Shared experiences; they are what life is really about.
I spent the past weekend with two of my band members performing house shows in Portland, Maine; Scranton, Pennsylvania; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The purpose of our short tour was to test the waters and see if this whole house show thing is something that people would enjoy, to find out whether performing a stripped-down, stories-behind-the-songs collection of my music would resonate the way my full productions do. (Spoiler alert: it did!)
But it was also to get back to a grassroots way of meeting people, making new friends, and connecting one-on-one with individuals.
The response was more than we could have asked for.
We learned quite a lot on our trip, and one of the things we learned is that people are yearning for a personal connection with their favorite artists.
In a time when the internet affords artists the opportunity to connect one-on-one with the fans of their work, we normally only hear from our favorite artists when they have something they want us to buy. And even then, that’s usually every two or three years when their new album comes out.
Albums. That’s another thing…
The album format has been exploded.
I recorded a podcast while in Portland at Gateway Mastering Studios with renowned mastering engineer Adam Ayan (Shakira, Luis Fonsi, Carrie Underwood, Queen, et al.), and he told me that he is mastering more singles and EPs than ever before, with albums sprinkled in here and there.
So, if you’re making an album, and you’re not being forced to do so because you’re signed to a record label, why are you doing it??
Unless you’re making an album of metal music—which studies show have the hands-down most loyal fanbase, a fanbase which still buys CDs and generally avoids streaming, clinging to the past—you’re swimming against the tide.
But I digress. Back to the matter at hand: connection.
In Portland, two of our Bullfighters (fan club members) are people who travel all over the country to see their favorite artists. They’ve been to countless shows and seen some of the most talented musicians perform in large and small venues. They told us they’d never experienced such an up-close-and-personal performance before, and they loved it.
The sentiment was shared by our new Portland friends, who took us out to dinner before the show. They enjoy treating bands (and their entire crew) to meals when they come through Portland, because they understand the struggle and the sacrifices being made to travel and get after a career in music. They, too, were blown away by the intimacy of the show, and said they had never been a part of something like that.
In Scranton, we visited with my good friend Phil, who is the program director at Alt 92.1 FM. He showed us around the station—which includes a 200-capacity theater with a 1932 Steinway grand piano. He said he is going to begin spinning my music on the radio, and will work with us to help put together an event when we return to the Scranton area.
And in Pittsburgh, as I was walking the streets, talking with locals and handing out flyers before our performance, I received many compliments and kudos on our “guerrilla marketing,” and that “your passion looks good on you; never stop doing what you’re doing.”
The people we connected with on this tour are incredibly supportive of our journey, and were kind enough to treat us to meals and allow us to stay the night in their homes.
We must have made a good impression, because they can’t wait for us to return so they can bring their family and friends and share the experience.
Which brings me to this article on the generosity of fans of music, and art in general:
But it’s not going to come from Taylor Swift, or Drake, or Bieber, or Luke Bryan, or Future, or Adele, or Max Martin, or Migos, or Shellback, or Dr. Luke, or Mark Ronson, or any of the other major players in today’s music game.
No, it’s going to come from THE PEOPLE, those fans of talented artists and the work they produce!
Need proof? Here it is, straight from Spotify…
John Stein, an editor focused on indie, alternative, and electronic music for some of Spotify’s biggest mood playlists explained to The Verge that there’s a difference between a live hit and a Spotify hit.
From The Verge article: “[Stein] likes to find out what songs people are singing along to in the real world. ‘That’s something we don’t see in the data,’ he says. ‘They’re not always the catchy ones. They’re surprises. And over time, people come back to those more.’ He says he likes music that has substance, which you ‘can’t fake,’ not just perfectly crafted pop songs with the chorus at the front. ‘You can’t build real fans by following such a formula in that way.’”
There is no art in a factory; not even in an art factory. — Eric “Mixerman” Sarafin
P.S. The researchers concluded that one implication of their findings for policy-makers is the potential for “substantial social and economic gains” from investing in the arts. They argue that these may be achieved “effectively by policies or investments that make the arts more widely available and ensure that access is not restricted only to the wealthy.” … Arts Council England’s Director of Communication and Public Policy, Mags Patten, said: “This paper makes a significant contribution to growing evidence of a causal link between taking part in the arts, individual wellbeing, and the strength of communities. This valuable piece of research will be important reading for those already studying in this vital area, and it should encourage new studies of the social impact of the arts.”
P.P.S. Become a Bullfighter today, and my band and I will perform in your area within a calendar year of your enrollment, guaranteed, or your money back. 😀
I have a love/hate relationship with country music…
On the day I was born, my father was hired to work as a DJ at WWWW 106.7 FM in downtown Detroit.
He missed Howard Stern by a week, after Stern left when the station switched formats to country.
“W4 Country,” as the station was known, kept a roof over my family’s heads and put food on our plates for 14 years.
Willie Nelson held me in his arms as a toddler. In fact, so did the members of Alabama and the Oak Ridge Boys, along with Ronnie Milsap, Eddie Rabbit, Roger Miller, George Strait, and countless other country stars of the early-to-mid-1980s and prior.
Accompanying my dad to all of the big gigs he’d work for the station, getting to meet so many amazing musicians and watching them perform night after night, seeing the audience’s reaction to the music and the production, and feeling the energy and the love in the arena…
I can’t say that it’s bad, because music is like wine — if you like it, it’s good; and a lot of people like mainstream country music.
But I hate it.
Because mainstream country music, and Nashville itself, has been co-opted by Big Music and the pop machine. Hell, even Willie stopped recording in Nashville. He’s been making his more recent stuff down in Austin, Texas.
Many of today’s most popular country songs are being manufactured in “hit factories” in the same fashion as pop songs are, trying to make earworms.
But Chris Stapleton is the one winning the awards, by being authentic and doing things his way. (He took home this year’s CMAs for Male Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year.)
And then you’ve got Sturgill Simpson, whose busking outside the CMAs prompted me to write this missive.
