I Got a Right to Sing the Blues...
Late last year, I was asked to join a blues band. I sang with them once and got a bit drunk in the process, but not because I was having fun. Oh, no.
Despite my best efforts, the entire time I sang, my voice sounded unsteady. Which led to me sound both pitchy and unsure. I knew myself well enough to know that I couldn't blame it on the alcohol. Unsurprisingly, the band never asked me to sing with them again.
This wasn't the first time this had happened. Three years before, I was a blues band in college. And despite the wealth of talent and support surrounding me, again, found myself floundering.
On the surface, it would seem like the answer was simple--I am just a bad singer. Insert knowing sarcastic chuckle here. But that isn't it. The problem is not that I can't sing. The problem is that a lifetime of experience has taught me not to trust my voice.
When I say voice, I mean this in both the physical and metaphorical sense. From aged 4, I was constantly teased and mocked about my "deep"speaking voice. The constant refrain was that I sounded like a man. Suffice it to say, this was a rather horrifying experience to have as a little girl. The abuse was incessant. Everyone made fun of my voice. Everyone. My cousins, aunts and uncles, kids in the neighborhood and classmates all had a go.
I grew to hate any sound that come out of my mouth. In fact, my self-consciousness became so profound that by the age of 5, I would lip-sync along to the radio. I was too afraid to actually emit any sound. The irony was that I knew that actually talking back would only exacerbate the problem. So in order to silence them, I silenced myself.
Overtime, I became even more reticent. I didn't speak unless spoken to, I practice I maintain until this day. And when I did speak, I kept my responses as short and concise as possible. This, in effect, caused another problem. People, often the same ones, would then complain that I was "too quiet."
This is another issue altogether, and maybe one that I will expand on in a later post. But I will say that the world does not really understand or respond well to Black girls that don't behave in stereotypical ways. In their minds we are always supposed to be loud and sassy. When we aren't, people don't know how to respond to you. But more on that later.
In a metaphorical sense, as a child, my experiences and observations were often deemed invalid. If I told any adults that I found their taunting hurtful, I was rebutted. I was told that I was being too serious or that I was exaggerating my pain. Or, because I was young, my problems weren't real. Somehow, the adults in my life thought that having an excess of Barbie dolls was equivalent to having emotional support. Having no support and no language or outlet to display my hurt, I drew even further into myself. I also more and more distrustful of the people around me. As I stewed, I silently resented their shallowness and lack of emotional intelligence.
These experiences created a sense of cognitive dissonance between the world I perceived and the world I was told actually existed. While I knew, in effect that my experiences were valid, everything and everyone around me were constantly telling me otherwise. As a result, I began to second guess every single experience I had. What's more, if I knew that someone had a different perception than I did, I would begin to question my own.
As a result, I tried to keep my opinions and perspective to myself. This didn't always work. I am by nature a highly opinionated person. But speaking out generally got me in trouble or caused me to be mocked, so I avoided it. Instead, I put on a protective amour. I tried to do everything right, so I wouldn't add fuel to fodder. I went through the motions of life. Imitating how I thought I should act instead of being my authentic self.
Fast forward several years, and I decide that I actually want to use my voice to sing the most unvarnished, guttural, emotional type of music that I know. By after decades of being cut off, my voice had atrophied. I had no sound. At least none that in any way resonated with how I felt. Or more accurately, how I was unable to feel.
And the thing about the Blues is, you can't fake it. Not even a little. That's what initially drew me to it. In my melancholy moments, deep into my self-repression, I would turn on Billie Holiday and let her sing to that unspeakable place that only she could. As I faltered in front of the microphone, I longed Koko Taylor's roughness and Big Momma Thornton's rawness and simplicity.
Their music was a far cry from the polished R&B that I had once lip-synced to in my mother's car. It was just as far away from the perfect and respectable persona that I had crafted from myself. It was the soundtrack of my grandparent's lives. History in musical form, that many in my generation hadn't really been privy to. I wanted to reclaim this space and sing my truth out loud.
But the trouble is, you can't just turn authenticity on.
So what do I do? Do I do myself a kindness and give up on it? Or do I keep falling on my face and publicly humiliating myself? The answer to both is yes. I'm learning that I need to continuously work to let of the idea of what I am supposed to sound like. Because honestly, at this point, how would I even know? Instead, I keep trying, practicing, falling, failing, until one day when instead of falling on my face, my arms with stretch out and break my fall.
The next time my knee will follow, and I will keep catching myself until my fall turns into a lean. And then the lean slowly becomes less and less off-center. Until finally I am standing upright.
I am learning now that I have the right to exist, to feel, and see the world anyway I please. I don't need anyone to validate my experiences in order to deem them valid. My voice, both physical and metaphorical, is mine doesn't sound like anything or anyone, but me. Not a man, nor a social justice warrior, or liberal snowflake. Just me. I sound like me.
To be fair, at this point, this is still something I understand more intellectually than I have actually embodied. Change, evolution doesn't happen overnight and I'm fine with that. But I'll continue to keep chipping away at the amour I've set around myself; little by little, letting my voice shine through the cracks.
I know that I've got the right to sing the Blues. And when I finally do, I'll have more than enough to say.