These were my favorite quotes from his autobiography which I really enjoyed.
by Lenny Kravitz, David Ritz
“In an alchemical way, Sy’s and Roxie’s dreams meld. They fall head over heels. He proposes. The next night, my mom goes to the Café Carlyle, on Madison Avenue, to consult with her dear buddy Bobby Short, the iconic cabaret singer and pianist. What does he think about her marrying Sy? In his grand manner, Short responds, “Well, I don’t see anyone else asking.” The wedding is a humble affair that Dad’s parents, heartbroken that their son is marrying a Black woman (and a gentile to boot), refuse to attend. It takes my birth to bring them around. I love knowing that without doing a thing except existing, I bring peace to my family.”
I am deeply two-sided: Black and white, Jewish and Christian, Manhattanite and Brooklynite.
My young life was all about opposites and extremes. As a kid, you take everything in stride. So, I accepted my Gemini soul. I owned it. In fact, I adored it. Yins and yangs mingled in various parts of my heart and mind, giving my life balance and fueling my curiosity, giving me comfort. Though nightmares haunted me throughout childhood, once I was awake, I was ready to go. Awake and alive. Looking to explore. Looking for adventure. Many people remember their early years filled with trauma. Despite the drama and dysfunction I will regale you with, my story is not one born of darkness. My youth was filled with joy, and I was surrounded by what felt like endless, unconditional love.
I worked toward deeply disparate goals with equal fervor. Our differences would only deepen as time went on. It is only in recent years that I have begun to understand our incredible similarities. I am so grateful for his place in my life. He never ran out on me. He was there at critical times, offering me critical help. Our impasses were epic, but, as a result, I grew stronger. I simply would not be who I am today without those power struggles. As ugly as our battles became, they were an education. I had to go through Dad to become me.
Mom was and is my heart. It was Mom who hung the poster over my bed that read, “War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.” It was also Mom who painted the peace sign on my cheek and proudly walked me through antiwar marches in Central Park. Naturally, I didn’t get the political implications, but I loved the excitement of the crowd singing “Give Peace a Chance.” I felt like I was in the midst of an important moment. I felt protected by the goodness that radiated from Mom without her even having to try.
Football legend Joe Namath lived across the street—sometimes he’d throw a ball around with us kids—and only a few steps away, at the end of our block, stood the mighty Metropolitan Museum of Art, like a fortress commanding the eastern border of Central Park. Although our place was small, most of the kids in the neighborhood lived in enormous apartments. It was a world of privilege. In contrast to all that, I didn’t see much privilege in Brooklyn. Mom’s parents lived across the East River in mostly Black Bedford-Stuyvesant. My early life was a dance between the two boroughs. I felt I belonged in both places—and the truth is, I did.
My life in Brooklyn was grounded by two phenomenal human beings, my maternal grandparents, Albert and Bessie Roker. They showered me, their only grandchild, with love. Born on the small, remote island of Inagua in the Bahamas, Grandpa was forced to become the man of the house at age nine, when his father died and left four children to the care of his ailing wife. Grandpa didn’t have electricity or ice until his teens. Eventually he made his way to Miami, where Georgia-born southern belle Bessie was working in an ice-cream parlor. They fell in love, married, and migrated north to New York in search of a better life. The world has never seen a harder worker than Albert Roker. Doing four jobs at once, Grandpa was a house painter, doorman, handyman, and manual laborer at a factory where he wound up as foreman. He always spent less than he earned and managed his money with an eye toward his family’s well-being and his daughter’s education.
Grandpa used to talk about a vision that came to him as a kid: when he grew up, he’d never refuse anything his wife or child asked of him. The answer, he decided, would never be no. And it never was. Albert loved learning. Completely self-educated, he knew the Bible; he quoted Shakespeare, Socrates, and Malcolm X. He devoured whole books in a single night. He was driven to improve his mind. He also did all he could to expose his daughter to important culture.
When my mother was thirteen, Grandpa took her to the theater to see Porgy and Bess, where they were forced to sit in the section “For Colored Only.” Despite the irony—a musical featuring Black performers performed to an audience where Blacks were given second-class treatment—the production triggered my mother’s interest in theater. Her father’s prudent management of money put her through Howard University.
Grandpa read all Dr. Seale’s books, whose titles (Ten Words That Will Change Your Life and Success Is You) reflected his code of self-improvement as spiritual evolution. Though this compass was not exactly the same as mine would become, his sermons were an introduction to these concepts and an invitation to start forming my own connection to the unknown.