My future brother-in-law tried to turn me on to Simpson two years ago. It didn’t take. To be honest, most of the time, when people suggest music to me, I am reluctant to listen or check it out.
It’s not because I’m not interested, it’s because I don’t have time!
Between work and family, I don’t have any time alone to sit by myself and soak in new music, the way I did when I was still in school. If and when I discover new music, it’s because I intentionally make time to listen to Spotify in the studio as I write or do something else.
That’s another thing! Music has become background noise, instead of the medium which drives the culture and informs the public consciousness.
Which is why Sturgill Simpson busking outside the CMAs resonated with me…
Much like Chris Stapleton, Simpson doesn’t really fit with the country mainstream, and the CMAs are all about the mainstream, which is why Simpson was on the outside looking in.
But that’s not an issue for him.
He won this year’s Grammy for Best Country Album, and his Grammy was sitting in his guitar case as he performed on the sidewalk, answering questions as they came in from fans on Facebook Live, and any donations he received went to the ACLU; that’s the American Civil Liberties Union, for those who don’t know.
And after playing songs and waxing on his appreciation of Kanye West and bluegrass music, he was asked to give a would-be speech if he won a CMA.
Here’s what he said…
“Nobody needs a machine gun, coming from a guy who owns quite a few guns. Gay people should have the right to be happy and live their life any way they want to and get married if they want to without fear of getting drug down the road behind a pickup truck. Black people are probably tired of getting shot in the streets and being enslaved by the industrial prison complex. And hegemony and fascism is alive and well in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Thank you very much.”
Artists are supposed to speak truth to power, and that’s what Sturgill Simpson did, albeit outside the CMAs.
Before they became personal brands with fragrance and cosmetics deals, or their own clothing line, artists used their work to awaken consciousness in others, helping to shape and inform public opinion in a positive direction. Hip-hop has been doing this for decades.
And hip-hop dominates today, but the most popular song on the most popular streaming service (Spotify) is Post Malone’s “rockstar” which begins with the line “I’ve been fuckin’ hoes and poppin’ pillies” and continues with “fuckin’ with me, call up on a Uzi” — it has almost 2 million daily plays in the U.S. and over 5.3 million daily plays worldwide.
Do you sometimes wonder why we have a nationwide opioid epidemic and a rampant gun problem?? Yes, Big Pharma and the NRA are the major drivers, but when the most popular music in the United States (and the world) is glorifying getting high on pills and shooting up rivals, it doesn’t help.
At any rate, my point is this…
Instead of taking the easy route and using the formula that mainstream artists use, and/or pandering to the lowest common denominator, artists such as Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton create music that speaks to our better nature as humans.
And when they sing their songs, one can hear in their voices the pain, the heartache, the courage, the hope, the love about which they sing, because it comes from deep within themselves, from their experiences in life.
My music comes from that same place: of me and by me.
And I can’t wait to perform it for you. 🙂
11/16 Portland, ME — 8 Arundel Road, Kennebunkport 04046
11/17 Scranton, PA — currently finalizing booking
11/18 Pittsburgh, PA — 1111 Woodland Avenue, Pittsburgh 15212
Tickets for these intimate, stories-behind-the-songs house shows are only $10 and will be available at the door.
Doors will open at 8pm, and shows will start at 9pm, or once tickets are sold out. Once again, only 30 tickets will be available for each performance, so plan to arrive early!
P.S. Every Bullfighter — fan club member — gets two tickets per year to see me when I come to town, so they never have to worry about a show selling out!
P.P.S. Below is a comprehensive list of Bullfighter cities across the United States. Don’t see your city or state listed? Become a Bullfighter today and we’ll be performing there soon! 😀
I received this in an email from a fan in Finland regarding a Facebook post I made yesterday…
“You really nailed it in ‘Don’t mess w my routine‘. I have been following the shootings and others acts of terror recently. It all makes me very sad.
“Was thinking of commenting on your post about gun control, but didn’t. It seems to be a very polarized discussion and the other side is unreachable, like the character in your song. Seems the whole debate is off the rails. I have some experience of guns, hunting and the army. I only just realized (reading about the recent killings) what kind of guns you actually have easily available in your country. It is very disturbing. Like the one used in the latest shooting. Seriously, that kind of gun should absolutely not be used in any other case than military training or war. It’s quite similar to the ones we had when I was in the army. No way anyone could have one at home over here. I just don’t understand how it all got so messed up in the US. NRA and its supporters must have a lot of power.
“Well, it is good that a lot of people, like yourself, still have the courage to take the debate for gun control. Sure hope the course can be changed, and if the shootings continue at this rate it should have some effect too one would expect.”
My fine Finnish friend doesn’t realize how much Americans LOVE guarantees!
Most products sold in the United States come with a guarantee, and if one doesn’t, you can probably buy a guarantee for it in the form of an extended warranty.
TV goes out the night before the Big Game?? No worries! You got a four-year replacement warranty when you bought the TV and can exchange it at the store for a brand new one!
Car was involved in an accident?? No worries! Just pay your deductible, and your insurance company will cover the costs for repair or replacement, and they’ll even pay for a rental vehicle in the meantime!
Someone broke into your house?? No worries! You have a gun!
For many people, having that gun — or several guns — at the ready helps them sleep better at night. They feel safe and secure knowing that they can protect themselves and their family from a dangerous threat. They are guaranteed to have a shot(!) at ending whatever situation walks through that door.
Other people are fascinated by guns, which they respect and honor as collectors’ items, whether rare pieces from history or simply many different types of firearms for variety’s sake.
But at the core of it all, guns are deadly weapons, and we are seeing time and time again in America that a considerable number of gun owners are irresponsible with their deadly weapons. Many owners of firearms even have histories of violence or require mental health treatment.
These people, who probably shouldn’t be allowed to own a gun in the first place, aren’t getting the attention they deserve until it’s too late, for them and the victims of their insanity.
I can’t say this enough…we live in an attention economy.
These men aren’t getting enough attention, and they know what to do which guarantees it, however fleeting and no matter the cost to anyone. It’s all about THEM. The excuses are just that, excuses.
