I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, often called “the Whitest City in America.” I’m a Black singer, dancer, actor, composer, and musician. I’m an opera singer and a contemporary, soulful artist. I’m an educator. I strive to bring all these worlds together and bring culture and diversity to my listeners.
As a kid, at around seven years old, I turned on the TV one day and there was an opera on. It was on the only channel that came through at the time. I sat down started to recognize the grand gestures of the 1990’s Marvel superheroes in the themes of opera. I observed some connection between superhero culture and what I saw on TV, classical opera music. We think opera is a stuffy thing, but for this seven-year old’s eyes, it was villains, people cheating on one another, hearts being broken, death, betrayal. It was fascinating! With that in mind, I said, “This is what I want to do.” I ran to my siblings and to my stepdad at the time and said, “I want to be an opera singer…ooo-ooh!” I hadn’t hit puberty yet so I was singing around in my high soprano voice.
Little did I know, several years before I was born, my mother also wanted to be an opera singer. She auditioned and was accepted for the Portland Opera. Then someone came along and told her that she couldn’t do it because she had three kids. She gave up that dream. She never told me this until later on in life.
When I was ten years old, my father passed away but there wasn’t a lot of conversation around his death. From that moment on, I went mute as a kid; it was a very silent year for me. Other than music, I was quiet. People didn’t have a chance to get to know me; I lost a lot. One thing that stood close to me during that time was music. I would sing over myself. I’d weep and cry. I would sing hymns from church. Songs would comfort and console me. Frequently, I’d be singing at one or two o’clock in the morning crying and weeping myself to sleep. That was the thing that comforted me. Yes, I did hear, “[knock-knock]…you need to cut that out. Cut that out, son. It’s late, like, stop that.”
Music was a real, tangible thing for me. My whole family sang, but I didn’t have any training. I was told I should probably never sing. The gift “wasn’t given to me” (quote from my aunt). “Baby, you need to grow up and be a doctor if you’re going to do something because you didn’t receive the gift.” I accepted that. But then I was going to church one day, and I was allowed to walk to church for the first time by myself. On my walk there, a snarling dog ran straight at me and into a fence, and his fence toppled a little bit. I was like, “That was a close call.” He kept on hitting the fence, and eventually, the fence fell over. This dog was charging in, and all of a sudden, I used a big, grand voice. The dog stopped. I was thinking to myself, “This dog is listening to me. This is strange.” I continued to talk to the dog, yelling with a huge voice. My voice was traveling at least a block and a half, trying to get this dog’s attention and tell him to back down. The dog stopped and turned around. A voice did live inside me. My voice was big. There was something about it that was convicting, honest, authentic, real. It had a command to it. Later on, I realized that’s the same sound classical singers use.
I eventually started to mimic that classical sound. I had this big space. I knew that space; I knew that command, emotion, healing, and singing to the soul. From that moment, I started to cultivate those things. I studied for about three hours a day in my garage. Then I began to compete. Two years later, in my junior and senior year, I became the number one high school-aged opera singer in the state of Oregon.
Often, I was told that I should not sing classical music because my voice was “soulful” implying both indirectly and indirectly that the Black color of my skin was connected to soul music. I was told I should stick with what I know. That was a subtle way of saying, “You’re African American; this type of music is not meant for you.”
I was making gospel music and trying to keep both worlds very separate. I had a chance to tour to sing background for Josh Groban. I noticed a moment of entanglement between pop music and gospel music in his “You Raise Me Up”: gospel backgrounds, classical singer in front. I thought, “There might be a niche to this.” Today I am using the same technique. I write original music that combines soul, indie, traditional classical music, and Black gospel music. I’m fusing those into an EP called “Livin’ in the Light.”
Everyone has a voice, and everyone can sing. The human voice can be strengthened by working on intonation, vibrato, breathing, and other technical things. Some people have it naturally, and other people, like me, have to work for it. There’s a science to it. That is what I really love about being a vocal coach and working vocal health and public speakers. Speaking and singing are about knowing what someone is doing with the voice to change it and create a loud voice. Many public speakers lose their voices quite often because of their speech patterns, misusing the voice, speaking too harshly on the sound, or not remembering to simply breathe between sentences. They’re running out of air by abusing the voice. We, as vocal coaches, and people who’ve studied vocal health can assist both speakers and singers. Everyone can sing, you just have to work for it.
On my first day working as a professional opera singer, I met a Slavic woman who was the opera building custodian. She greeted me, and we had a brief conversation in Russian. She told me that no one had spoken to her in weeks because her English is broken. She appreciated me taking the time to talk to her. I went down to rehearsal.
Then the artistic director, who had briefly noticed that conversation, approached me, “So, your last name is French?”
I said, “Yes, it is.”
She said, “…but you speak Russian.”
She said, “You also speak French?”
“Yes, some French.”
At that moment, she looked me in the eye, and there was a full pause.
She said, “What are you, a part of the witness protection program or something?”
We both laughed awkwardly. Then she looked at me again. I realized that if I said that I was a part of the witness protection program, that would be more convincing than for me to be an African American young person who also had the skill set that everyone else in this room had.
All opera singers are linguists. You have to study about three or four different languages to sing in the opera. But it would have been easier to believe me as having been part of the witness protection program than to be in the same space with non-Black artists and simply love the same music. I realized from that moment, all eyes were on me, questioning why I was in the room. This came in the form of persistent questions: “How did you get here? Why are you here?”