He was also surrogate father to dozens of neighborhood boys. He took the kids bowling, drove them to the countryside to play golf, and got them tickets to museums and Broadway plays. He made sure they had library cards; he showed them how to apply to trade school and college. Grandpa saw life as an opportunity for self-improvement at every turn. The great thing about him, though, was that he didn’t see it as an opportunity for just himself, but for everyone—especially kids who lacked resources. Grandpa became that resource for an entire neighborhood.
He was also a disciplinarian, but with a style much different from Dad’s. If I was mischievous, Grandpa sat me down and, like a psychologist, explained how my bad behavior was hurting me more than anyone else. He droned on and on and on. He wanted me to understand why I’d done what I’d done, so that I could identify the problem and resolve it. The whole process was agonizing. I would have preferred a beating. But thank God he had insight and patience. His approach was invaluable.
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My grandmother was so protective of me and loved me so much that even if I got in trouble for a good reason, she would defend me. She’d deny I’d done it with every fiber of her being, and then, in private, she’d tear my behind up for what I’d done. Punishment was to teach, not
Take our swanky Upper East Side neighborhood. Some saw it as stuffy or snobby. I saw it as a beautiful tableau, almost like an amusement park. A few steps from our front door was Fifth Avenue, where, at the entrance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, crowds were always congregating: tourists, locals, school kids, hot dog vendors, postcard vendors, acrobats, caricature artists, roller skaters, and mimes. One of those mimes, I recognized years later while watching Mork and Mindy, was Robin Williams.
In the other direction was Madison Avenue. I can’t imagine two more different streets than DeKalb in Bed-Stuy and Madison Avenue in Manhattan. DeKalb was funky; Madison was fancy: block after block of boutiques and bookshops where I could leaf through Peanuts and Curious George; antique stores and art galleries with strange objects and gorgeous paintings in the windows; French bakeries with crepes and pillowy croissants.
On my very first day of school, a kid bolted from out of nowhere, pointed at me and my parents, and yelled, “Your mother’s Black and your daddy’s white!” Before that moment, I had never thought about my parents’ skin tones. They were what they were. What difference did it make? Who cared? What was the big deal? The kid’s accusation made no sense to me, but it did get me thinking. I was being ostracized, and I had no idea why.
When I got home that day, Mom knew something was wrong. She also knew that kids have a hard time expressing their feelings. That’s why, years before, she had introduced a game where she became a character named Ruff Ruff, a magical dog. Ruff Ruff was a friend I could tell anything to. He was my mother’s way of getting me to express pent-up feelings.
“Outside the Ruff Ruff/little Lennie dialogue, my mother had her own viewpoint on race. She knew it wasn’t enough to just let me vent my feelings when some kid called me a zebra. She realized an explanation would be needed. And her explanation was simple: I had two heritages, one Russian Jewish and the other African Caribbean, and I should be proud of both. At the same time, she made it clear that the world was always going to see me as only Black. To the world, my skin would be my first and only identification. I accepted her explanation and didn’t object. If that’s the way the world saw me, fine.”
Grandma Jean and Grandpa Joe lived at 3311 Shore Parkway in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Here was yet another universe, Old World energy: kosher butchers, delis, synagogues. Like Dad, Grandpa Joe had his charms. He was well groomed and a sharp dresser. He had the gold chain with the chai, the sapphire pinky ring, and he smelled of cologne. Though he was in the shmata business, he wanted to be an entertainer to the point that he actually commissioned an oil painting of himself wearing a tux and singing into a microphone. He saw himself as an Al Jolson or an Eddie Cantor, Jewish singers who hit the big time in mainstream American music. That portrait hung in the entryway to their apartment, but Grandpa Joe never made it into show business. Instead, he became a tailor, which he claimed was the meaning of the name “Kravitz.”
Unconsciously, I think he nudged me toward his deferred dream. He was the first person to put a microphone in my hand. Grandpa owned a reel-to-reel and loved recording himself singing show tunes. When he got tired, he’d turn it over to me. He taught me songs from Carousel and South Pacific. I picked up the vibe and jumped right in. It was natural, and it was fun. And when the music died down, Grandma Jean kept the party going by teaching me durak, a Russian card game whose name translates to “The Fool.” We’d play for hours while I devoured her chopped liver on matzo.
