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BWW Interview: Sheila E. of WE STAND TOGETHER Uses Her Musical Talents to Effect Change for Racial Justice

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BWW Interview: Sheila E. of WE STAND TOGETHER Uses Her Musical Talents to Effect Change for Racial Justice
Musician and Activist Sheila E.

We Stand Together, a one-night virtual benefit in support of justice for Black lives, will premiere at 7:00pm PDT on Thursday, July 23rd on both Youtube and Facebook. It will include appearances by Sheila E., Mahershala Ali, Misty Copeland, Ledisi and a host of other top artists, activists and community figures. While event is free of charge, donations are encouraged. Funds raised will benefit three organizations: Elevate Oakland, YR Media and Black Lives Matter Global Network [Arts & Culture]. For additional information, please visit www.elevateoakland.org/standtogether.

We Stand Together centers on the collective belief in the power of music and art to uplift and empower marginalized communities and act as a connection point to educate viewers on the intersection of art, culture and politics. This variety special will honor Black and non-Black POC creatives in communities everywhere by featuring music performances, speaker segments, nonprofit organization highlights and more, interwoven to create an unforgettable experience for viewers across the globe. All proceeds raised through viewer contributions will go directly towards several national and local initiatives that center on youth services and direct support for the movement to fight for freedom, liberation and justice for Black lives across the globe.

BroadwayWorld spoke recently with Sheila E. while she was in the midst of final preparations for the event. Born into the legendary Escovedo family of musicians, she has had a lengthy and incredibly varied career as a percussionist, singer, writer and actor. Her debut album spawned the enduring hit "The Glamorous Life" and launched her successful solo career. As a percussionist, she has played with such iconic artists as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and Ringo Starr. She is also known for her enduring partnership with Prince, including touring with him as his drummer and musical director. In conversation, Sheila is unguarded and down-to-earth, and her passion to use her musical talents to effect change is evident throughout. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the idea for We Stand Together come about?

In the times we're in right now, the need is great to keep our youth educated, bring awareness to Black Lives Matter, and keep music and arts education going. Right now we don't know the state in which our kids are going to go to school, so we want to keep online classes going. We use local musicians here in the Bay Area and hire them to go in [during] normal school hours and teach classes, teach the history of music, of hip hop, Gospel, playing guitar, drums, whatever they want to learn. We actually ask them every semester, what would you like to learn? The need was great and this was why we said "We stand together." We need to come together and uplift our communities in every city, not just the Bay Area.

How will the event itself take place? Will the artists be performing live?

Some of us are performing live. There was no one in the club, we only had camera crew, my band and a couple of techs. We're gonna stream live from Yoshi's, Freddie Stone came in live, the Tony!Toni!Tone! came in live, my dad and my brother (Pops and Juan Escovedo) came in live. Everyone else, I had them to videotape themselves, so that we can play with them and actually perform. The first time that the band hears the music with the other performers will be during the rehearsal sound check. I had them videotape themselves so that you can see that they're playing in real time and we're actually playing the music with them. It's really cool!

I haven't seen that done before.

I hope it works! [laughs] This is all new to us, you know?

That's quite a lineup you have scheduled! Did you already have existing connections with all those artists?

Most of them. Mahershala Ali, Joe Koy, Damian Lillard I had never met before. Everyone else I know. We hope to possibly do another one and hopefully we can do it live for real because won't still be at home. Music has been the tool for everyone to get through this pandemic. Music brings people together and this is a time that we as artists have been able to help people get through these times because there's some people in their homes by themselves, and they're going crazy. Even those of us at home with our families, it's still very challenging.

When you burst onto the national scene back in the 80's, I loved your music, but I was also impressed by what you represented as a strong, sexy woman of color who seemed to be in control of her image. Is that true? Did you actually have control of how you were presented?

I did. I knew that I always wanted to hopefully one day do an album, and I was so happy to be able to do so. I said "Look, this is my one chance to show everyone." I mean, before I became Sheila E., I dressed like that anyway. I had people in the Bay Area, cause I grew up here and started my career here, creating wardrobe for me and I would design some of my clothes even back then in the 70's.

