A Homeless Harmony: Ronald Troy Collins in His Own Words

Photo by Wendy “Random” Chavez featuring original art by Skid Robot.

This story originally appeared in Get Down Town issue 3. Words spoken by Ronald Troy Collins; recorded, compiled and edited by Ian Gabriel for Get Down Town.

I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1967. But I grew up here, in Watts and Lynwood. I’ve been singing as long as I can remember. God put me on this earth to sing, and if I don’t sing, I die. Over the course of my life, I’ve bounced back and forth from here to Louisiana, working as a chef and as an office worker, and also spending a total of 27 years in prison.

I first came to Skid Row as a result of my drug addiction. I think it was about 10 or 15 years ago. Back then, Skid Row was a place where you could smoke your crack right in the middle of the street and the police would drive by and nobody would say nothing. Pretty much how it is now. That’s why I came here, because there were certain things I wanted to do here. When I got out of jail last February, I ended up homeless on the streets of Skid Row.

The upper echelons, so to speak — the city folk — they really don’t know what to do with the homeless folk, so they keep pushing and pushing and pushing. They try to act like Skid Row doesn’t exist, but you can’t overlook Skid Row because it’s what makes Downtown LA Downtown LA. It’s truly the city that never sleeps. You’re gonna see every fucking thing in the world going on down here. You’re gonna see people arguing with each other, you’re gonna see lovers, you’re gonna see men with men, you’re gonna see women with women, you’re gonna see children even, you’re gonna see a little beastiality, you’re gonna see defecation in the streets, urination in the streets, you’re gonna see fighting in the streets, you’re gonna see drug sales, you’re gonna see drug use. If you can name it– the debauchery in your mind, the wickedness– this is where it’s gonna exist.

Skid Row is so overwhelming that the police don’t know what to do. The mayors and the governors, they don’t know what to do. You’re not dealing with natural behavior down here. You’re dealing with supernatural, spiritual forces that have literally taken over Downtown LA. You have people living in hundred thousand dollar lofts and right across the street you have people sleeping on the streets eating garbage out of the can.

An important moment in my life was one night when I was hungry and the Lakers were playing. Two white men who were drunk came walking from the Staples Center as I was standing in front of Denny’s. I asked them if they could help me get something to eat. “Fucking nigger, get the fuck outta here” one of them said. As they were walking away, I yelled “Hey! I wrote a song, can I share it with you? It took about 2 years to write, you don’t gotta give me nothing, you can just listen.” The one who didn’t call me a nigger, who was silent through most of it, said “Yeah, I wanna hear the song.” So I sang All For Nothing, which is something that took me about 2 years to write. I got part of it in prison, part of it out of prison, I went back to prison and got part of it, got part of it while I was getting raped, I got part of it while I was in solitary confinement for 6 months by myself, I got part of the song from the garbage can. I sang it as if my life depended on it, because for me at that point, my life did depend on it. When I finished, the one who called me a nigger opened the door to Denny’s and gave me $20 cash. I went in and ordered my food, came out, full, smiling, and then it hit me: it’s gonna take a little guts, but why don’t I just sing for my food every day?

Initially, that’s what it was all about — money, greed. Very few homeless people care about working class people. You mean only one thing to them and that’s their next hit, blast, fix, drink or whatever. And once you give them that, they’re gone. They don’t give a fuck about you. I started singing your typical songs: the Temptations, Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, but I got bored with them really quick, and I just shifted my whole view of my music. I found that I really started enjoying not just the money part but I really started enjoying meeting people. And I really started enjoying making my own songs.

Africa was a homeless man who got shot and killed by police officers right near 6th and San Pedro. I never met Africa, but I saw the video when I heard he got killed. I was walking one night and I was thinking about him, and words just started coming. I believe they were words from God because there is no way I could have come up with these things on my own. I started humming and writing on a box. And by the time I looked up, I had the song Africa. I wanted the song to be as gruesome and chilling as possible, even though it’s a little upbeat. I wanted the song to make muthafuckers sit down and think. Stop what you’re doing, stop screwing, stop gaveling, stop whatever it is that you’re doing, and think. It has nothing to do with race, gender, none of that, because guess what: everybody in the fucking world is Africa because at some point in your life, you’re going to be mistreated, whether it’s by police officers or your mother, father, preacher or whoever’s an authority figure in your life that misuses that authority. That makes you Africa.