I also felt a bitter tension between my father and Joe. It was not until many years later that my mother explained the source of that tension. Grandpa Joe was not a faithful husband. Dad despised how his father cheated on his mother. Back then, I didn’t have a clue about these grown-up concerns. I was just a happy-go-lucky kid hanging out in my grandma’s kitchen eating kasha varnishkes. When I became an adult, though, and started watching Woody Allen movies, I recognized my family on the screen. That was the Jewish humor that raised me.
At the same time, Mom was no pushover. She enforced her own tough brand of discipline, making sure, for instance, that I did my household chores. But unlike Dad, she enforced with love. Dad enforced with fear. When Dad finally arrived home from the war, Mom was happy. I was conflicted. He immediately reestablished his role as Enforcer. Part of me was grateful that he was back. But another part of me hated how he was already back on my case: Why are those socks not put away? What are all those Hot Wheel tracks doing in the middle of the floor? When Dad returned, tension returned with him.
“The cashier recognized it as Tchaikovsky. He wanted to know how in the world this little kid knew Tchaikovsky. Surprised, Grandma turned to me for the answer. I said it was something I’d heard on my Show ’N Tell, a plastic TV with a record player on top. It was a melody that had stuck in my head. The cashier told my grandmother it was a highly complicated melody for a child to memorize. I just shrugged. It didn’t seem like a big deal. Broadway show tunes, pop songs, symphonic themes—they all stuck in my head. They gave me pleasure. But there’s a difference between pleasure and passion. Musical passion didn’t really kick in until the Jackson 5. The J5 were the game changer. They came storming out of the gate in 1969, when I turned five, the same year I was haunted by those stuck-in-a-tomb nightmares. Their early run of smashes—“I Want You Back,” “ABC,” The Love You Save”—had me mesmerized. Those hits opened my mind and heart in a way that no other music had ever done. It’s one thing to say you like a band; it’s another to say that a band changed your life.”
LENNIE JACKSON Some called the Jackson 5 bubble gum music. It was anything but. Their hits were complex melodies and sophisticated arrangements. Even as a kid, I recognized that: the bass lines, the rhythm guitar, the percussive nuances. But beyond the music, they wore brilliantly patterned psychedelic-styled clothes and executed pinpoint-precise super-sharp choreography. At the center of it all was Michael. He was eleven but looked younger. I related to him.
I became uncontrollably curious. The more I asked, the more he wouldn’t say. All he did was smile back at me with a sparkle in his eye. I had seen my dad happy and charming around his friends. But this was a first. Never before had I felt him this happy around me and me alone. When we finally got out of the cab and walked toward the Garden, my curiosity reached a boiling point. The Garden was packed, everyone dressed to the nines. Men in leather maxi coats. Women in hot pants. Afros, wild hats, turbans, dashikis—you name it. Soon, as we settled into our seats, which were really close to the stage, a massive commotion broke out. The Queen of Soul was entering the arena. Flashbulbs popped. Heads turned. People cheered. Aretha Franklin, swathed in white mink and dripping in diamonds, had entered the arena. She and her entourage took their seats right behind us. Even before the music started, even when I still didn’t know who we were about to see, the proximity of the Queen gave me goosebumps.
“I could feel a restlessness in the air. People started clapping and stomping their feet. What’s going on? All of a sudden, the lights dimmed again. Blinding spotlights exploded to life. I could make out a bunch of guys running onto the stage and taking their positions. And then it happened. Bump. Bump-ba-da-bump. Ba-da-dum-badah dah. Bum-bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum … BUMP. All of a sudden, I realized I was looking directly at the Jackson 5 as they launched into the intro of “I Want You Back.” I couldn’t believe it. It was a million times more explosive live than it was on my record player.”
“The vibration pierced me to my core. There I was, in front of my real-life heroes. Their moves were precise, expressive, and irresistible. They were flawless. And Michael’s soulful, angelic voice soared. It was surreal. I jumped out of my seat. This was the best moment of my life.”
During the show, Dad pulled out his Leica. Being a photographer and realizing what this night meant to me, he documented it. To this day, a photograph from the concert remains on my wall and is one of my most prized possessions. It documents more than a life-altering event. It documents my father’s love and understanding of who I was. It’s interesting how much he missed about me, how much space there was between us. But at that miraculous moment in time, his insight lit the spark. That spark would define who I would ultimately become. On the taxi ride home, I dozed in and out of sleep, leaning on Dad’s arm. Never had I felt so close to him.