It’s far easier to blame the Other than it is to shout “I don’t feel as though I’ll ever live up to my dad’s expectations!” or “The boys made fun of me in school too much!” or “I was supposed to play in the pros!” or “I should still be an army/air force/marine/navy man!” or “My brain hurts from all of the warring I did and the government isn’t helping me like they promised!” or “My wife/girlfriend cheated on me or left me!” or WHATEVER reasons these abnormal cusses have for delivering the despicable to America’s doorstep.
Plus, we can’t forget that even after millions of years of evolution, we still walk around with hunter-gatherer brains inside our skulls. There is programming at work in our subconscious from eons ago about which we are still learning.
That said, there are numerous resources available both online and offline to learn and study about the human mind, our natural tendencies, and what influences us.
Adam Smith said “The first thing you have to know is yourself. A man who knows himself can step outside himself and watch his own reactions like an observer.”
Until men own their inherent Man Baggage (no, not their genitals [or, just maybe, their genitals??]), cease to allow it to control their lives, stop being afraid of it, come to terms with it, accept it, learn from it, and grow out of it…we are going to see more and more violence.
Because in an attention economy, using a gun is a guarantee.
Our culture right now is all about attention (as I wrote last week), and Eminem got everyone’s attention for a good 24 hours and more. Whether or not that was his intent, who’s to say? The point is, he succeeded.
First off, like it or not, Eminem is a thought leader. He has a gift for using the English language in a visceral, commanding fashion, and he uses this gift to express himself in a way that is simultaneously vulnerable, honest, succinct, and powerful. His fans appreciate his candor and his willingness to draw a line in the sand and take a position, especially at a time when most musicians are scared to take a position on anything.
Second, the quality of his content. He wasn’t rapping about getting laid, or being drunk in da club, he was speaking out on the current state of our country in a way most artists are afraid to do for fear of alienating fans or, more to the point, losing their corporate deals.
Finally, he was authentic! He straight up bodied a freestyle in a parking structure, in an age where most superstars use backing tracks and lavish productions. He didn’t need a beat. He didn’t even need a microphone. He simply looked down the barrel of the camera, at US, and spoke truth to power.
It was what we’ve all been waiting for — an undeniable musician willing to speak out against the current administration, and put their name on it!
Speaking truth to power…hey, that’s what real artists are supposed to do!!
And I’m probably going to have people give me the whole “he should stick to rapping” bullshit like they did when I wrote about Meryl Streep last year (“stick to acting”). But that just shines a spotlight on their ignorance…
Understand: rap and hip-hop began as a way to give a voice to the powerless, to reveal the injustices in the African-American community, to preach positivity in the face of hopelessness, and help the disadvantaged find the strength and courage to stand up for themselves and demand what’s right in the name of humanity.
Over time it morphed into a fluid art form which would come to be criticized for its derogatory lyrics about women, its glorification of violence, and its promotion of drug dealing/use. And yes, Eminem is guilty of including those subjects in his oeuvre.
But this past Tuesday night, his freestyle about Orange 45 was about giving the rest of America a voice, fulfilling hip-hop’s foundational intentions.
You see, Eminem may not be putting out music as often as he used to, but in America, hip-hop rules, and Eminem is rap royalty. He’s on the Mount Rushmore of rap with Tupac, Kendrick Lamar, and Dr. Dre, as far as I’m concerned. He can go away for 10 years, come back, and sound just as fresh.
Yet, CNN commentator Matt Lewis says “he’s an aging guy who is clinging to relevance.”
Hardly. Eminem isn’t worried about relevance.
Because Eminem knows he has INFLUENCE.
Plus, he’s white! And he champions black culture and has a deep appreciation for it, unlike our leader.
And now my inbox is gonna blow up with those of you who think race isn’t a large component of what’s going on in this country right now.
But notice how the president has yet to fire back at Eminem on Twitter??
If he does, it will be a Pyrrhic victory: As Touré wrote, Eminem has pitted “whiteness against itself,” and now a good portion of his fans have to go to the bathroom…because that’s where the mirror is…and take a long, hard look and decide in which tribe they truly want to be…
“And any fan of mine, who’s a supporter of his, I’m drawing in the sand a line: You’re either for or against.
“And if you can’t decide who you like more, and you’re split on who should stand beside, I’ll do it for you with this: FUCK you!”
I feel the same way about my fans. And friends. And family members.
It seems as though people think that at a certain point, depending on what type of career you have, how much money you do or don’t make, and how big or small of a celebrity you are, you don’t have the right to speak your mind on the politics and the goings-on of our country and culture.
Where is this sliding scale?? The truth is, it doesn’t exist — every one of us has the right to speak our mind.
We are living in a crazy time right now, and we need more people of true influence to speak out against injustice, racism, sexism, and the lot.
Influence is the key word here — anyone can be concerned about what’s going on, but if one doesn’t have the means or the resources to actually influence a change in what they’re upset about, they’re like Sisyphus and his boulder, forever exerting energy in an effort doomed to fail.
Focus on your circle of influence, not your circle of concern, as the late Stephen Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Find out what you can do to make a positive impact in the world, based on your particular circumstances, and do it. We need you!
Don’t just sit at the computer or peck at your phone with complaints on social media about they way things are or how they should, take real action in the real world and make them so.
I choose to make my impact through my art, regardless of medium.
P.S. Since we’re living in an attention economy, I appreciate you taking time to listen to my music. Thank you in advance.
P.P.S. That said, I’d rather hear “I hate it” than nothing at all, so feel free to let me know what you think of “Hate U Back” by emailing me at jk [at] therealjohnkay [dot] com.
P.P.P.S. In order to make the most impact possible, I’m asking that everyone listen to “Hate U Back” on Spotify three times in a row in order to help get it included on some of Spotify’s playlists. Do this, and I’ll love you even more than I already do! 😀
As an actress, Meryl Streep is undeniable. As a human being, so was her speech.
And yet, less than eight hours after delivering that powerful and empathic speech straight from her heart, it was denied, on Twitter, by the man who will be leading our country for the next four years…or more.
