Some of us may remember—and maybe even sang along to—Sheila E.’s “Glamorous Life” in the ’80s. Those drums and the lyrics, especially, “Boys with small talk and small minds/Really don’t impress me in bed…love would only conquer my head.”
There was a lot going on—in the song, and in Escovedo’s life. In her memoir, The Beat of My Own Drum, she recounts her journey of overcoming abuse and “discovering her inner rhythm” to become a world-class drummer and soloist. Not easy in a society where women make up only 10 percent of drummers.
NPQ talked with Escovedo recently to learn what she is doing nowadays, and we are not surprised that social change is at the top of her agenda.
This summer, she hosted a virtual benefit show to support Black Lives Matter Global Network, Elevate Oakland (which she founded in 2011 with a group of acclaimed artists to support local youth), and YR Media (a national network of young journalists and artists). The effort was in response to school closures and aims to enrich students’ at-home learning experiences.
Escovedo, who has created a line of high-quality musical instruments for children, has donated drums to Oakland district schools so students can practice online. She also teaches a master class on drumming, to which she grants these students free access.
She tells NPQ, “My projects have been very creative. Not just the music, or in the arts, but just like feeling like there are things to be done…and then I got to this place not long ago, I just felt like, ‘OK, we’re still here.’ This is really interesting.”
But now, in these coronavirus times, with its concomitant economic crash, her social change work increasingly overlaps with her music.
Escovedo shares that she’s been taking part in town-hall-style conversations in the industry about what to expect.
They don’t know what to expect. Bus companies, production managers, road managers, managers who manage artists, the venues from small to large, everyone that you can think of is on these calls. We’re trying to figure out—if we go back, or when we go back, how are we going to do it? It’s half a house.
If we’re supposed to wear masks, and—say, for instance, you have a tour bus that has 12 people, which is the one that we usually get, because there’s 10 of us, but they were saying that we’re not going to be able to do the bus with 10 people because we’re supposed to social distance for six feet. How do we afford to have a second bus when we’re going to get half the money for half the venue? How does this all work? So now we’re trying to figure out, “What are we going to do?” Now everything’s coming to us virtually. I went back in the studio trying to create and figure out what, you know, what is the next thing.
So, she’s very busy. She tells us, “Everyone’s calling. Can you do this? Can you play this? Can you speak? Can you perform in my studio? We’re just trying to raise money for everyone, and everyone is in that place.”
Escovedo has a passion for helping children heal and thrive through music. In addition to the aforementioned benefit show, there are television and film projects in the works, as well as a children’s book.
In her memoir, she shares her experience growing up in the famous Escovedo family of percussionists, where she learned both her drumming and her commitment to helping others. Her legendary father, Pete Escovedo, played in Carlos Santana’s band. Even though her family struggled financially, they always took time to do for others, especially children.
Escovedo writes that although she suffered sexual abuse as a child, she had overwhelming confidence in herself, which she tells us she learned from her mother, Juanita Gardere. She says that although her father was confident as well, “Mom took it to the top, and she’s over the top with confidence. And if she doesn’t know how to do it, it doesn’t matter. She’s gonna do it great anyway. And that’s where I get that from.”
This kind of conviction is critical for women of color.
It is clear that Escovedo lives at the intersection of creativity and freedom. She says,
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A lot of people forget to tap into their creativity. And it really does truly allow them to express themselves and communicate with people, because then it’s a conversation about “why did you see it that way” or “what were you thinking?” And that helps people to communicate.
I say that because when my friend Lynn Mabry and I started our first foundation, Elevate Hope, we started with kids in foster care. And we did that because we knew that they were “the ones who had not.” I think we were feeling like we were their voices. And we need to speak for them and to help through their abuse—mentally, physically, spiritually, whatever it may have been.
Abuse in a sense that they have shut down. There was no communication. Some didn’t speak, they were so angry. At one point, they were making papier mâché masks, and when they first started, the faces were mad, the faces were sad. But they continued to create. Weeks and weeks went by, and the same person that you saw at the beginning of the class with very sad, dark masks, all of a sudden you see their mask is full of color, happy, glowing. Well, I saw this, and I felt that they were really expressing themselves. They were able to do that using these tools of music and the arts.
She also writes about having a quest for voice since she was a child. This quest is particularly critical for people who have been abused.
There are so many nowadays that go through things and are trying to find their voice. They’ve gone through this period of becoming an adult. And how did they feel? How did they use their voice? A lot of times they feel that their voice has not been heard correctly. They feel that their voice is not important. Those are the people who carry guilt or shame, or they’re not confident.
And so, what we end up doing is speaking with them and saying, “I know you’re angry, but is there one word that you could think of that would make you happy?” And then we said, “Okay, this one word, could it become a sentence?” Let’s talk about this breakthrough, this non-communication and feeling that you’re not worthy, that’s your voice. Finding these little things that are huge for people that don’t find a way to speak out. They feel that they’re worthy of someone listening to them. And the bottom line is they only wanted to be loved. And if you’re loved, that changes everything because love surpasses all understanding.
Escovedo goes further. She asserts that artists have a responsibility to use their voice and help others cultivate theirs.
She says, “We do have a responsibility as artists to use our voice to communicate to the people because I stand with my community, with what we’ve been going through…these senseless acts that are happening, the racism and the hatred that has happened.”
And, like many women of color—including in the nonprofit sector—being wildly creative in the face of abuse, creating beauty out of nothing, developing a voice, does not mean you will always be recognized.
While Escovedo wowed the world when she broke through the male ranks of the percussion world to become a world-class drummer and artist in her own right, there are too many instances where she did not receive credit for her contribution.
When asked, “What are the things you’re not credited for?” she responds, “A whole bunch. I played on Michael [Jackson]’s Off the Wall.”
I’m known for taking things, taking whatever I find, and making something up. I’ve used a hairbrush against the wall to make it like a güiro. I’ll just improvise. And I love doing that.
At the time I had heard Off the Wall, but it wasn’t totally done. And so, Quincy [Jones] says, “You know, we need something.” So, I took two bottles, and I put water in them, and I tuned them to the track, and I played them with the steel part of a triangle. I played the sides of the bottles with water in it. And Michael loved it!
Then, he tells me he’s going to be at Leopold’s in Berkeley, a music store, signing records. So, I go to Leopold’s, I get the record, and I look on the back because back then you got credited for things. I looked and my name was nowhere and I’m like, “What?” I couldn’t believe it. In my heart, I felt so sad. When he came in and I said, “Where is my name?” He had no idea.
There are a lot of records like that.
She concludes that although these are tough times, “It seems like there are some silver linings.” Always the innovator, the sixty-something-year-old is hopeful about what she sees in communities across the country and in the creative industries: “I’m curious about what they’re seeing as the next version of things.”