“If you don’t stop crying,” he said, “I’ll give you something to really cry about.” I didn’t understand his anger. Was he mad because I’d fallen or because I was crying? Instead of consoling me, he grabbed me by the arm and rushed me home. When we got there, he told Mom that she had a crybaby for a son. Rather than argue with her husband, Mom waited till bedtime before asking if I wanted to say the magic word. I did: “Abracadabra,” and suddenly Ruff Ruff was right there for me. Ruff Ruff patiently listened to me. Ruff Ruff heard my confusion. Ruff Ruff understood how embarrassed I was. Ruff Ruff took away my pain.
Even though he didn’t know how to show physical affection, enlisting Duke was Dad’s way of making me feel special.
Mom and Dad didn’t smoke, but a whole lot of their friends did. Pot seemed harmless, but that wasn’t true of other stimulants. I watched a mother of a close friend waste away on prescription drugs. They lived in an enormous apartment at 1010 Fifth Avenue, a landmark building off Eighty-Second Street, just two doors away from us. Their place was a disaster: plates piled high in the sink, dirty clothes scattered all over the floor, trash cans overflowing. When I told Mom about it, she rushed over to investigate and ended up washing dishes, mopping floors, and opening up windows to let in fresh air. She even bathed the poor woman and put her in fresh clothes. She convinced her to get professional help. That was my mother: a rescuer of lost souls.
Nassau wasn’t always paradise. The first time I stayed with Esau, I showed up with a huge Afro. Esau didn’t approve. It didn’t suit his conservative sense of style. Right then and there, he ordered me into the backyard and insisted that I sit on a stool. He then took a bowl, put it over my head, and sheared me like a sheep. I was enraged. But he was my elder, and I had been taught to obey my elders. Besides, I could never be angry with Esau for long. He was too beautiful a person.
Nassau had a way of relaxing people, even Dad. Once there, suit-and-tie Sy Kravitz changed his wardrobe to open-necked floral shirts and white linen shorts. He ate pigeon peas and rice, fried snapper and johnnycake. Esau playfully called Dad Conchy Joe, their name for a white Bahamian. Dad also let down his guard with me. In Nassau, I could almost do whatever I wanted. One day, I watched my father and Esau hanging out on the docks with locals feasting on scorched conch, a Bahamian delicacy. They carved out the conch muscle, squeezed lime and sour (a lime-orange hybrid), and added hot bird pepper before downing it straight up (including the pistol, considered a potent aphrodisiac). The only other place I saw my father this happy was in Grandma Bessie’s kitchen. In the soulful world of the Rokers, Dad lost that hard edge and found a mellow vibe that was missing from him in Manhattan.
The training took. The manners stuck, as did a Bahamian accent. My mom was tickled when I started calling her “Mummy.” Nassau became a third home. It felt as natural as Brooklyn and Manhattan. The Bahamas are in my blood. The older I got, the closer the bond. Those islands never stopped calling me. Never stopped nurturing me. Never stopped bringing me a peace of mind I’ve found nowhere else in the world.
Next stop, shopping. This ritual really pleased me. I got a kick out of having a handsome, stylish father. When the old Italian tailor fussed over him with chalk-striped flannel suits, my dad looked like a president or a king. And to top it off, he had his initials engraved on the cuffs of his dress shirts, every single one: SK.
Uncle Vinnie made an impression. Big guy, salty New York accent, and always sweet to me. I liked his enigmatic aura. I also liked how he always put Dad in a good mood. My father got off on being around power. No matter the location, Uncle Vinnie held court, surrounded by huge platters of pasta and his entourage of cronies. I saw his importance when, during one of our lunches, Sammy Davis Jr. showed up, headed straight to our table, and, before greeting anyone else, kissed Uncle Vinnie on both cheeks. Uncle Vinnie was a fixture in our life. His light shone bright, and his presence was as rooted as a tree. My father told me Vinnie was my godfather and that he would always have my back.
James never stopped moving. He wasn’t creating rhythm; he was rhythm. He sang; he hollered; he fell to his knees; he did the splits; he handled the mic like a magician. He hit us with “Soul Power.” He hit us with “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.” Bootsy Collins, his new nineteen-year-old bass player, had a big, lopsided Afro. That was the coolest look ever. The whole thing knocked me out.
The EWF audience was more mixed than that for James Brown at the Apollo, but the funk was just as strong, the crowd just as wild. I loved watching Verdine White poppin’ his bass while levitating over the stage. Verdine’s big brother, Maurice, was the maestro. On his recordings, he seamlessly stacked multiple melodies: vocals, strings, horns, percussion, backgrounds. At the same time, his tracks never sounded choked. They breathed. How’d he do that? I’d have to figure it out. I spent years studying his techniques.