According to him, she’s ‘overrated’.
Has he ever seen one of her movies??
What kind of country are we living in, where facts are deniable? Where what we see with our own eyes is inadmissible? Where truth depends on beliefs and biases, not reality and rationality?
Where the vast majority of Americans want to say YES! to progressive change, but religious fundamentalists shout so loud and the one-percent spend so much, that they get to tell us no, we’re going backward instead?
For the record, I’m not against religious people. My mom is an ordained minister, and her wedding ceremonies bring everyone in the congregation to tears. She is an authentic Christian.
So on a random Saturday, when I get a knock on my door from folks who have come to spread the good word, I tell them “Thanks, but I already have a private relationship with God, and I prefer to keep it that way.”
And I’m not against wealthy people, either. I think it would be disingenuous to say I don’t want to someday be wealthy. It’s the ‘American Dream’.
But that dream is evaporating before our eyes.
Today, a college degree is as good as a high school diploma, and decreasing in value semester after semester. No longer can the proverbial college carrot be dangled in front of a high school graduate, the path to a job and steady income all but guaranteed.
Because the educational system put in place by the Greatest and Silent Generations — the system which set the Baby Boomers up for nearly-sure success — has been bogged in bureaucracy, monetized, and privatized to the detriment of generations afterward. Sold out for football TV revenue.
Let’s also not forget about technology and its ability to disrupt entire industries, ending careers and ruining lives, creating economic chaos.
To that point, self-driving vehicles will be ubiquitous before we know it, and once ‘selfies’ are legislated to be on the roads, our country’s truckers had better have a skill set which offers value beyond the capabilities of a robot.
Understand: Most businesses’ biggest expense is payroll, and payroll is the first line item companies tend to look at when it comes to cutting costs. Is your job in jeopardy due to technology? If you don’t know the answer to that question, do your research. If your answer is no, I hope you’ve done your research!
Technological progress and industry upheaval are undeniable. The ‘American Dream’ of the Boomer Generation is dying. Even if you’re comfortable today, chances are something’s going to happen that will make you uncomfortable in the future.
This is a good thing. It means we have entered the Age of Authenticity.
The internet’s level playing field allows anyone with a connection to participate, but that means there’s a lot of noise out there, everyone competing for the same thing — our attention. What grabs our attention is something undeniable, something real, visceral. Something authentic.
If the past year has taught me anything, it’s that people will respond to authenticity. What is authentic wins.
Our future president won the election because of his authenticity.
He resonated with so many Americans because he’s been the same person since they first saw him thirty years ago or more. He’s remained in the media spotlight, a familiar face, a celebrity.
The same could be said of Hillary Clinton. She’s been involved in our government for almost as long as I’ve been alive.
Yet her inability to exude authenticity was her undoing. I mean, how many different versions of her have we seen over the last thirty years? Nine? Ten?? She navigates the political jungle as if a chameleon, blending into whatever environment necessary, concentrating on survival above all, living to fight another day.
After she lost the election, she went for a long walk in the woods, disappeared. (Funny that she ventured into the woods, because during the months leading up to the election, it seemed she and her team couldn’t see the forest for the trees…)
The case I’m making for the president-elect’s authenticity can also be made for Bernie Sanders. Though not in the limelight for three decades, he has been working behind the scenes just as long, in the trenches with real warriors, people who roll up their sleeves and get things done. People who sometimes have to decide between going without water or electricity for a month because they can only pay for one, people who are facing real hardship and struggle, unlike those in power.
And even though Bernie lost the primary — which we now know that (thanks to Russian hackers) the Democratic National Committee colluded with the Clinton campaign to undermine Sanders’s — he never abandoned his people, he didn’t retreat to the woods. He stills campaigns for progressive reform across the country, addressing his supporters in live streams and via email and Twitter and more.
Make no mistake, Bernie is still in the game. He’s authentic in his passion for our country, and in his efforts to enact real progressive policy.
That’s what connected with so many Americans, the idea of positive and transformative change, not just “free shit”!
But here we are today, and our country’s future leader tweets — tweets! — that the incomparable Meryl Streep is ‘one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood…a Hillary flunky who lost big…’
Well, sir, here are examples of where she won big over the last four decades: Kramer vs. Kramer, The French Lieutenant, Sophie’s Choice, Adaptation, Angels In America, The Devil Wears Prada, Julie & Julia, The Iron Lady…
And last night, the Cecil B. DeMille Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Much like Bernie and the soon-to-be commander-in-chief, Meryl Streep resonates because of her undeniable authenticity.
When the president-elect makes comments such as he does, whether about Streep, or a disabled person, or a protestor at one of his rallies, or a member of the press, or to Billy Bush about what he does to women, or about Carly Fiorina, or former Miss Universe Alicia Machado…
Those types of comments attempt to deny others of their authenticity, one of the worst things to do to another human being. It evidences a fragile ego, a lack of empathy.
“[They] attacked me…”
“Get him out of here…”
“I have all the best words…”
“Grab ‘em by the pussy…”
I’ve never heard this man say “I’m sorry.” I’ve never heard him say “I made a mistake,” or “I was wrong.”
From what I can see, it appears he’s never sorry. And from what I can I tell, as far as he’s concerned, he’s never wrong.
That’s unbelievable. His supporters could tell him that even Jesus got things wrong from time to time…
Jesus lived a life that was full of joy and contradictions and fights, you know? If they were to paint a picture of Jesus without contradictions, the gospels would be fake, but the contradictions are a sign of authenticity. – Paulo Coelho
What we see from our future leader is what we get. Yet there’s a growing chasm between what this man told us we were going to see, and what we’re actually witnessing in these transition weeks before he assumes the Oval Office.
But I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. It’s been reported that he’s done the same thing to the people he’s hired to build his buildings over the past thirty years.
In his own way, he’s undeniably authentic. We’ll see what he does after Inauguration Day. The suspense is killing me.
Steel your resolve, folks. And please, make more art.