You’ve got to pay attention, and you got to show up. Learn your music, and whatever issues that you have with learning, just learn the music, figure it out, do your best to shine. I did. I ended up being recorded on a few things with OPB, having different photoshoots, being heavily involved in the company. Other doors began to open up as well. But it was odd and lonely.
I have felt like the poster child. You dress up, you play the part, and then go home into a world that looks nothing like the opera. I’ve been on stage and seen people in the audience. After the show, they give me a thumbs up, “Good job.” Then I take off, you know, the wardrobe and makeup, and I’m walking home, and I try waving at people. They grab their purses and pull their partners closer. They don’t speak, they don’t use their words. Are they ashamed of their fear?
Once I saw an audience member and said, “Hey, did you enjoy the show?”
They said, “Yeah, I enjoyed the show. You should see it sometime.”
“Ah, thanks. Actually, I was on stage.”
“No way. That is so cool. Wait, you mean you were on stage?”
I was the only Black man on the stage that night. What conclusion can I draw from that experience other than “people don’t see me”? As an artist, my role is to bring them into an adventure on stage. Yes, I want them to see me as part of a story. But outside of that, they don’t necessarily see me.
A friend of mine performed “The Color Purple.” She was getting on the subway in New York, and someone called her a “black b****.” They said, “Move out the way.” They pushed her out of the way, and they got onto the subway. It almost made her late for her show. When she got to the show, she performed, and that night, they had a standing ovation. Afterward, the company offered a talkback. Everyone was signing autographs. That same man who called her a “black b****” came up to her and said, “That was the most amazing performance. Thank you so much…” raving and raving and raving about her performance, asking for an autograph.
She looked at him with a blank face like, “You don’t see that I’m that black b**** that you pushed off the subway. You don’t see me at all.”
Is that show business? How can we create a culture of honor and dignity, or simply one of, “I see you, you’re here, you’re human, you’re like me”?
Classical music is a mostly European, White form of music. Right now, I’m in a Black opera with an all-black cast singing about gentrification. Most African Americans come from a soulful, gospel, type of music, a jazz background, rock, and roll. Our culture was the genesis of those. To end up doing an opera about the gentrification history of Portland, initially, a White utopia is wild. These are the things that are and that were and are again becoming. I was not necessarily wanted in my city; my family was allowed to be here. White families created “red lines” for us not to be in specific spaces.
Let’s get rid of the riff-raff. It’s wrong. It’s bad—crime rates. There’s no good in this space. Let’s totally change it. And not only change it but push everyone out that looks like this specific demographic.
It’s hurtful. So to navigate this story artistically and honestly, to for all races to now be doing this soul work together, is exciting. I encourage every artist to use your voice to your advantage by helping educate. Educate and educate in love. Continue to be the students, as well.
For African American roles for men, we have two stereotypes: either you are overweight and funny, or you are a muscular, sexy sex symbol. Very few characters have anything in between. If you’re short, skinny, this or that, you’re not fit for the camera, you’re not fit for the role. I have to break that mold and do that work. In activism, speaking, singing, and living, it’s important to encourage other creatives to no longer fear or feel like they’re alone. I’m in it with you.
Recently, I had a chance encounter with another singer [Madisen Hallberg] on the streets of Portland, and a video of our spontaneous duet went viral. ABC, MSN, Fox, the Today show, everyone was reaching out.
What’s so compelling about a quick rendition of the national anthem? I believe people were compelled by the moment because music is inherently healing. I use music to unite the disparate groups, subcultures, and identities within my communities and within myself. Whether it’s performing with our opera, leading protest songs in a civil rights march, or singing traditional Black gospel music, I use music to heal myself and others.
I grew up in the ghettos of Portland. There were ghettos, believe it or not. One summer, there were six killings — people didn’t happen to die; these were murders. To grow up in an environment like that, and then to arrive and work within an opera community, singing week after week inside auditoriums with predominantly White audiences, is quite a tension, quite a dichotomy. I address that tension by using my voice in public. I sing in clubs, bars, churches, on street corners, anywhere I can reach people with the unique joy of making. Let the music wash over you. Remind yourself of your own power and resilience.
We’re losing the power of the voice in many ways. This began way before COVID. We’ve designed a sanitized society in which we’re afraid to advocate for ourselves and speak out about right and wrong. We’re addicted to technology, which is most usually a silent form of communication. We have to wonder why it’s so scary to do karaoke in front of even our closest friends. There’s something vulnerable about using the voice. The voice is very telling. Now is the time to reclaim the voice, preferably in public.
The Star-Spangled Banner, as written by Salisbury and Smith, asks questions of belonging. After performing all across the world and learning to sing in five languages, is that enough for me, as a Black man, to belong here? After investing $150,000+ into my training as a professional musician, is that enough? America, is that enough for you to see me in my complexity, in my multitudes, and include me in your future vision?
Why are Black men tasked with this, taxed by this, as a prelude to belonging? To sing with Madison is to ask questions about the future we are co-creating. Artists, not politicians, will be the ones to envision, collaborate around, and organize around whatever our post-COVID reality will be. The future is our potential, our right, our responsibility. I invite all artists across America to respond to this cultural moment. Please harmonize with me. Let’s continue to show up and engage with the crucial questions of race, class, and equity that face us now.
Photo credit: Shutterstock