I was still too young to understand the sexual innuendos, but I felt the raw rhythm. He performed a rendition of “Romance in the Dark” where he got up from the piano, turned his back to the audience, and began to grind and hug himself as if his arms belonged to a beautiful stranger we couldn’t see. I was entranced. Bobby taught me that no matter how sophisticated the style or elegant the setting, soul is the bottom line.
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It wasn’t long before the word came down. The pilot was a hit. The audience response had been overwhelming. The network committed for a full season. What did all that mean? Mom said it meant that she and I would be leaving soon for L.A. Dad would join us later. I’d be going to school in California. No time for reflections. No time for objections. Things were moving so fast my head was spinning. Excited, angry, anxious, curious—I experienced every emotion under the sun. Our life was being turned upside down. We didn’t know what was coming.
Following Mom’s lead, I learned the bus routes, and whenever I could, I’d go to CBS to watch her tape her show. This whole new world of behind-the-scenes television was fascinating and fun. It’s one of the reasons, though I missed everything about New York, that I started liking L.A.
Then there was the fashion and the ethnic disconnect. In New York, I wore a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and Converse sneakers. Blacks, Latinos, and whites were all mixed together. Now I was surrounded by a tribe of blond-haired blue-eyed boys with hair down to their asses and a string of puka shells around their necks. In L.A. it was all about Hang Ten and OP shorts and Vans tennis shoes, which was really confusing, because in New York we called them sneakers. In California, there were other new words being thrown around, words like radical, gnarly, and dude.
Jeff Ho’s shop on Main Street in Santa Monica was to skateboards what Manny’s Music in Manhattan was to instruments. It was the hot spot for surfers and skaters. Ho was all about style; he was known for his colors and airbrushing. His boards looked like candy; you wanted to eat them. Like Popsicles, they faded from purple to green to orange to yellow.
Wes was a visionary who turned empty swimming pools into practice fields. The dude became world famous. I was on the sidelines. I never came close to becoming a champ, but the board let me smoothly glide into this new teenage culture. It let me adjust to California. It made me feel part of what was happening. But mainly it gave me mobility. I could finally move around. I took to it naturally. When I got halfway good, I could fly down the streets of Santa Monica, down to Venice, slide by the beach, and get where I needed to go in a hurry.
The first season of The Jeffersons turned the show into a certified hit. The sitcom would run for eleven seasons and tape 253 episodes. Mom became a star. Her earnings grew far greater than my father’s. This changed the dynamic in their relationship. It took me a while to understand the impact of that change. On the surface, it was easy to see. Mom was getting far more attention than Dad. At the time, Dad seemed okay with it. He was his wife’s biggest cheerleader. Her success made him proud and happy.
But now that she was the bigger breadwinner, and not him, he had to adjust. For an alpha male like Dad, that wasn’t easy. Before the start of the second season of The Jeffersons, Dad left New York. He arranged to work at NBC News in L.A., and the three of us moved into a two-bedroom apartment down the hall from Aunt Joan. We were back to our same dynamic. More than ever, he was on me. In L.A., Dad was out of his comfort zone. In the light of Mom’s stardom, he had to prove himself. I
Well, the kid let me know that he wasn’t playing records; he was making music. I thought, How are you making music with records? That’s somebody else’s music. I didn’t get it. He was mixing vinyl on two turntables. Then these guys who called themselves “emcees” started talking over the music. They weren’t singing; they were telling stories over the recycled rhythms of songs I knew. This shit was funky. I loved it. Later, it would change my life and change the world. With this music, a new style of movement was also born. The birth of break dancing was something to behold: I watched in amazement as guys in the neighborhood took sections of linoleum floors, laid them out on the sidewalk, and spun on their backs. New York was being transformed visually, too. Subways were turned into canvases for underground artists. I liked the trains covered with graffiti more than the clean ones. The art spoke to me: fluorescent neon spray paint, whacky cartoon figures, flaming fireballs, ferocious snakes, and cuddly teddy bears devoured by slobbering green monsters. I was witnessing the birth of hip-hop.
This was a moment. Maybe the moment. My head exploded. My mind blew up with the sound of the screaming guitar, the crazed vocal, the blasting beat. I was knocked on my ass. I hadn’t even heard of Led Zeppelin. I didn’t yet know the names Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham. All I knew was that this music was electrifying every cell in my body. The mixture of marijuana and “Black Dog” sent me soaring. The sky opened up. The world got bigger and more beautiful. I was fucked up.