On a brighter note…it’s Monday, which means it’s time for the next episode of my new podcast, Get After It!. This week I talk with Mike Gamble, the director of US business development and marketing for Media Science International, a company which handles digital watermarking for major label recordings and releases.
Mike cut his teeth in punk and hardcore bands as a teenager, and has since produced several albums, started his own record label, thrown big warehouse parties at which he DJed, and designed and built his own recording studio, where he worked with Eminem, Dr. Dre, Jadakiss, and many others…including a convicted murderer named Slim the Mobster.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this blog post, whether you agree with my thoughts or otherwise. It’s time for people to start talking TO each other one-on-one, instead of AT each other on social media.
P.S. Thanks to everyone who has downloaded and listened to the first episode of my new podcast with Emily Schaller, and those who emailed me with their thoughts and stories. I appreciate hearing from each and every one of you, and I’m glad you learned something from her experience. If you haven’t downloaded my conversation with Emily, please do so ASAP because the episode will be deleted to make room for next week’s interview. File space is limited, and I don’t want to compromise on quality in order to fit more quantity. 😉
P.P.S. I got a bunch of emails from people asking if they can subscribe to Get After It! via iTunes — it’s being worked on as of now, and I will let you know once it goes live!
No story about the life of Kelly Ann Ramsey would be complete without taking time to acknowledge her decades of experience as an international photojournalist, and the cultural impact she is seeking to make through her artistic efforts.
Though she has earned some renown as of today, Ramsey’s development as a photographer had humble beginnings. Her father gave her her first camera, and from then on, wherever Ramsey traveled she kept it by her side.
“My father took me to the wilds of Canada, he took me into the middle of wilderness. It was beautiful. I’ve been surrounded by monuments, or the Grand Canyon, all of those places that you’re supposed to take children. I always went with my camera, and I always took photos.”
Many years ago, Ramsey’s daughter, Alexis, worked in Africa at a ‘TTC’, Teacher’s Training College. She went there with civil rights leader Leon Sullivan to teach teachers how to teach.
“She would go into the villages with their college graduates and help them with lesson plans, et cetera,” Ramsey says.
The first morning upon arriving in Africa, after a two-day flight, Ramsey got up and went to work with her daughter. “After I spent some time with her in the classroom, got her settled and looked at where she worked, I went on a little adventure of my own.”
Ramsey focuses her attention on a photo of a woman walking, carrying something on her head.
“My daughter lived in Africa for three years, and I made four trips to visit her. This is the first picture I took. This was the first shot and it is today, still, my favorite shot from Africa.”
The title of Ramsey’s first photo is A Long Walk Home. At first glance, it’s an obvious choice. But if one knows Ramsey’s story, her childhood and how she grew up, the indelible events which shaped her life, then one understands the subtle metaphor. Ramsey has had many long walks home of her own, both figuratively and literally.
“This woman has already walked the six miles into town, did her shopping, and is now six miles back and is walking toward her village. She’s already done twelve or maybe fifteen miles in those bare feet.” Ramsey points, “This, I guarantee you, on top of her head, is at least forty or fifty pounds.
When did Ramsey come to understand that she had a gift for photography?
“I guess I was always good, I just didn’t know it,” she offers.
“Most of my photography is just ‘click-click-click-click-click, done.’ I normally don’t plan my work. I just walk around and take shots.
“I didn’t realize that I was a good photographer until I met Jodi Burton.”
Jodi Burton would become a close family friend.
“I was having my photographs developed at Ritz Camera, and Jodi was a technician there. All of a sudden, she was my favorite. I’d call and ask for her schedule, and would only drop off my film when she was working.”
Why all the fuss over who processes Ramsey’s photos?
“When I was in Africa, I was shooting film. This is 35-millimeter. It’s not as easy as dumping it into your computer and printing it out yourself.”
Burton met Ramsey over ten years ago when she was a photo student. “I was working at a camera shop where [Ramsey] used to drop off her film,” Burton says. “One day I was in the lab and heard a woman’s voice over my shoulder, ‘Excuse me! Are you the young woman who develops my film?’ I swung around, startled, because no one ever yelled into the lab unless they had an issue with the images they were getting back. Instead, Ramsey exclaimed how pleased she was with the photos and didn’t want anyone else to work on [her film] but me.”
Ramsey recalls Burton being persistent.
“Jodi would ask me over and over who I was shooting for. I told her that I was just snapping pictures during my trips to Africa to visit my daughter.
“I don’t think she believed me,” Ramsey suggests.
“I was so curious and a little intimidated by this woman. ‘Who are you? Do you work for National Geographic or something?’, I finally asked after years of processing her photos. ‘Hah!’ she laughed. ‘No, no, I am a juvenile referee for Wayne County!’ I was speechless and had so many questions. I was so fascinated by the images she was capturing,” Burton remembers.
“I have a ‘perfect problem’,” Ramsey admits, “everything has to be perfect.”
When asked to describe the feeling of capturing a perfect photo, Ramsey says that when she sees it she becomes so moved that her eyes fill with tears.
She becomes impassioned when she sees the photos she’s taken over more than thirty years, because preservation of culture is Ramsey’s mission as a photojournalist.
Burton sees the beauty and importance in Ramsey’s work, and has helped with her photography for many years.
“I have gotten to know her and her family,” Burton says. “She became a mentor to me. To see how much she truly cares about people has been something that I admire about her. She donates all her art to raise money for her foundation For The Seventh Generation, which gives to children in need.”
Lorraine Weber, Executive Director of For The Seventh Generation, says about Ramsey’s photography, “Each photo reveals aspects of both the [outer] and inner life of the subject through a clear and compassionate lens. Each child’s face reminds us of the importance of each generation to our future.
“[Ramsey’s] photographs,” Weber continues, “reflect the common dignity of children of different races, nationalities and circumstances. She seeks to bring the special and unique personality of each child to our attention. She wants us to recognize and appreciate each child’s worth.”
