The Succession: How brain surgery and personal loss led M.Black to a second act in music

Singing for the cruelest teacher

by Brittany Nader

“Experience is the cruelest teacher. It gives the test, and then it gives the lesson.” – Unknown

Two days after Christmas in 2013, Michael Black was in tears on a hospital bed at Akron General, where he also worked. His head had been cut open to surgically remove a tumor the size of a ping pong ball from his right temporal lobe.

Things in his life actually got worse after that.

mblack_Chris HorneOne month after Black successfully underwent surgery, his best friend died from a heroin overdose. Around that time, after being together for eight years, he and his daughter’s mother parted ways.

Black still bears the scars of his experiences – one running vividly alongside his head as a result of his brain surgery – but he’s inspired by them, not defeated. A spirited and intuitive individual, he used this dark chapter in his life as inspiration for creating something new. After moving out of the home he and his partner shared, he began channeling these moments in his life – his hurt, his strength and resilience – into music.

“I never learned to play instruments or really read music, but I sang in chamber choirs,” Black says. “I knew I had the vocal talent, but I was still learning.”

By some twist of fate, Black ran into a producer during his shift at Akron General when the beat-maker heard him belting out tunes throughout the hospital. The two got in touch and soon were building a catalog of songs inspired equally by Black’s heartache and his fortitude.

Thinking about overarching concepts that had defined a significant part of his life – pain, agony, trust, desire, fantasy, fighting, connection – he put pen to paper, crafting a five-song EP titled “The Succession.” It takes the listener on a journey through a connection between two individuals, echoing the stages of Black’s former relationship. There are songs about lust and seduction, followed by more serious tunes that embody the feelings of settling down and planning a future. Then, heartbreaking tracks that capture the moments when it all falls apart.

“’Shame On You’ is about coming back from the dead, still being hurt by it, still having that self-destructive behavior,” Black says. “But you’re moving on and you’re out doing things. You’re not sobbing on the ground. You’re moving on.”

Michael Black today: focused. (Photo courtesy of Paul Hoffman)

It’s been two years since Black’s brain surgery, the loss of his relationship and the passing of his friend. He says those experiences were a huge turning point, and his new collection of songs will show his growth not only as an artist, but as a human being. On Dec. 27, the anniversary of his surgery, Black will release “The Succession” for free. The recording, he says, shows how his songwriting has changed over the last year or so, as he has become more attuned to listening to the melodic intricacies of artists like The Weeknd, Miguel and doo-wop greats.

“I’m exploring new ways to use the lyrics I’ve written,” he says. “I’ll change words that don’t stab you hard enough in the heart. I’d catch myself writing from 9 pm to 6 am with a cup of coffee, looking to make the kind of music that can make me cry.”

Being in the studio and putting these words and melodies to a beat was a very different experience from singing songs at work or late nights at home. Progressing from a live performer into a studio setting was frustrating, he says, but an incredible learning experience. He used Soundcloud to record and track his growth as a studio singer, evolving to make his voice and words more about feeling than forcing a barrage of notes into the listener’s ear. The EP will feature a more diverse range of instrumentation, and each song evokes a different tone or idea than the others. Yet, they are connected by the connective themes that defined those intense four months of Black’s life and where he is today.

“Dec. 27 is like my birthday,” Black says. “Life is like… my life before and after the surgery. That was a huge turning point. What I’m experiencing now is a whirlwind, a new way of life, writing and being a father.”

After the release of “The Succession,” Black says he plans to drop a mixtape and full-length album next year featuring collaborations with several local rappers. Until then, the EP is like an aural diary drawing listeners into the darkest, most intimate and infinitely triumphant moments in this musician’s life. A sneak peek of Black’s new music can be heard on his Instagram page, @mblack330, and both physical and digital copies of the EP will be available to listeners on that pivotal day, Dec. 27.