As opposed to our place, where Dad ruled with an iron fist, my friends’ pads were loose and free. And lack of structure was just what I wanted. There, we could smoke weed, eat junk food, and watch cable TV for hours. Z Channel was the new thing. We could even sneak peeks of soft-core porn. Anything goes.
School was excruciating; if my teachers had made the material more engaging or applied it to life, I would have been interested. But it was all about memorizing facts, dates, and formulas. I came home with bad grades, and my parents were furious. They insisted that I focus. I didn’t want to. Or, I should say, I was focused on other things. I just wanted to get high, play my guitar, and rock out.
“Mom had no interest in social climbing among the Hollywood elite. Instead, she volunteered her time helping underprivileged kids at an organization called ICAN, the International Council for the Abused and Neglected. She also kept her theater roots, performing at the Inner City Cultural Center in Leimert Park. When it came to giving back, she was her father’s daughter. She was also her father’s daughter when it came to practicality.”
Grandpa Albert had taught her that middle-class people with a solid income owned homes. The Kravitzes had never owned a home—until now.
smack dab in the middle of everything. Dad liked the neighborhood. And he and Mom saw “Cloverdale,” as a perfect party house. Their parties back on Eighty-Second Street had been intimate and intense. But the
Cloverdale parties were like scenes out of a movie. Late at night, with the lights of the city ablaze, my parents took pride in sharing their new home. There was Aunt Diahann in the living room laughing at something Flip Wilson had just said. Out by the pool, Godmother Cicely would be chatting with Robert Guillaume. I had picked up my parents’ gift for socializing. Accommodating people was their way of life; it also became mine. It wasn’t calculated; it came naturally. Show curiosity about others, make them feel welcome, make them feel loved—that was Mom’s way. And on party nights, Dad was easily the most charming man in the room.
“Close the cabinet.” I pushed it closed, and she said, “Now the job is done.” At the time, I thought she was totally insane. She’d actually woken me up in the middle of the night because a cabinet door had been cracked open half an inch. But that’s how meticulous my mother was when it came to completing a task. Later in life, when I was deep into music projects, I kept going back to that incident and hearing her words, “If you do something, do it right.”
Like all good mothers of her generation, Mom was looking for ways not only to keep me off the streets but also to engage me in creative activities. She saw I had all this energy that needed to be channeled.
My choir years turned out to be monumental. This was the only formal training in music I’d ever have. I didn’t get formal training for R&B or rock ’n’ roll. That was stuff I learned by feel. But developing vocal techniques under the supervision of exacting instructors was something that helped me forever. I learned to sing from my diaphragm. I learned breath control, enunciation, pitch. And I was thrilled to stand onstage with entire orchestras and breathe in the fullness of their sound as we sang melodies written centuries earlier.
Mom was incensed. My conduct violated everything she stood for. My mother’s moral code was simple: You never lied. You never cheated. You never stole. She sent me to my room, where I waited a good hour for her to reappear. She wanted me to think about what I’d done. I was ashamed and embarrassed. The longer I waited, the worse I felt. When she came through the door again, she had composed herself. She wanted to know why I had stolen the cassettes. I truthfully said because I didn’t have the money to buy them, and I’d wanted them really badly. She asked if I knew how selfish and spoiled I sounded. Did I really think my life would fall apart if I didn’t have those KISS cassettes? Did I understand how mortified she was to have raised a child who didn’t understand the difference between right and wrong?
Inside, I knew what it was. I knew what I’d felt. I’d felt God. I’d felt the living reality of the words David had spoken. I believe that God knew that I needed more than stories to reach me. I needed to be shaken up. I needed an experience that was both spiritual and physical. In the aftermath, I realized that this epiphany was what I’d been seeking ever since I was a little boy haunted by the trapped-in-the-coffin nightmares. It showed me what Christ had shown the world: that he had conquered death.
Believing in his message of all-inclusive love, I had conquered my fear. This epiphany was the remedy. The nightmare never returned. The next day, David and I were released from quarantine, and we rejoined our choir buddies. I didn’t say a thing, but in my heart I knew I had been born again.
Meanwhile, my hyper energy got more hyper. One day, I’d be out smoking dope and digging Black Sabbath with the Dogtown crew, and the next, I’d be singing Fauré’s “Requiem” with the California Boys’ Choir. Then, on Saturdays, I’d be sitting in church praising the Lord. And during the week I was a percussionist in the John Adams school orchestra. Meet music teacher Lida Beasley. A tough lady from Texas with a thick drawl, Miss Beasley whipped me right into shape. She was fierce. She had me playing timpani, glockenspiel, marimbas, tubular bells, snare drums, and tambourines. If I fouled up the rhythms, she ran over and played the parts herself. Same for the violinists. The minute they messed up, she’d grab a violin and render the part perfectly. In fact, she could play every instrument, from French horn to clarinet. She was the first musician I had ever seen do that. As time went on, I began to understand what a huge influence the woman had on me. I witnessed the wonder of being a multi-instrumentalist.