Burton adds to her praise of Ramsey, “I’ve seen her go out of her way many of times to help people, including myself. She has more energy and passion for humanity than anyone I’ve ever met. I have known Kelly almost my entire adult life, she has become [not only] a mentor, but someone who has inspired me, a great friend, someone I look up to and consider family.”
“I’m not advertising ‘Photos by Kelly Ramsey’,” Ramsey declares. “I’m trying to make a point, here.
“This is my work. It says something.”
An Oceanic Feeling
Ramsey has captured photos in China, Vietnam, Cuba, Guatemala, Egypt, the wilds of Canada, and many more places around the world, including her home state of Michigan.
Of all the places Ramsey has photographed, which impacted her the most?
“Africa,” she says without hesitation. “There’s nothing quite like Africa.”
Ramsey gestures at her photo Fishing For Life, which depicts three young boys standing on rocks in a body of water at dusk, fishing poles in hand.
“That’s Monkey Bay on Lake Malawi,” she explains. “Malawi is very close to the Equator, so it’s six A.M. light, six P.M. dark, twelve months out of the year. Getting to Malawi is not easy because you’ve got to go into Nairobi first, and then you go to a very tiny plane to get into Malawi. It’s a two-day flight.”
Fishing For Life would end up being accepted as part of the 2010 Peace Project.
The Peace Project is a non-profit which solicits artists working in any type of medium to submit a work which can be reduced to a 12”x12” square. They then take numerous squares from the tens of thousands of submissions and create a collage which travels to New York, Los Angeles, and goes to other countries around the world. People can purchase individual squares and the proceeds benefit war-torn countries through providing medical supplies, education for children, housing and more.
“Most years, I submit a piece,” Ramsey says. “Twice, I got in.”
The Peace Project requires the artist to write something in addition to their work as to why the art represents peace.
“I wrote a piece on [Fishing For Life] that these boys are fishing for their life. What are we doing in our world by polluting the water? I mean, look at those whales that were recently found dead, and they had plastic and auto parts in their gut. What are we doing? How we’re living our life over here is destroying this culture over there. That’s the point.”
Ramsey’s attention turns to China.
“Following three years in Africa, my daughter moved to Beijing. My favorite place in Beijing,” she beams, “is the Temple of Heaven, and when I’d visit Alexis I would try to get there a few times during my stay. It is my favorite park in Beijing. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful park that is filled with people who enjoy themselves, and take a stroll.
“I went there once a week because I liked to walk down the Long Corridor, which probably goes for a mile, maybe less. People bring their crickets, and their birds, and they dance…”
Ramsey points at a picture of an elderly man doing the splits on a rail, “…and this guy sits and that guy does yoga, and people sing, and there’s a guy dipping a long brush into water and writing and drawing in the dust on the floor, and people play cards, and, oh my goodness, they socialize.”
Ramsey emphasizes the word socialize because, based on her numerous years of experience, many children and families in the United States aren’t communicating with each other on a deep enough level for strong emotional development and character reinforcement.
Sherry Turkle supports this position of Ramsey’s in her 2015 book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. As a “preeminent media researcher, Turkle has been studying digital culture and communication” for over three decades.
“Face-to-face conversation,” Turkle writes, “is the most human — and humanizing — thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood. And conversation advances self-reflection, the conversations with ourselves that are the cornerstone of early development and continue throughout life.”
Ramsey next holds up a picture of a little girl kneeling in a village in Africa.
“Look at her. Everyone would think she’s poor,” she states, “but I don’t think she’s mainlining heroin. Perhaps it’s because she and her family eat dinner together every night and have conversations instead of withdrawing into their phones.”
As a juvenile court referee, Ramsey used her photography to help her respondents and litigants see the light.
“There was a time when I had panels of pictures in my courtroom, all the way around the room, to remind people what we’re dealing with. When I’m elected, the first thing I’m gonna do is take those panels back out and remind people of what we’re doing.
“I think that it’s important for some of the children in our communities,” she continues, “who consider themselves poor, to understand that this is poor, you’re not. Even the most socio-economically strained individuals in this country are not poor by world standards. This is poor.
“But are these children concerned about what they have on? Do they even have shoes on their feet? This is poor. This child is living in this house. Our children aren’t poor. Even the poorest neighborhoods in Detroit are not poor by world standards.”
Ramsey always does her best to change the perspectives of the people who end up in her courtroom, to get them to experience what bestselling author Robert Greene calls “an oceanic feeling” in his book The 50th Law, a collaboration with Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.
From The 50th Law: “We share the same fate with everyone; we all deserve the same degree of compassion. …This is what is known as an oceanic feeling — the sensation that we are not separated from the outside world but that we are a part of life in all its forms. Feeling this at moments inspires an ecstatic reaction…”
Ramsey recalls a morning waking up in Malawi.
“I was in a tent, and I wake up and I look out and there’s a [monkey] looking at me. And I’m looking at him. We connected for a moment.”
A Higher Paradigm
Of all the photos Ramsey has captured, if she could be remembered for only one, which would she choose?
“Probably my favorite little girl…”
She’s speaking of a girl she photographed in Sa Pa, a mountainous town in northwest Vietnam, home to many ethnic minority groups.
“I have been known to say that I breathe better when I am there,” she offers.
In 2012, Ramsey was fortunate to spend four days in Sa Pa, where she traveled through the region’s many hill villages, met many people, and observed firsthand their culture and daily activities.
“I have hundreds of pictures of stunning children. This is my favorite. This is the most favorite picture of a child I have…” As her voice cracks and trails off, Ramsey’s eyes begin to water.
“Let’s give her a steady dose of sex, drugs, money and violence, thong underwear at eight years old. How ridiculous, just utterly ridiculous, what we’re doing here.”
Sa Pa is a town unlike what most people experience every day, and by world standards, Ramsey suspects it is among the poorest.
“[This girl] lives in unbelievable…what we would define as poverty. She doesn’t have her hair cut, her outfit is tattered and torn. But there’s a richness to her culture that is far more valuable than a fancy house or a lofty bank statement,” Ramsey declares.
And the people weren’t buried in their respective technological devices, ignoring each other.
