For the last two years, Claudia Mason has been grieving the death of her only child, Brian Konopasek. In late January 2020, the aspiring local rapper — who went by the name Morse Code — died at the age of 42 from an accidental overdose from fentanyl-laced cocaine.
Alone, Mason felt unmoored by her loss. But a dream involving rap legend Ice-T grounded the bereaved mother and proved life-changing.
Earlier this year, Mason published her son’s previously unreleased album, Islands in the Sky. And over the course of the last five months, she has made it her mission to share his words, voice and music with the world.
In turn, she hopes that speaking openly about her son’s cause of death, normalizing conversations around a topic that many consider taboo and raising awareness about the opioid impact will help save other people’s lives. And by spreading his impressive creations, she strives to encourage all who hear Morse Code’s music to follow their own passions.
From an early age, Mason says, her son had an eclectic taste in music. A fan of his mother’s beloved Led Zeppelin, The Beatles (particularly John Lennon) and The Moody Blues, the young Konopasek also enjoyed his grandfather’s jazz albums before discovering hip-hop as a preteen.
“When he was 10 or 11, he began listening to Public Enemy, Eazy-E, then Wu-Tang Clan and Nas. He was a huge Ghostface Killah fan,” Mason says, adding that her son could perfectly imitate the Wu-Tang rapper’s iconic drawl. “He liked that they had messages in their songs. … [Konopasek] wanted to drop knowledge while being entertaining.”
He also wasn’t afraid of making mistakes. In one song from Islands in the Sky, Konopasek raps, “Lennon said, ‘Let it be.’” Upon hearing the track, Mason informed her son that it was actually Paul McCartney who wrote that lyric. A perfectionist, Konopasek drove to Atlanta, where he’d been tracking the album in a professional studio over the course of three years, and rerecorded the song.
In addition to wanting to be a great MC and producer, Konopasek loved chess and traveled throughout North Carolina, competing in tournaments.
“He would say chess is like grammar, is like a song, is like a sentence — it has a system and makes sense, and if it’s done properly, you succeed in it,” Mason remembers. “He was fascinated with the game’s mechanics.”
But his chief passion was for words. Around the same time he began listening to hip-hop, Konopasek started carrying a dictionary, his mother recalls. If he didn’t know a word, he’d look it up and learn about its origin. A year into his obsession, Mason gave her son a thesaurus.
“You could have shot him to the moon,” she notes, remembering his joy.
Mason and Konopasek moved from Blowing Rock to Asheville in fall 2019, primarily because of Konopasek’s musical ambitions. He had researched the city’s local music scene and believed the community would embrace his style and sound. Tragically, he never got to find out, passing away mere months after relocating.
Living alone in an unfamiliar city, Mason says she felt isolated without her son. Two months later, with COVID-19 lockdowns in place, that sense intensified as even the counseling she sought amid her grief shifted to the digital realm. One of the only places she visited during this period was the Skyland Ingles.
“I was just going out in whatever I had on, wearing sunglasses, crying through the store,” she says. “The Ingles employees slowly befriended me and talked to me about faith and God’s promise. And they wanted to know about Brian and gave me hugs and love.”
The Ingles crew provided Mason with some welcome face-to-face interactions, but it wasn’t until the night of Aug. 23, 2021, that she truly began her road to recovery, thanks to a dream. For a long while Mason could not explain why, of all the hip-hop artists in the world, Ice-T appeared to her in her sleep, asking to hear her son’s music. Konopasek didn’t own a single album by the gangsta rap pioneer. But Mason soon established a theory.
“Before we moved [to Asheville], we were watching Ice-T in [‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’]. And Brian looked at me and said, ‘I gotta give this guy props. He went full circle from living in the ghetto to a gangsta rapper … to being a cop in a TV show,’ which is kind of the antithesis of gangsta rap,” Mason says. “[My son] just thought how paradoxical that was, and for him it was kind of like a chess move where [Ice-T] went from being a pawn to the queen, who can move on all the spaces on the board.”
She’s convinced that the chess symbology played a part in her dream, reminding her that she, too. could move in a different direction and away from her crippling grief.
The road to healing
Imbued with a purpose after a year and a half of suffering, Mason found Konopasek’s master recording of Islands in the Sky in a box in his room. The “conscious hip-hop,” as Konopasek called it, provided Mason with much-needed comfort, and she made it her mission to release the album.
With help from Boone-based graphic artist, musician and longtime friend Aaron Burleson, Mason compiled some of Konopasek’s original artwork for the cover design and ordered 100 CDs of Islands in the Sky through New Jersey-based company Disc Makers.
Her first stop was the Skyland Ingles. She sold four copies that day, then went to other South Asheville businesses and sold all 100 in five weeks, prompting her to place another order.
“It kind of happens more incidentally than just, ‘I’m going to go out today and make some sales,’” Mason says. “I didn’t want that to be the priority. The therapy was more that I got to tell [my son’s] story and hoped to share his gifts and his amazing talent with someone. I felt a little less alone because [people] took [Brian’s music] home with them.”
As she’s expanded her distribution footprint throughout Asheville, Mason has been surprised by the number of people she’s met who’ve also lost a child. Many of these individuals have purchased copies of Islands in the Sky for loved ones going through difficult times. And in multiple instances, Mason has received emails from those recipients, thanking her for the comfort Konopasek’s words and music have given them — in turn, providing her with confidence that she can survive her own unimaginable loss.
“It’s actually given me a way to find a community of like-minded people who are either struggling with the same problem or have some unrequited talent that they don’t have the guts to go for,” Mason says. “People say, ‘Wow, what a great mom you are, carrying the torch for him.’ And they give me a little pat on the back. But Brian did all the heavy lifting.
“I say, ‘Thank you, but it’s really not me. It’s him. It’s his story and his talent and his labor of love. But now it’s my labor of love.’”
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