I come from a family of singers. Singing is the one thing that got me through the poverty days, the oppression, the first disastrous crush, and every day of my life. I sang when I was happy when I was sad, lonely, confused, and grateful. I sang from the time I could open my eyes, won competitions, and even sang at the theatre. I did not have to get paid because singing was such a joy for me. It transported me to places I had only visited between the pages of a novel or in my dreams. Everyone knew I sang and some of the women living in the community would often catch me playing outside and ask me to sing to them while they drank their tea. Inevitably the songs I had to sing were sad, about lost love and broken hearts, and there would be tears running down their cheeks and a faraway look in their eyes as I sang. I understand it was not about me but about the words of the song or the memories it conjured up in their minds. I joined a band the moment I left school. I was going to be famous. The World needed to hear my voice but mostly I was going to buy a big house for my mom, and I was going to New York City. I stopped singing for a living when I was pregnant with my daughter. I had to choose between dreams and reality. The reality is that it was hard to make a living from singing and even harder when you are poor. Realistically, the equipment needed is so out of reach from people like me and those in the community I grew up in.
The band members were mostly older than me and looked upon me as their sister, well mostly. Some would try flirt with me but the two older owners of the band, the lead guitarist and the keyboardist were extremely strict and protective. It was a beautiful, carefree time in my life. My “highs” were people coming to me and letting me know how much they enjoyed the music. I discovered just how rich black and brown communities were with natural talent. The talent that oozed from their fingertips. There was hardly any formal training. Instead, they would play “by ear.”
I discovered the lead guitarist fell “in love” with a guitar when he first heard it at the age of 5 years old. So obsessed was he with owning his own guitar that he took an old tin, some nails, and nylon and fashioned some crude version of a guitar. He was 7 years old. His family lived in a shack and he was even poorer than what we were. If we ate every second or third day, he ate less. But he had a dream of becoming a musician and it’s hard enough growing up wanting to be a musician but when you’re from an impoverished community, the chances are extremely slim that you can make a living from your music. There is no doubt that he had to choose between his music and employment that would provide for him and his family.
He chose music and thus chose poverty too. He simply refused to give up on his dream. He spent his life trying to eke out a living from doing gigs far beneath what he was talent called for, but he was content. He played his guitar whenever he could and though being a musician may seem glamorous, it is not.
He ended up travelling overseas playing and even played at the Royal Albert Hall such was his natural talent. He had no formal training only passion, raw talent, and a desire to play his guitar. He is now reliant on a Government pension, still impoverished, living in the same type of neighbourhood he grew up in, teaching the younger generation about music and how to play the guitar.
Most black and brown musicians end up like this friend of mine. Most of them die penniless and it is heart-breaking. It is sad that we do not encourage and uplift those people in our community who are talented enough to make a difference in the world. It is particularly sad that too often these musicians experience hardship because they chose music.
The one desire that they have often kept them in enslaved in poverty.
The world though is poorer because their music will never be heard beyond the community they were born in simply as a result of being born on the wrong side of the tracks.