August 11, 2013

The Power of Music to Heal Racism. ~ Sonya Joseph

I have been thinking about the power of music.

My favorite choice will always be country music but it is fun to hear what opera singers have done to Dolly Parton’s music and to hear the same themes in sappy Bollywood love songs as in honky tonks. One of music’s greatest powers is that it bridges all borders.

My love for country music started with a Patsy Cline record. I sang along and suddenly every note was easy to sing. I’ve always had a low voice, even as a little girl and when I sang, people didn’t say I sounded like a boy, they said I sounded like a bell. I fell in love with her and it broke my heart when I found out that she had been gone for over a decade.

Fast forward to Seattle, 2003. I was in my mid 30’s and a show called, “Nashville Star” was coming to town to find the next Nashville star!

Many people (who had not heard me sing) suggested that I reconsider auditioning. Their gentle hints and suggestions all danced around one thing that was never mentioned: I’m from India.

Indian girls aren’t Nashville stars.

This was before Nora Jones did her duet with Dolly Parton so I was still breaking new ground. And beyond that, I decided to wear a lengha. A lengha is a long Indian skirt with a matching, midriff-bearing top and a long shawl. This one was a red and saffron orange cotton number with satin ribbon trim, silk embroidery and many, many sequins and mirrors sewn into the hem and sleeves.

I arrived at The Experience Music Project, in Seattle, on a cold, rainy November day, decked out in full Indian princess regalia about four or five hours early. There were only about 20 or so people there. I got in line, got a number and watched as the line filled over the next few hours with people wearing blue jeans, black jeans, white T-shirts, black T-shirts, black leather and buckskin suede. Even the women who wore skirts stuck to denim, leather and buckskin.

People laughed at me or ignored me.

I held my umbrella high and kept humming quietly to myself to keep my voice warm. A man a few feet in front of me started to smoke a cigarette. Several of the singers around me started to complain and my asthma started to trigger.

I puffed my inhaler with deliberate ostentation because that often gets results in a nice subtle way. The grumbling around me increased slightly in volume but no one did anything. Frankly, the guy up there looked like a bad ass and no one wanted to mess with him.

I figured there wasn’t much he could do to me so I went and asked if he’d mind moving to smoke his cigarette (he was only there to hang with his wife) and he looked me up and down derisively, blew his smoke in my face, said a few words I don’t want to write down and turned his head to spit.

I shrugged and went back to my spot where my immediate neighbors thanked me for trying, while his wife smacked him upside the head and made him move away to finish his smoke.

At eleven o’clock we were ushered inside. We signed in and I was put into the second group. I went in with the rest of my competitors when they called us at about noon. One by one, we went up to sing. Finally it was my turn.

The judges all gave each other that look—you know, the one Susan Boyle got when she first walked out on that stage.

That one.

They asked me a few beauty pageant type questions and then let me get to it. I had chosen Patsy Cline’s, “I Fall to Pieces.”

I began to sing.

I let the high notes fall clear and light and lingered over the low notes with a touch of a growl. That Susan Boyle moment where Simon’s eyebrows go straight up? That one? It happened.

I finished and sat down to thunderous applause.

Results weren’t given until the end of the day but I’ll tell you now that I was in the final 30 out of about 800. By the following day, I was in the final 10, but I didn’t make the final two that went on to the next level of the competition.

I was pretty happy, but not because I did so well. My happiness was reserved for the man who had been so rude to me in line (his wife did well too). He came up to me after my audition and apologized for being an ass and for the next two days we were friendly—chummy, even.

This is the power of music.

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Assistant Ed: Steph Richard / Ed: Catherine Monkman

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Sonya Joseph