By Monte J. Wolfe
When a brown woman Aquarius spirit joined forces with a brown man Gemini spirit in early 1974, what would follow was a little brown Scorpio baby boy named Monte Jermaine Wolfe who made his entrance into the physical realm nine months later in Kenosha, Wisconsin. From that day on, he would be reared and raised on a rich, eclectic mix of soul/R&B, and jazz music. The tiny little brown Scorpio baby, who chose two flawed, but loving, beautiful creatures to be his parents had to have known...He must have made an agreement with the God of his understanding before entering this world that the primary means of navigating his way through the world that he was about to enter on the 4th day of November, 1974 would be through the sacred, beautiful, vehicle of music.
Within the first year of his birth, he heard the sounds of Rufus’ 1975 album Rufus featuring Chaka Khan with songs like “Sweet Thing” led by a small, tiny woman with a voice so big and beautiful that it sounded like none other. The pink album cover with the big red lips and the image of the big voiced tiny woman inside the album (donned in feathers, leather, and a big smile) is a memory he can recall as easily as he breathes air. Other albums the little brown baby boy would hear (and come to know word for word over the next two years) included (but were certainly not limited to): Stevie Wonder’s “Songs In The Key of Life”, Natalie Cole’s “Inseparable”, Deniece Williams’ “This Is Niecy” (with the yellow and black dress that matched the album cover’s backdrop), Earth, Wind & Fire’s “That's the Way of the World”, The Emotions “Flowers”, Minnie Riperton’s “Adventures In Paradise”, and Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves The Sunshine”.
The infant I was in the mid-seventies, grew into the energetic, precocious child who would memorize the lyrics to the songs I heard both of my parents and my family members playing at home, in the car, at parties in the basement, wherever.
Since my older sibling was already on her way to young adulthood by the time I turned 4 years old in 1978, I pretty much grew up as an only child. Although it had been ever-present from day one, it wasn’t really until I was about 4 or 5 years old when I decided that music was my brother, my sister, my best friend, my everything. Although I had been exposed to their music in years prior, it was in the late 70’s when I developed a serious kinship with the music of The Jacksons, and particularly of Michael Jackson. I remember hearing his voice, and all of the energy he exuded in his delivery of every song he sang. Probably even before I had actually seen his body move and witnessed the wonder that was Michael’s dance moves, I would dance, bounce, shake, and sing along with him and just about anything else I heard played at home.
Even though the music played every day in my home as a child, there is no other day that I remember more than Saturdays - in the morning/afternoon because they were all about Soul Train. Although I watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, nothing excited or fascinated me, held my attention like the wonder of watching Soul Train. Seeing all those black people, decked out in their finest clothes, smilin’ and jammin’ to the vast of majority of the music that had already been playing at home every other day of the week, became a ritual in my house that I came to look forward to each and every weekend.
Over the years as the little brown boy grew and expanded his wellspring of appreciation for black music, the two beautiful flawed creatures he chose as parents found themselves growing apart from each other, which the curious, observant brown boy noticed at each and every turn. When there was an argument, he remembered hearing his mama play certain songs by artists such as Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Betty Wright, Roberta Flack & Phyllis Hyman which, while beautiful in their own special way, seemed particularly sad and seemed to accentuate her mood.
The same could be said of the times he would be in the car with his daddy, when he would need to get out of the house and would drive around the city while listening to Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack, The Isley Brothers, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, Michael Franks, and Rick James. All this confused the little boy, because while he loved hearing the soul music and the various colors within it all, he didn’t understand why certain songs made both of his parents feel a certain way that he couldn’t exactly put his finger on, even though he knew they weren’t particularly what one would call “good feelings”.
As years would go on, the brown boy would spend hours on end with his best friend, listening to music from so many different artists that it would take far too long to name here. Artists he discovered during the early eighties through his daily play dates with his best friend included Shalamar, Patrice Rushen, Teena Marie, The Jones Girls, Michael Jackson, Prince, The Mary Jane Girls, Vanity 6, Quincy Jones, Patti Austin, Chaka Khan and Diana Ross.
