, “Once I realized I was feeling guilty for the success I was seeing, I needed to surround myself around different people. I didn’t need people around me to love me in an equal way, but in the right way.”
Hold Space For Me takes a risk in analyzing and asserting power within toxicity, as well as cherishing the positive. For queer people like Orion Sun, home may not be concrete. It is found within basement venues, warm beds, the fragrant cooking of a loved one, and, sometimes, even isolation.
Jade Gomez is an independent writer from New Jersey with a soft spot for southern hip-hop and her dog, Tyra. Her work has appeared in the FADER, Rolling Stone, and DJBooth. She enjoys compound sentences and commas, so if you want to call her out on it, you can find her at www.jadegomez.com.