This post was written by Joel L. Daniels, a writer, actor, emcee and dreamer, born and raised in the Bronx. This piece and accompanying photos originally appeared at Soundfly and are reposted here with kind permission.
The first time I tried to sing out loud was in the auditorium in seventh grade while we were rehearsing for the musical Grease. Me and my homegirl were singing “Tell Me” by Groove Theory, and I was trying to sing the male vocal in the B chorus, and my pubescent voice cracked something awful. “Nah, I’ma just stick to singing melodies in my room when no one’s around…” The battle in my head—if I could be an emcee and STILL get my Bobby Brown—was real and authentic. I battled cats in hallways and cafeterias and bathrooms and outside the fountain at Lincoln Center (true story); outside of clubs, on college campuses…wherever. I sang in my head, in my momma’s bedroom, in the shower and bathrooms with superb acoustics. No one knew the real dream. And that dream all started with The Boys…
The Boys were akin to New Edition, an all-Black, all-boy group, with silky harmonies and funky ass dance moves. They had a few chart-topping singles, but the song that would change my life would be called “Crazy.” “Crazy” sent me to my mother’s room to redraw their album cover, practicing the hook harmonies for hours. It was because of The Boys that I began auditions for my imaginary boy band, The Instrumentals. Fake imaginary auditions, with fake auditioners.
Really, they weren’t fake. I played all the characters. Yup. Talking to myself. How no one in our household ever caught me doing the running man with my momma’s vacuum cleaner tubing as a mic stand still astounds me. I was already rapping by five, but in super secret (me rapping was a regular secret), I wanted to be more Usher than Hov.
Rappers been sanging. Biz Markie to Kanye West. Drake made it seem hella mainstream, but folks been traversing that fine line between vocalist and emcee. T-Pain was doing it before Wheelchair Jimmy. 50 and Ja battled over who did it better…seriously. I was so scared that I would lose credibility as a rapper if I started trying to get my Bilal on. Then Jon Braman came.
Jon Braman. My Jewish, Long Island, ukulele playing, rapper-slash-singer-slash-bike-riding-climate-change-geek bestie. Jon and I rap and perform together in The Melting Pot, our superhero crew comprised of uber-talented musicians, emcees and vocalists. Jon has a distinct voice: his. And he has never been scared to not sound amazing. He found a sweet spot in the imperfections of his vocal styling.
He told me something along the lines of, “I’m not Aretha Franklin. Look at Bob Dylan.” Word, Jon. I ain’t Bob Dylan, but dude’s voice, for lack of a better phrase, ain’t nothing to really write home about. But, his tone, lyricism, charisma and pull as a songwriter are what made him an icon. Jon taught me something—your voice matters. The minute I started realizing that my voice was mine, it was okay that it wasn’t as powerful as D’Angelo or as sweet as Bilal or as dynamic as Arthur Lewis or as wondrous as Akie Bermiss. But it’s mine. So, I honed it. I practiced. I wrote songs with the idea of my vocal being the prominent one as the focus.
I wrote “Creston and 188th” and knew I found a place that felt like home. Then I sang “Umi Says” at one of our Melting Pot shows. I sent my friend Arthur scratches of vocals, and I started realizing that maybe not sounding like anyone else was a good thing. Maybe, just maybe, being myself is all I ever wanted to be. Ain’t nothing too crazy about that, huh?