By the late mid-to-late eighties, when his parents finally divorced, he remembered ALWAYS hearing his mother play the music of two female artists in particular - Anita Baker and Sade -both of which to this day remain two of his all-time favorite artists.
As the eighties came to an end and the early nineties rolled around, I also found my love of hip-hop growing just as my love of soul music had, some ten to twelve years earlier. Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, NWA and many more had their own special hold on me as I navigated the all too confusing terrain of being a teenaged boy who never really felt like he fit in, belonged or was understood by anything except music.
As I grew in adolescence during the early nineties, one artist in particular came along and although there had been many female black artists who mesmerized me over the years (such as Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston), none of them stole my heart in the way this one had. She was broken, flawed, timid, and noticeably sad and dark in her mood, but soulful and honest in every word she sang. 1992 was when Mary J. Blige stole my heart and made me feel like I wasn’t the only person who was sad, confused, and searching for a way to return to what made me so happy as a child, so many years earlier.
When I first heard her sing and I took in the masterpiece that was “What’s The 411” back in 1992, I had no idea what was happening. I just knew someone understood me. Two years later in 1994, as things grew even darker during my sophomore year in college at Grambling State University, along came her magnum opus, “My Life”. Even though I had already started entertaining dark, suicidal thoughts as a tormented and confused teenager a couple years earlier, by the time I got to college, I felt as if the walls were closing in on me. Coming to grips with my sexuality, battling serious body image issues, low self-esteem and depression had me ready to end my life at the age of 20. With that 17 track album which at its core, harkened back to all the soul music I had been raised on, Mary was not only giving me a way out of the black hole I was in, but she was also sharing her story while simultaneously teaching me just how powerful and sacred music could be when it came from an honest place.
With the [four minute and seventeen second long] title track (which borrowed its infectious sample from one of the soul/jazz classics I had heard some 18 years earlier as a child; Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves The Sunshine”), Mary J. Blige saved my life. Through the conviction in her voice, coupled with the hope that was there just beyond the sadness & pain, her music performed a miracle for me. To this day, I still choose to believe that the God of my understanding laid this beautiful, tortured soul in my path to remind me that I was not alone, and that I could always find my way back from the ledge...through music.
There is SO MUCH MORE I could write about my love affair, kinship, and connection to music. To that end, there are countless other artists who inspire me...way too many to name or list here, but I feel like throughout my life my musical guides have always been Donny Hathaway, Minnie Riperton, and Mary J Blige. All three speak to the light, the dark, the love, the hope, and the wonder of this experience we call life, in very similar yet strikingly different ways.
As far back as I can remember, music has ALWAYS AND IN ALL WAYS... been there for me. It has been my security blanket for more years than I have known, consciously. For an emotional, intense, passionate, dark, moody, loving Scorpio being such as myself it has been and will always be closer to me than just about anyone I know, love, and choose to call family. Even before I realized what was actually happening, the foundation was being laid for me to come to understand, embrace and celebrate the man, and the artist that I am today, through the gift of music. Although I have been blessed and fortunate enough to have experienced all kinds of love, I’m still convinced that I may very well leave this physical plane never feeling from another human being the kind of love that I have felt and continue to feel from music. I was born and raised on soul music. It’s ingrained in me. Music has given way to me finding my wings as an artist and as a black gay man who is comfortable in his own skin. Music is the way that the God of my understanding ALWAYS speaks to me first and foremost. Music is the foundation of my spirituality. It is how I will always locate each and every thought, feeling, and emotion I experience and for that I am nothing but grateful.
Monte J. Wolfe is a trained actor, singer, songwriter, playwright, director and producer who graduated from Howard University in 1999 with a BFA in Theatre Arts Administration. He is the Founder, Artistic, and Managing Director of Brave Soul Collective, an arts, education, and outreach organization with a focus on HIV/AIDS, and issues affecting the lives of LGBTQ people, through the performing and healing arts. He currently resides in Washington, DC where he has lived and worked professionally since 1995.