Ronald originally wrote the lyrics to Africa on this piece of cardboard.

On the corner of 7th and San Julian is Poppa’s store– that’s where we’re gonna shoot the video. And it’s gonna end up near 6th and San Pedro, right where Africa was killed. But it’s gonna start at Poppa’s store. Poppa’s real name is Yid, this man is freakin’ incredible. Anybody who is homeless, he’s gonna help them. He doesn’t care who they are, where they come from, the man opens his heart up for anyone. The man has helped me in so many ways. Anything I need? “No problem,” he says. The video’s gonna start at Poppa’s store, there’s gonna be a choir on the corner, there’s gonna be a mock police car in the video parked outside the store. We’re gonna have male and female singers and rappers. There’s gonna be tents in the video, there’s gonna be a conga player, an upright bassist and a guitar player. You’re gonna hear some thunder and lightning, and then some screams and shouts, and sirens going, and the camera’s gonna move down the street towards 6th and San Pedro, and the choir of students is gonna sing in the background. And the whole time you’re gonna hear the song Africa.

I keep track of everybody I sing for, through Gmail. I’ve sung for over 800 people, and I have all their email addresses. Some of these people have become important people in my life.

The first friend I made through singing was Vincent. I met him and his wife Colby in the Flower District on the day before their wedding. They were getting flowers. I started singing prophetically. I shared some things with them and they were really impressed. They didn’t understand how I knew the things I knew. There were two friends in the Bible called David and Jonathan. Their friendship was so close that their fathers were jealous, their wives were jealous of their closeness, and everybody thought they were lovers but they weren’t, they were just really close friends. That is how my relationship with Vincent is. I would jump in front of a bullet for Vincent, and I’m more than confident that he would do the same for me. If he needed me, morning, noon, or night, I will be there for him. He makes me cry every time I see him. We’ve been close ever since I met him.

Then comes Brendan. God used Brendan to push me through a door that I was already on the precipice of but never could actually step through. Brendan was that juggernaut that I needed. One night, a Friday, never freakin’ forget it as long as I live, I was up by Perch. There were 12 people outside, drunk, couldn’t even stand up. I asked them if I could sing for them and they all said no except for one drunk lady. God fixed her mouth to say “I wanna hear him sing!” So, I sang All For Nothing. When I finished Brendan stepped out of the crowd. He said “Look, I don’t have any money, but I’m starting a record label and tomorrow morning I want you to be at my apartment, 12 o’clock. I’m gonna let you do some recording. You made me feel something and it’s hard to make me feel anything.” I thought he was full of shit, but on the off chance that he was telling the truth, I walked up to his building the next day, and there he was. When he took me upstairs I stepped in front of the microphone and my insides started fluttering. I started going crazy, and I became so charged you’d think I was on something, but I was just on a natural high. Initially Brendan laid down the track with another singer, the beautiful Ashtenn, where she’s doing background vocals. As I’m listening to it my eyes closed and I was rocking and humming, and I just started freestyling and came out with what became Do You Wanna Dance. One take. Song was done. He said “this is perfect.” I did four songs, one take for each, that was it. After that first time at Brendan’s I started firing off emails to him, started sending him songs and song ideas. When I got back to the studio, I sang Africa for him. He loved the song and built the track around it. That’s when Africa became a recorded track.

Ronald recording the beginnings of his album, A Homeless Harmony: Misconceptions of a Homeless Man, at Brendan’s apartment studio. Photo by Eddie Ibbarra.

Can’t forget about Sasha and Elliott. I met Elliott on a really hot day in the Japanese Plaza. I saw a him handing out fliers because he hosts rave parties and shows. He gives bands that you’ve never heard of an opportunity to play at venues like the Lexington and the Falls where they can express themselves and play. So he knows a lot of musicians. When I saw him a second time I asked if he wanted some help passing out the fliers, and he didn’t have anything to give me in return but I didn’t care because sometimes it’s nice to just do something because it’s the right thing to do. So I helped him pass out his fliers, and I started doing it once a week. He’s gonna get a gig at one of his venues when I have a finished product with the album.