A few days before the next planned sleepover at Noah’s, I came home to find Mom waiting for me. I knew by the look on her face that something was terribly wrong. She told me to sit down. She took my hand and, barely able to contain herself, said that Noah, his mother, and another boy from choir named Chris Doering had been murdered in the Cotsens’ home. I went numb. I couldn’t process it. Things like that just didn’t happen to people I knew. I can’t remember if I asked Mom how or why it had happened, but even if I had asked, Mom would have had no answers. Answers wouldn’t come till later. All I know was that my friend had been killed. I freaked out. Mr. Cotsen asked me to be a pallbearer at Noah’s funeral, but I was too traumatized to attend. I now see that as a weak moment in my life. I wish I could have found the strength, but it wasn’t there. I’d never been to a funeral before, and I just couldn’t handle it.
I was sure that my grandfather would never abandon Bedford-Stuyvesant. Albert Roker loved being a homeowner in a neighborhood where he was seen as the unofficial mayor. He’d been there since the thirties and talked as though he’d be there forever. He walked the streets unafraid. He commanded respect wherever he went. And yet …
At the same time, I wondered how my grandparents would cope with California. For them both, it was a huge challenge. After they had been there a couple months, Grandpa had a bout of depression. He didn’t know why,
but he felt off. This was not in his character. That’s when his subconscious took over. He got in his car, drove to the Fox Hills Mall, and walked around for hours, purposely brushing shoulders with people. He realized that was what he needed. He was missing the basic human contact that a sprawling city like Los Angeles, with its isolating car culture, did not provide. He just needed to walk with people to feel whole again.
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Brooklyn. He never bragged, but he never stopped letting me know that hard work was the only way to succeed. His central message was that you must build a strong foundation. He was adamant about teaching me that achievement doesn’t come from luck, but from discipline. Drenched in sweat, he never complained about manual labor. In fact, he reveled in it. He showed me that honest work isn’t a burden. It is a joy. And so it is.
But man, did he hustle. He was relentless. Like Grandpa, Dad worked every day of his life. He showed me that even when things fail, you keep going. You never stop until you reach your dream. Tragically, I don’t think Dad ever reached his.
The Playboy Jazz Festival provided an entire day and late into the evening when I could sit next to my dad, not say a word, and enjoy the feeling. He loved the music as much as I did. Playboy was the first venue where I saw Miles Davis live, a major figure in my young adult life. Miles had impeccable style as a musician and a man. He had the courage to break through genres. He broke the mold of the jazz musician and dressed like a rock star. Seeing Miles was always an event.
A night I’ll never forget: I was fast asleep—it was well after midnight—when I was awakened by loud voices coming from the living room. Taj Mahal, the great bluesman, had dropped by after his gig to visit my folks. I had to get out of bed to see him. We all loved Taj’s records. We also respected him as someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of world music. Taj is a big man. He has a deep, gruff voice, a no-nonsense manner, and a sweet soul. When I wandered into the living room in my pajamas, wiping the sleep from my eyes, Taj gave me a warm greeting. I mentioned how I’d been playing music. Dad said I should be concentrating more on my school work. “His grades stink, and they’re getting worse every year.” Taj looked at me, Taj looked at Dad, and then Taj did something no adult had ever done before. He took on Dad and stood up for my future as a musician. “I think the kid’s doing just fine,” he said. “Leave him alone. He knows what he’s doing.” That was big. Taj inspired me to redouble my efforts. My excitable energy got more excited.
“Africa was me. I loved Nigeria. I loved the ancient faces of the men, women, and children; the way they walked and ran, talked and laughed; their stark white shirts and dresses; their brilliantly patterned dashikis; their head wraps; their street food—especially suya, super-spicy meat on a stick. Dozens of times during the day, I felt so dazed that I had to stop and simply tell myself, These are my roots. Like in the Bahamas, I felt extremely connected. I belonged.”
