I’ve always been a timid singer. I shouldn’t have been, especially around my family. Music, songs, R&B, jazz and, particularly, spirituals, in my home and in the homes of relatives, have been a part of my life since childhood.
When I went to visit my grandmother on the weekends, she would often sing along with her favorite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, as I sat on a quilt-covered milk crate and she pressed my hair. She had turned her tiny kitchen into a makeshift beauty shop. She applied Royal Crown Hair Dressing to my hair before using the hot ironing comb, while I sat waiting for one of her delicious Bundt cakes to come out of the oven.
My father, who played both the guitar and the saxophone, would likewise have a jazz tune on his lips Saturday mornings when he wasn’t playing his musical instruments. He would cook breakfast for my mother, my sister and me as he serenaded us with his deep voice.
I would hear my favorite song on the record player at a party, nod my head and tap my feet. But my mouth remained closed.
And I can’t recall how many times my mother retold the story of her singing, as a teenager, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “Ave Maria” over the radio. Even my only sibling, my older sister, sang with her school’s glee club.
Singing spontaneously for me was petrifying. I was more comfortable hibernating in my bedroom with my voice tumbling out on paper instead of to the world or whoever was around. I was more comfortable with a pen and paper and my imagination, humming a song I loved only in private with my door closed.
At that time, I didn’t know why my loved ones sang. I didn’t know that they had a reason to sing that took priority over having a pitch-perfect voice. Though some members of my family held on to professional aspirations, most sang for the love of it. Most, like my grandmother whenever she sang her spirituals, did so because it released heavy weights from their heart and soul. Her life as a widowed mother hadn’t been a cakewalk, but singing lightened her load and filled her with hope and joy.
It took years before I got to the point of singing so freely and unabashedly myself. I would dance in front of others, but I would never sing in front of them. I would hear my favorite song on the record player at a party, nod my head and tap my feet. But my mouth remained closed.
Although she couldn’t talk due to all the tubing, I knew she appreciated my sweet hymn because she gently squeezed my hand.
I remember the one time I closed my eyes and sang the lyrics to one of my favorite R&B songs at a celebratory gathering, only to open them to see someone staring at me. I instantly clammed up, embarrassed thinking what this person may have thought about my voice.
That changed, though, when my mother was terminally ill. As she lay in the intensive care unit, and my family and I knew she was approaching her transition, I began to sing to her … in front of her visitors, in front of the doctors, in front of the nurses.
“This is the day, this is the day, that the Lord has made, that the Lord has made, we shall rejoice, we shall rejoice and be glad in it. …”
I started singing this hymn at each hospital visit. Although she couldn’t talk due to all the tubing, I knew she heard me and appreciated my sweet hymn to her because she gently squeezed my hand with what little strength she had. I knew she appreciated hearing a song that focused on joyfulness instead of grief to carry her home.
Each time I sat beside her bed and held her hand. Each time the doctors came to work on her and gave me a look of empathy that told me nothing else could be done, I sang. I sang even when I jumped into the back of a taxi to go home late at night, thankful for the security officer who always allowed me extra time past visiting hours to spend with her.
Singing out loud, that song in particular, has helped me move from a hurting heart place to a healed heart space.
When my mother passed, it was a song I continued to sing, for myself and my family. Singing out loud, that song in particular, has helped me move from a hurting heart place to a healed heart space.
Singing can remove those self-imposed chains that fetter our personal and spiritual evolution. I don’t have to know all the lyrics or sing as magnificently as Etta James or Beyoncé or countless other songstresses. My voice, what rises from my diaphragm, even when it isn’t pitch-perfect, is still a perfect song. It is beautiful and worthy of filling the atmosphere.
So, “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free. … ”
This is why I sing.
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