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Russel Blake: Transcending Expectations

Mikayla Gilbreath By

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Blake has served as a U.S. State Department Goodwill Ambassador in Africa and has performed live before audiences in more than 60 countries. His extensive touring and interaction with audiences world-wide has convinced him that music can breach the barriers often presented by language, race, religion, and cultural tradition. "The beauty about being a musician is that music is the universal language. Whether it was Vietnam or the high mountains of Europe, they didn't speak a word of English and I didn't speak a word of their indigenous language. Music was the language that brought us together. It was the force that brought down the wall of ignorance, the wall of non-communication, the wall of distance. Once you put a smile on their face or a tear on their cheek, once you've touched their heart, you are communicating. After the concert, folks come up and struggle to speak English, and you struggle to speak their language. But even if only two or three words are exchanged, it's understood. The most important thing is that you were able to shake hands, you were able to embrace, and you were able to start to form a friendship that will continue."

Equally important to Russel Blake is the contention that music can provide healing to those with spirits in need of consolation. "If people are coming to a concert, then they're coming not only to be entertained, they are coming to be healed, coming to laugh, cry, to feel hope again. [Music] takes their mind off of their problems. We never know what an individual is going through in an audience that comes to hear us perform. There have been people who have come to a concert having suicidal thoughts. And as a result of that concert, they left feeling entirely different. The importance of music cannot be overestimated."

During a series of concerts at Ironwood State Prison, in Blythe, California, Blake performed for an audience of 5000 hardened criminals that included murderers, rapists, and members of opposing race-based prison gangs. "These men are sentenced to 400 years, 500 years, life." As he took the stage for the first of those concerts, the powerfully-built Blake presented an imposing figure, and yet he suffered the jeers, catcalls, and derision one would expect from such an audience. "I just stood there and looked at them as I would a group of students who are being unruly. When they realized that I wasn't being intimidated by them, they sat down and I began to perform." Because Blake's repertoire includes music from numerous genres, his performance appealed to nearly everyone present. "After the first concert, word spread [and] the inmates couldn't wait to come and hear. The interesting thing I found, was that they were all brought to the same space by virtue of the power of music, and as a result of music creating that ambiance by which we could sit together in peace. It was a very dynamic experience.

"At the end of the concert, [prisoners] came to me and thanked me for coming to perform. Some of these men were crying because they said nobody would come there to perform for them. People that are [invited] to perform are generally intimidated. They don't want to go there. I welcomed the invitation, because what more challenging audience can one have than a group of inmates—people who are incarcerated and have nothing to lose? So there is a viable audience for a musician who is willing to be challenged in their artistry by performing before inmates. Our gift is not ours to keep for a selected group of audiences. Our gift is given freely by the Creator, that we must share with all who would listen, in order for their healing to take place.

"Most recently I did a solo performance for Atlanta Children's Hospital, and I performed for terminally ill children. These children were, as you might imagine, very sad. They were hooked up to IVs and machines, and this was their life 24 hours a day. [It] was a grave responsibility to not only overlook their condition and their circumstances, but to find the strength within myself to bring some sunshine to them. These were children, so they were not aware of pieces by Duke Ellington, or pieces by Jobim, Beethoven, etc. But by performing these pieces, it widened their eyes, it brightened their smiles. They were so happy, and that was very clear [evidence] of how music can bring healing into someone's life. I know, for that moment in time, I was able to touch their lives; I hope as effectively as they touched mine.

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