As a child I spent many afternoons singing from our porch. I imagined it was a stage and everything in front of me – trees, stray dogs, and the neighbor’s house, was my audience. I would play this imaginary game for hours, making up melodies and singing at the top of my voice. The experience was euphoric. It was my ticket to freedom. I seldom had words to express myself, but music always understood and helped me feel better… better than better.
Then in high school, I discovered Michael Jackson and Prince, and realized singers could perform for worldwide audiences and make a living doing so. What could be more rewarding? This idea danced in my mind then crystalized, and in that moment my dream was born – I wanted to be a singer!
In the following weeks, I devoured the Right On and Teen Beat magazines my friends pulled out of their backpacks. Then rushed home to practice singing, using my parents’ stethoscope to find out if I’d made any progress perfecting Jackson’s vibrato.
But disappointment soon set in. My MJJ imitations were limited, and the more I studied my teen idols, the further my dream seemed from reality. I didn’t look like them, I didn’t sound like them, and the idea that maybe listeners could savor my musical and physical gifts was beyond me. All I could see was their perfection that seemed miles away from the image that gazed back at me in the mirror.
However, even though I wasn’t developing in the way I wanted, my singing was blossoming. My mom thankfully heard it and arranged my first performance in one of my dad’s churches. That opened the door to other invitations. Soon my weekends were filled with performances: churches, concerts, local radio shows, and eventually in stadiums for two presidents.
But even with this constant stream of singing engagements, I never allowed my sights to stray far from the ground. I moved to NYC, became an X Ray tech, and worked nights and weekends while attending pre-med classes at NYU. Even though I had “grown up”, inside I was still that little boy comparing himself to musical idols, and falling short as he tried to “fit in”. After 2 year, the inner strain finally took its toll and my grades began to slip. Suicidal thoughts surfaced. I needed a new way of living that was centered on my passions. I wanted a life that felt good as opposed to simply looking good. So I took a year off and got back to experiencing freedom.
Then one afternoon I tuned into BET and heard Maxwell’s sweet falsetto flowing through my television speakers. A light bulb came on… here was sensitivity and poetry and a vocal tone like the one living within my soul. I didn’t hear it on the radio so I thought no one valued it. But here was an artist revealing his vulnerability for all to see and hear and experience. In that moment the clouds parted and I could finally see clearly.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Maxwell was honoring and preserving a tradition of the male falsetto voice in Soul music. The presence of this high voice in R&B goes back to days of Motown with Smokey Robinson and The Temptations’ singer Eddie Kendricks. I had grown up in the Caribbean and hadn’t yet discovered this Soul tradition handed down by vocalists like Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, and Philip Bailey of Earth Wind & Fire. I listened to El DeBarge in the 80s, studied Tevin Campbell and Brian McKnight in the 90s, and everyone shared my fascination with Michael and Prince. But I hadn’t connected the dots. Now the music industry had released a new incarnation of this sensitive soul singer, and I could relate, not only to his voice, but to his fresh vintage sound.
Other awakenings were occurring in me as well. After my sabbatical, I returned to NYU with a new focus and a new major. This time around, I signed up for a number of free counseling sessions. One in particular asked us to tell our stories, but not the versions we normally told others. It challenged us to share the parts of our stories we were ashamed of, the secrets we normally hid. That was the first time I admitted publicly “I am a gay man.” It was such a relief to discover that the world wouldn’t cave in because I came out. In fact it got better, even when everyone didn’t accept or understand, it still got better.
Then BET came back into my life. In 2009, after years of recording and performing, I won my first OUTMusic Award. The win made me the first black male in the history of the LGBT Academy of Recording Arts to do so. BET’s Centric TV Soul Sessions covered the story and shared these words on their blog. “A soul pioneer… Soul Sessions congratulates Nhojj for being a Black history and a gay history first!”
As amazing as that experience was, and as amazing as all the awards, reviews, albums, tours, documentaries, and television appearances are, the best part of this journey is knowing I am helping make a difference. Nothing compares to reading a comment from a LGBTQ teen who’s heard a song and realizes she isn’t alone. Or staring into the eyes of a gentleman who is visibly moved after hearing male pronouns sung in a love song that’s traditionally sung with female pronouns. It’s the tweet from a young man saying “I found your Huffington Post article at the right time, I needed this today!” It’s reading the debate on my YouTube video and knowing I’ve helped push the door open just a little wider by simply singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow” in an LGBTQ affirming church. It’s the ability to produce same-gender loving music videos that give people in Africa, the Caribbean, and right here in the USA another image of themselves as beautiful, loving human beings. It’s returning to Guyana to celebrate 10 years of LGBT human rights and visiting some of the same radio stations I performed in as a child, this time to promote acceptance and love and the power of equality.
But perhaps even more importantly than all that, it’s YOU, the listener… YOU make this journey beautiful and possible!
Here’s to many more uplifting, enlightening, soul searching, soul stirring and heartwarming episodes along this musical journey called life. Here’s hoping you are part of that journey.
If you’d like to hear one of the biggest milestones on that journey, press play to preview Soul Comfort.
Thank you for listening and for making this all matter.
Love & Light