The first time I ever sang in public was the single most traumatic moment of my life. It was also the most embarrassing, because it was the first time I had ever broken down in tears in front of a church full of people as they affectionately said, “It’s ok, baby,” “Let God have his way, baby,” and “It’s gone be alright child!” However, it was anything but okay, alright, or God having his way! I felt humiliated and ashamed. I was also feeling something else—something that I couldn’t quite grasp yet.
It was thirty years ago, but every time I think about that moment, I can still feel my heart beating, my hands shaking, and the sensation of someone choking me because I just couldn’t breathe or catch my breath. This was my first concert, and it was at a church on the South Side of Chicago with my cousin Kaita and our friend Deanna. We always sang after school at Kaita’s house. When the other kids were out playing, we were singing. Those were some of the best days of my life because, for the first time, I felt l like I really belonged. I felt like I was doing what I was born to do.
I really wasn’t scared or nervous in the least when Kaita’s mom told us that we were invited to sing at the church. We got there early, rehearsed many hours, left, and went back to the church two hours early to rehearse even more. No anxiety. No fear. I wasn’t nervous at all—not even a little nervous.
The people finally started rolling in, and we sat in the back waiting for them to call us. Our first song was an Acapella spiritual where I gave the first note. No problem, I had done this a million time before, rehearsed it to perfection and was confident. But when I opened my mouth to sing the first note, the note that was supposed to bring in Kaita and Deanna, absolutely NO SOUND came out! I panicked and thought, “What’s happening? Where did my voice go?” I gave it another try. This time something came out, but it surely was not me! It sounded like a whimper, a sob or a cry. I was so confused until I finally realized that instead of singing, I was actually crying!!!!
I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. Was I actually breaking down in tears in front of all these people? Yes!
What came after was agonizing. I was used to being so strong and now everyone was coddling me like a baby. The gazes of the people were so comforting, but I didn’t feel comforted. I felt like a failure, and I felt like I would never forgive myself. But I also felt a burning—a fire—that I just couldn’t grasp or understand.
After an episode like that, most people would probably never have the courage to try to sing in public again. I mean, why would you put yourself through the embarrassment? The shame? The humiliation?
When we got back in the car to go home, I didn’t open my mouth to say a word. And that burning kept getting bigger, stronger until it completely engulfed me. My heart was still beating fast but not because I was afraid. It was because I was furious, and I understood finally that what I was feeling was pure RAGE. I was so angry at myself, and I vowed that I would never, ever embarrass myself like that again. I started looking for opportunities to sing just so I could prove to myself that I could do it, that I could sing in public without breaking down, without crying and making a fool of myself.
Thirty-three years later, I have recorded over twenty-five albums, sung in over thirty countries, shared the stage with stars like Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, Bono of U2, Tito Puente, Paul Young, Annie Lennox, and I am also the voice of Disney’s The Lion King live-action movie on the Italian sondtrack. Why? Because I was determined not to let my fear of singing in public paralyze me. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, and I did!
I meet so many people that suffer from stage fright, and they have already embraced the fact that they are simply too afraid to sing in front of people. I just hope this little story will give them hope. Fear is a defining moment. It’s the moment you are faced with the choice to move forward or move backward. I hope you chose to move forward and fight those fears with rage and determination day by day and song by song.