Music Is My Life
Written by Stephanie Renee on May 31, 2015
“I appreciate what you give to me, yeah…” – Jill Scott, from Common’s I Am Music
I don’t have my elder relatives around to verify this, but I am almost positive that I sang before I spoke. Before letters could form themselves into words that would have meaning, I was born into a family that has–for countless generations–found their financial and professional success between the notes on the staff.
Not everyone’s musical gift was identical. Three and four generations back, the vehicle was primarily instrumental music and dance. Vaudeville. The show in show business. Headliners on TOBA (the Theater Owners Booking Association – run by white people) or on the chitlin’ circuit (what Black folks developed so we could appear in our own venues to make more money and be treated better), my family moved comfortably into the middle class on the strength of their considerable abilities to sing, dance, tell jokes and blow a horn. Changing societal values about blackface and the onset of the Great Depression forced them to rethink their acts and pare things down to survive the costs of taking their show on the road. But sing and dance on, they did.
My maternal great-grandfather used his law degree to negotiate contracts for dance hall venues and promote shows. My father came along around this same time, and grew up just off of DC’s U Street, considered to be the “Black Broadway” of the East Coast, where well-dressed and educated colored folks began to develop a sound known as big band and assemble entire orchestras that would elevate the Black aesthetic. My paternal grandmother’s aunts were on and off of tours in Europe, trying unsuccessfully to get my father to learn to play piano so he could have more opportunities as a performer himself. Instead, he focused on developing his vocal skills and learning ballroom dance as a means of social networking long before Facebook and Twitter.
Fast forward several decades, and my father and mother meet in a group called The Overtones, marrying the musical arrangements of director Romaldo DeVeau with the sacred texts and a little dash of Negro spiritual. My mother took me as an infant to every rehearsal, placing me on the Pastor’s chair in the pulpit while the adults sang. She often joked that I didn’t cry much at all in my early years. I would be hungry or need a diaper change, but during those rehearsals, they would find me playing with my toes or waving my arms, conducting right along with Aunt Roma and singing with the choir. Music was obviously my first language.
So, as we celebrate Black Music throughout this month, I will honor the deep-abiding love of musical expression that endures in my genes. It’s not just about all of the über-talented artists that I interview and whose tunes I highlight on my show. It’s also about the sounds through which I feel most at home, deeply myself, and surrounded by love. It should be no surprise that I have little tolerance for songs that use degrading language or repetitive, unimaginative composition. That’s not the kind of music that has sustained me or my tribe. We’ve endured racism and oppression through the beauty and power of our musical expression. Even when June fades into memory, the Black music will play on.