“Nobody had a smartphone there, nobody had a computer. They were sitting and making beautiful clothing, and handmade earrings, and they were communicating with one another.
“They cared about one another,” Ramsey finishes.
Sa Pa is known for both its stunning scenery and its cultural diversity.
“When it comes to natural beauty, the people of Sa Pa see it. Our children walk right by it. They’re not going in the woods anymore.”
Ramsey directs her attention to multiple photos of children from China.
“Look at these children. These children are happy. They’re happy. Their clothes are tattered and torn, but they aren’t sex objects, they’re not climbing over each other to get ahead in life. They…I’m sorry…”
Ramsey pauses a moment to collect her emotions, to keep from weeping.
“They’re happy. They are worth saving. We’re destroying these people, and in doing so, we’re destroying ourselves. We’re destroying us.”
The conversation turns back to the lessons she does her best to impart in her courtroom.
“Our kids aren’t poor. They simply don’t take advantage of what’s offered to them today.” Ramsey gestures to her photos from Africa, “What’s the suicide rate here?”
She brings up a good point, as there are many people in the world who are unable to comprehend the idea of doing harm to one’s self. It’s just not a thought which occurs to them (“Why would I hurt myself on purpose?”).
And yet, according to the November 2016 TIME Magazine article “The Kids Are Not All Right”, we live in a country in which “a spectrum of angst that plagues 21st century teens” is resulting in many of them resorting to cutting themselves as a “compulsive manifestation of the depression and anxiety that…millions of teenagers in the U.S. are struggling with.”
The article continues, “In 2015, about 3 million teens ages 12 to 17 had had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. More than 2 million report experiencing depression that impairs their daily function. About 30% of girls and 20% of boys — totaling 6.3 million teens — have had an anxiety disorder, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health.”
In regard to the villages depicted in her photographs, Ramsey posits, “So many people in our communities would say ‘Oh, we’ve gotta bring technology here, and we’ve gotta bring them the internet, and high-speed computers.’ But these people are happier here.
“Why can’t I leave a nightclub in Detroit without someone coming up to me and whispering ‘I need to talk to you about my granddaughter. She’s living in a car with four kids, there’s something wrong with her…?’ This woman told me she had to shave her great-grandkids’ heads because their hair was so matted down, it couldn’t be brushed out.
“I hear stories like hers constantly.”
What does Ramsey think the big difference is between kids’ cultural inputs over there and back here at home?
“I think that the focus on education in this country doesn’t have the weight [it does in other countries],” she affirms. “My daughter has taught in Asia for around fifteen years now. It’s cool to be smart there. It’s a huge part of their culture. That’s the philosophy of the children whom my daughter teaches. That’s why they’re not getting in trouble, not having school fights, not showing up late. They understand that those things would bring dishonor to their families.”
It is evident that the children in many of Ramsey’s photos, even at their young ages, have somewhat of a skill set to do something in their village which is needed or necessary.
“We don’t have that heightened responsibility of being the best that we’re capable of being, which I see culturally when I leave this country and go back to the schools at which my daughter teaches to speak to the children.”
Ramsey believes we need to bring some of that culture back here, and she does so by way of her photojournalism. She believes we need more simplicity, more understanding, more compassion. Less violence.
She recounts turning her respondents’ attention to her photography in her courtroom.
“‘You won’t do your homework, you won’t go to school. You’re out on the street corner trying to look tough and cool, selling drugs, idolizing that lifestyle.'” Ramsey would then point to the panels of her photography circling around her courtroom, “‘This is what you should be thinking about instead.’”
As she cycles through photos on her computer, hundreds of photos of children and families and nature, Ramsey asks one question, out loud, over and over.
“What are we doing? What are we doing?”
Ramsey’s photography is another way for her to reprogram the brains of the families of Wayne County, to get individuals to perceive things differently, to embrace a higher paradigm regarding what life is really all about.
“I just don’t understand why people don’t see what’s happening to our children.”
You don’t have to go to Africa, or China, or Vietnam, to see beauty. You can see it in your own community, in your own backyard, in your own life…
You just have to decide to look through the lens of compassion, through the lens of reality…
As Kelly Ann Ramsey does.
“When I find myself on the road less traveled, or in a place where one lives his or her life harmonious with nature, I am more at peace and feel more fulfilled.
“I have often wondered whether or not people are happier in a less connected world.”
Kelly Ann Ramsey has a firm focus on the future in everything she does. One of the ways her future-focus manifests positive results is in her work as co-founder of For The Seventh Generation (ForTheSeventhGeneration.org), a community-based volunteer program for the special needs of children who are wards of the juvenile court, just as Maryann Bruder once was.
About this unique, low-overhead program supporting foster children, Ramsey says, “To be truly effective, our juvenile justice system must look beyond the mere survival of the children in our charge. We must recognize that the actions we take today will have an impact far beyond the current generation. How we deal with the most vulnerable children today will affect their progeny for years to come. We must work for the seventh generation.”
She then speaks of the Executive Director of For The Seventh Generation, Lorraine Weber.
“Oh, I love Lorraine Weber!” Ramsey beams. “Oh, my goodness. I have so much respect for her. Tremendous respect.”
The child Ramsey is most proud of? Her daughter, Alexis.
“She’s the best,” Ramsey says of her daughter. “She’s the cat’s meow. She’s beautiful, she’s smart, she’s kind, she’s a great mother. She teaches at the United Nations International School of Hanoi in Vietnam, and I could not be more proud.”
What makes the woman who has no sense of humor laugh?
“My grandsons make me laugh. I’ve been collecting some of their sayings,” she smiles, “recording their cuteness in beautiful personal journals that I bought for each grandson at birth.”
How does anyone rise in our current culture without a support system? For Ramsey, it’s not just about the bottom line.
Ramsey has lived a life dedicated to honoring and creating a legacy, both for her and her family, and all of the people whose lives are impacted by her decisions in court. She encourages all individuals to hold themselves accountable first, and fosters a sense of self-belief, empowering them to take control of their lives through positive intention and action.