I loved Lagos. Still, there were attitudes I didn’t understand. I saw so-called upper-class Black employers treat their Black servants sternly, even brutally. That threw me. As an American, I’d seen only whites treat Blacks like this. There was this one guy who had to sit at the front gate of a property in the glaring heat to manually operate the gate to let cars in and out. He would even sleep out there on the ground, to be ready whenever a car pulled up. When I asked the homeowner why he treated him like this, he arrogantly said, “He works for me. That’s his job.” I’m sure he felt he had the right, but it really bothered me. Black-on-Black bias repelled me. So did the country’s heavy military presence. Crossing from one zone of the city to another, we were always stopped for a full-on search. The soldiers were menacing and short-tempered. Machine guns were shoved in my face. I’d never seen anything like it before. I was frightened, but it wasn’t just fear I felt. It was the oppression of a society ruled by brute force.
Joel Pressman was the music teacher, and I challenged him. But he knew how to handle my arrogance. He, too, had a bit of a personality. Yet he was able to teach me that the music community was all about being gracious and open to new situations. No matter how much you think you know, there’s always something more to learn. Mr. Pressman and I were cool. Same for Mr. Farmer, who taught orchestra, jazz band, and marching band. Confident about my drumming chops, I argued with him about tempo and feel. When he gave instructions, I talked back. I was already playing good guitar, so I wasn’t exactly receptive to his critiques. Like Mr. Pressman, though, Mr. Farmer knew how to get to me. He saw I tended to rebel against authority. I’m sure that had to do with my dad. But both teachers saw my potential. They broke down my stubbornness and taught me a lesson I’d never forget: whether you’re in a choir, a jazz ensemble, or a marching band, music isn’t about confrontation; it’s about cooperation.
Musicals were a big part of the school program. I was a drummer in the orchestra, seated in the pit and playing the score of Oklahoma. Onstage, singing the lead role, was Nicolas Coppola, who later changed his last name to “Cage.”
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I was stimulated by the artistic energy surrounding me in Beverly Hills, but my biggest stimulation was happening two thousand miles away, in Minneapolis. Just as Michael Jackson rocked my world in grade school, Prince rocked my world in high school. When I saw Prince, I saw myself—or at least the me I wanted to be. He could write, sing, dance, and play the shit out of the guitar and every other instrument. Prince had found a way to funk up New Wave. He knew how to grab attention and create an image. He wore punky clothes and hairdos. He was fearless. In my mind, I heard him saying, I’m gonna wear a trench coat with nothing but black panties and thigh-high black stockings and ankle boots. I’m gonna wear heavy eye makeup and process the hell outta my hair. I’m gonna do whatever feels good, and you’re gonna love it.
My parents had no idea who I was at night. On my own, I discovered an underground world of music and dancing. The Odyssey was the first place where I felt I belonged—it’s where all the misfits gathered.
That was true, but also, if I didn’t have to pursue a lover, I wasn’t turned on. I loved the ritual of seduction. I loved the chase: the conversation, the mental stimulation, the buildup, the candlelight, the music. I didn’t want it just laid at my feet.
The thunderous clash with my dad came in the spring of 1981. I was sixteen. It happened the night that Dan Donnelly and I were set to drive down to Anaheim to catch the legendary Buddy Rich and his big band at Disneyland. As a drummer, I
At the time I had no plan B. I had no plan whatsoever. I didn’t know where or how I’d live. But that didn’t matter. Despite the pain it would bring Mom, I knew I had to get out. I wasn’t afraid. I was resolved. First things first, though. Let’s go down to Disneyland to catch Buddy! That night, the drummer was on fire. His band was burning. The music was so intense that I forgot all my problems. Once the show was over, though, my mind went back over what had transpired earlier that evening.
The confrontation with Dad shook me up but didn’t break me down. I knew I could survive. I had friends who would let me crash in their homes. I could couch-surf. And meanwhile I had plans to make music. GQ, our disco party outfit, was growing.
My only worry was Mom. She had always tried to make it right between me and Dad. My leaving would break her heart. At the same time, I couldn’t stay for her sake. I had to take my life into my own hands.
I caught her eye, too, and we started flirting. Next thing I knew, we were making out on the floor during a party at a cast member’s place in Hollywood. George put on a number of scaled-down productions for backers, but the backers didn’t bite, and the revival never ran. The run was over, and Tisha had to go back home to New Jersey. We were in love, and I told her I’d come see her as soon as I could. I kept my promise.
Davidson Hang is currently in Sales at Cheetah Digital which is a Marketing technology company located in NYC.
Davidson is an avid networker, personal growth- life and business coach.
He loves spreading the love and regularly helps people create and design the life they want for themselves.