When I saw you on television, like at the Grammys or whatever, you didn't seem to me to be pre-packaged in any way. It seemed like you were being the person you wanted to be.

I certainly was. I've always been just me, that's all I know how to be. [laughs] And that's the thing, you know growing up in a musical family. Watching and being around people like my dad and his friends, I didn't know that they were celebrities and famous. I learned how to be a leader watching my dad, how you treat your bandmates, that basically we should be family and all be treated equally. I'm still learning stuff. Every day I learn something new about how to change how I am, what I can do differently, or from making mistakes, as long as I fail forward, continuing to be a student at whatever age.

You're one of the very few female percussionists to have a high-profile career. Of course, you followed in your dad's footsteps, but the musicians you grew up with were largely men, right?

Oh, all of them!

Did you ever think to yourself, "I'm a girl. I can't do that."?

No. My parents never brought that to my attention, ever. The first time I started hearing that said to me was when I started flying from Oakland to Los Angeles and started playing with other artists that didn't know me. They knew that I could play, but then the other people in the band were like, "Well, where did you come from? Where did you learn to play? Girls don't play drums." And I'm like "But it's normal to me." Growing up, I would ask some of my friends in school, "Do you have drums? Where are your percussion instruments?" And they're like....??? [laughs] I just thought it was normal. I was brought up that way. It's who we are, and I didn't know any different until I left home.

And you were also really young when you were playing those session dates with all those guys, so that must have been a trip.

Oh, very young. I started professionally with my dad at 15 years old going out on tour.

Which also explains why you seem to be so comfortable onstage.

Exactly.

You performed with your dad, Pete Escovedo, on the White House lawn in 2009 for the Fiesta Latina.

Yes, Obama was in office and it was an amazing evening. I was one of the producers and musical directors of the show and being a part of that was a special moment. George Lopez and Eva Longoria were the hosts. We got to meet Michelle and Barak - and they want you to call them Michelle and Barak, by the way - and take pictures with them before we played. And it was funny because George came out at that beginning and said, "I can't believe it! We've got all these Mexicans and people of color here. We finally made it to the White House." He said, "Well, us Mexicans really didn't make it into the White House, they put us on the lawn. What is that about?!"

BWW Interview: Sheila E. of WE STAND TOGETHER Uses Her Musical Talents to Effect Change for Racial Justice
The Escovedo Family in performance, fronted by Sheila and Pete

A couple of months ago, you released a new song, "Lemon Cake." Is that a sign you're working on a new album?

I'm always working on a new album. [laughs] Which is awesome, to just continue to hopefully create and experiment in the studio with different sounds, different stories, different instruments. There were times when I couldn't write anything, it was just blank. You get to a place where you go "How come I can't think of anything?" It has to come from your heart and you have to live it. I've been very creative in these times right now. A lot of things have been in my secret vault for a long time and I'm finally releasing some of these songs and finishing them. One of my bucket list things was to do five albums at one time with five different genres of music, which is kind of who I am. Right now I'm just delivering singles cause a lot of things are going on, we did the [drumming & percussion] Masterclass that just came out. I just released another single last week and have four more ready to come out and we've shot videos. So I'm just at home you know creating and collaborating with people and enjoying the time I'm spending with my family.

You're obviously not new to the cause. Does the current groundswell of activism around racial justice issues feel different to you? Do you believe that we will see some meaningful change?

I'm hopeful. There are days when I'm discouraged, angry, sad. Every emotion possible I think I've gone through and continue to go through. I have to sit and think about how can I help to be a part of change, to help create change, for my voice to be heard but also to encourage others for their voices to be heard. I'm being honest, there are times where I'm just angry and I sit here and it forces me to say "I gotta get up and keep going and I have to help others" We have to do this in a way that change is really going to happen. So I'm hopeful.

(Photos courtesy of We Stand Together)


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