Joy from pain: Black artists channel hardship into creativity in comedy, music

Black artists took the pain of the pandemic and created joy.

Comedian Michael Yo has had a horrible year. Like many, he used laughter to heal from the nightmare of the pandemic and now he’s set on sharing his message, one joke at a time.

In 2019, Yo was headlining comedy clubs across the country and getting ready to start a tour, but in March of 2020 everything changed.

On March 17, Yo became the first COVID-19 patient to be admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) at his local hospital in Burbank, California.

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The day Yo was admitted to the hospital, he recalled his son watching him gasp for air while his wife called 9-1-1. He said he wasn’t able to say goodbye to his family.

“I put my hand to the window and my three-year-old son put his hand on the other side. And I just started crying as I'm gasping for air,” said Yo. “[I had] the realization of, ‘Oh, I could die in here alone.’ I was scared of never seeing my kids again and them not knowing how much I love them.”

He spent eight days in the ICU before recovering from the virus. When he returned home, he yearned for togetherness and comfort.

“I’m reading all these stories. I’m seeing all these stories of people dying. They’re dying alone,” Yo shared in an emotional Instagram video on March 30, 2020. “They don't have family in there.”

Since the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 has killed more than half a million Americans and has disproportionately affected minority groups. Black Americans like Yo, are two times more likely to die from the virus when age is taken into account, according to a study done by APM Research lab in Mar. 2021.

Yo said his near-death experience with COVID-19 gave him a new perspective on life.

“Being in a place where you have eight days to think about your life, [I realized] we’re here on Earth for a short amount of time. It's what you're gonna do with it,” Yo said.

He turned to comedy to share his message.

“Laughter will get you through the tragedy. Laughter brings everyone together,” said Yo. “One thing I base my comedy off is telling real stories to explain the pain, the joy and what we go through every single day.”

Like many Black artists before him, Yo found joy and humor during difficult times. Yo, who was raised by a Black father and Korean mother, said his parents taught him how to persevere.

“I went to my dad, ‘Dad, they're calling me names at school,’” said Yo. “And my dad would [say], [at] least you can go to school. There's going to be pain, there's going to be struggles, just don't let those names bother you and keep pushing.’”

Yo said his mother was born and raised in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. just a year before he was born. He said she taught him strength.

“I'm learning a lot because my mom's an immigrant. She had me just a year after she got here,” he said. “My mom’s a very strong woman too."

In Yo’s 2018 special “Blasian,” jokes about race were front and center.

“I'm trying to, through my comedy, celebrate differences but also show people that you could take a person that didn't really understand your struggles or problems, and now they understand,” said Yo. “'Cause if you can make somebody laugh, at least they're listening to you.”

This year, Black comedians and artists took the pain of the pandemic, the economic downturn, and a racial reckoning and produced widely enjoyed performances.

Derrick Jones, also known as DJ D-Nice, is among the many performers who adapted to social media to share his music.

“As a DJ and as talent, I was so used to being on the road and when we were hit with [the pandemic], you know, to stay at home, people needed to find a way to still feel connected,” said Jones. “It was about music that uplifted your spirit at the end of the day.”

A year into the pandemic, DJ D-Nice is still going strong and recently played for 12 hours straight to an online crowd to commemorate the anniversary of ‘Club Quarantine.’

As the world inches closer to the new normal, Yo joyfully returned to the stage on Feb. 6 for a drive-thru comedy show in Los Angeles to share his experience.

“This is a true story. I got Corona in early March. That's right. I had OG Corona. I had Mike Tyson in his prime Corona. I had 5G Corona people!” said Yo. “So I made it, man and we're here doing comedy. That's what's up.”