Sasha is Elliot’s girlfriend, and she works at Opodz, which is an coworking office space in Little Tokyo. Before that though she was in the music industry for about 10 years or so. She knows how to deal with music licensing, everything from the ground up, A&R, she knows how to do it all. Sasha is a very beautiful person and a very hard worker, and she’s gonna help me get my music licensed and registered. Couldn’t ask for nobody better.

Darrick is one of the managers of Poppy and Rose. I was going there three times a day to sing outside and get food. He has a real beautiful personality and he’s a multi-instrumentalist. He can play every instrument you can think of. He played a small part on one of my songs called Amelia that I recorded with Brendan. It was haunting and it fit the song perfectly. He’s gonna be in the Africa music video. At Poppy and Rose, when people came in he would tell them “I hope you’ve heard Ronald sing, he sings really nice, and we appreciate him and we like him.” He’s a very sharp person because I’m bringing him a whole lotta money by singing outside, bringing customers to his establishment. Poppy and Rose is different from a lot of businesses Downtown because I’m tolerated there.

Then there’s Aimee and her people. One night I was walking down Broadway or Spring or one of those streets, and I saw this tall guy dressed in a bunny rabbit suit. God used him to draw me over there. I asked the people in the crowd with him if I could sing for them, and everybody dispersed immediately, except for Aimee and William. I sang a few songs for them and I eventually got to Africa and told them about the music video. She was all “I’m liking this concept.” When I got done, they just stood there with their mouths gaped open. Aimee went inside and William was like “Dude, you don’t know who she is? That’s Aimee, she’s already done 50 movies.” Evidently she does a lot of documentaries and movies. When she came back out she told me, “I’m gonna make the Africa music video happen for you.” Then I pitched her the concept for Homeless Got Talent and she freakin’ loved it. She gave me a hug, gave me some money, she cried, I cried, everybody cried, and then we departed. Since then, Aimee and her people have been filming a documentary about me. Freakin’ incredible.

Ronald being interviewed in the back of Poppa’s store for an upcoming docu-series directed by Delila Vallot. Photo by Sadiyya Ameena.

The idea for Homeless Got Talent has been rolling around in my head for a while. I watch America’s Got Talent, The Voice, all these shows where artists compete with each other. And I said, well you know what, these homeless people around here got way more talent than the people on TV. So we’ll do the same thing, but we’ll put a twist on it, with the homeless. We’re gonna do it here in Skid Row. I would love for the judges to be a diverse panel, not just one race. If you are homeless and a dancer, a singer, a rapper, whatever it is that is your talent, you can be on the show. And I’m gonna be the host, of course. Initially it’s gonna start on YouTube, and once we got a lot of views, that’s where the money starts coming in.

Ronald performing in front of the painting by Skid Robot that will become the stage background for Homeless Got Talent. Photograph by Wendy “Random” Chavez.

Skid Robot is a guerrilla artist born and raised in Los Angeles. With his positive style of graffiti, he paints dream homes, thought bubbles and imaginary landscapes around the harsh realities of the homeless. His works are mostly found in Skid Row and through his art, he aims to give a voice to those who are often viewed by society as non-existent. The artist feels that his identity is irrelevant to the message of the art and chooses to remain anonymous. He is passionate about his beliefs that art, words and ideas have the power to change the world.

Wendy “Random” Chavez is a photographer from Los Angeles. Her work captures the emotion behind the everyday people, urban landscapes and creative artforms that make her city authentic. Chavez pays close attention to less fortunate people of Los Angeles, in hopes of raising awareness of their situation. While documenting the harsher environments of the streets, Wendy met Skid Robot, an artist who shares her desire to end homelessness. The duo teams up regularly, blending public street paintings and photography to bring more attention to homelessness in Los Angeles and the rest of the world.