When everyone else says there isn’t enough money, or it’s too much work, or there’s too much going on, or it will take too long, Ramsey says ‘I’m willing to do the thing that others are unwilling to do. I’m going to do the uncomfortable thing.’ And in doing so, she differentiates herself from those colleagues who aren’t willing to make the necessary sacrifices, who aren’t willing to do what it takes to create incredible experiences for people, who would rather just sit behind a laptop all day, writing emails, and experience people that way, as opposed to bringing a community together.
Ramsey spends her time doing what is outside the comfort zone of most of her colleagues, that is to say, she reverse-engineers the hopes and dreams of her respondents. She switches their focus from immediate impossibilities to positive potential, and it lasts a lifetime. She teaches her litigants, and all others in her courtroom, that anything is possible through hard work, perseverance, and self-discipline above all.
According to Justin Moscarello, neuroscientist at New York University’s Center for Neural Science, “The world is how you assess it. It’s your belief about your agency that ultimately determines your emotional outcomes.”
By exploring possibilities, by putting herself out there, by stretching, by growing, by doing things that excite her, that scare her, that are meaningful to her, Ramsey is able to impact others.
And she teaches everyone that they can do the same. Because when you step out of your comfort zone, you give people permission to live a great life.
“Everybody knows that I was born and raised in the city of Detroit,” Ramsey says. “My childhood home on Rutherford is still standing tall, and the shutters on the sides of the windows were made by my father.”
Of all the lessons Officer Robert W. Ramsey taught her, if she could only keep one to remember, which lesson would Ramsey keep?
“Be the best I’m capable of being,” Ramsey affirms. “People have more talent, and more ability, than they can possibly imagine. I think that it is a sin to waste your God-given talents. I plan to live every day to the best of my ability.
“What would the impact be if we all lived like this?” Ramsey wonders. “Would we then live in the world that each of us claim we want to live in? Would we not gift our children with the dream we hope for them?
“This takes time…but isn’t someone worth saving worth the time?”
For Ramsey, it’s not about winning votes, it’s about winning hearts and minds.
There are few who work in the judicial system who think, care, and are willing to be patient and follow-up the way Ramsey does — too many are in it to get their pay and go home. Perhaps they got into politics for altruistic reasons, perhaps not. Regardless, many of those who hold titles or positions of power and influence within government have forgotten the true purpose of their respective roles in American democracy. Ramsey has not, and she honors that responsibility day in and day out.
Ramsey has immense pride in knowing that the people whose lives she has impacted with her teaching are still doing what she taught them to do, that she made enough sense to them when it truly mattered, and that their lives are better because of it.
“I have so many things to be proud of,” Ramsey smiles. “Whether it’s my beautiful daughter and grandsons, For The Seventh Generation, or one of my respondents saying ‘if it wasn’t for you, I’d have been dead on the street, and instead I’m a college graduate’, or Maryann Bruder’s letter to Governor Snyder urging him to appoint me to be a Third Circuit Court judge, it’s things like that.”
Ramsey has the love Wayne County needs now. And rather than thinking of it as ‘tough love’, case after case, and experience upon experience, has proven that it is indeed a ‘righteous love’. A love that respects others, holds people accountable to rise to the expectations bestowed upon them, and puts children first. She has a firm focus on the future, always taking time and care to look at everything through the lens of reality.
“I often ask a child in my courtroom,” Ramsey offers, “‘What is the best gift you could ever give your parents?’ Of course, I get the more obvious answers, ‘a new car, a new house’. Without supplying the answer, I carefully guide the respondent, and at some point the light bulb goes on — the best gift a child could ever give their parents is for a child to make their parents proud of them.”
Ramsey recalls her father sitting in the back of her courtroom years ago, holding back tears as he heard his daughter speak to those in front of her using the same words and guidance she learned from him.
“If I was waking up from some drug-induced daze right now, rest assured,” she remarks, “I could come up with a laundry list of excuses for my bad behavior — ‘Poor Kelly, she was just a little girl when her mother became ill, she lost her mother so young, a runaway and pregnant at 17, a high school drop out…’ Yep, the same nonsense I heard from so many, day after day after day.
“Instead, I want my mom, Delphine Ramsey, and my dad…to be proud of me.”
A Judicial Joan Of Arc
“The first problem with the news,” writes Neil Strauss in his October 2016 piece in Rolling Stone, “is that it must be new. Generally, events that are both aberrations from the norm and spectacular enough to attract attention are reported, such as terrorist attacks, mass shootings and plane crashes.
“But far more prolific, and thus even less news-worthy, are the 117 suicides in the U.S. each day (in comparison with 43 murders), the 129 deaths from accidental drug overdoses, and the 96 people dying a day in automobile accidents (27 of whom aren’t wearing seat belts, not to mention the unspecified amount driving distracted). Add to these,” Strauss continues, “the 1,315 deaths each day due to smoking, and the 890 related to obesity, and all the other preventable deaths from strokes, heart attacks and liver disease, and the message is clear: The biggest thing you have to fear is not a terrorist or a shooter or a deadly home invasion. You are the biggest threat to your own safety.”
You are the biggest threat to your own safety. Kelly Ann Ramsey knows this, and gets the individuals in her courtroom to realize it as well.
“It would make logical sense, then,” Strauss concludes, “that if Americans were really choosing politicians based on their own safety, they would vote for a candidate who stresses seat belt campaigns, programs for psychological health to decrease suicide, and ways to reduce smoking, obesity, prescription-pill abuse, alcoholism, flu contagion and hospital-acquired infections.”
Think globally, act locally. Do you believe that investing our time and energy into our children will make the world a better place? We can start right here, right now, by voting for Kelly Ann Ramsey for Wayne County Third Circuit Court Judge. She’s on a crusade for the community.
She’s a judicial Joan of Arc.
“I haven’t burned out. I’m never gonna burn out. I know exactly who I am, and I can work non-stop,” Ramsey declares.
This is the final installment of a seven-part story. To read the story from the beginning, click here.