Grammy Nominee Debo Ray On The Five Things You Need To Shine In The Music Industry

An Interview With Elana Cohen

Elana Cohen
Authority Magazine

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You don’t have to be like everyone else, but you do have to be mindful to communicate your essence in a way that connects with others. I’m trying to practice that on a daily basis as I build my solo career.

As a part of our interview series with leaders, stars, and rising stars in the music industry, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Debo Ray.

Debo Ray is a Grammy-nominated singer/musician and assistant professor at Berklee College of Music. She has performed all over the world on some of the biggest stages fronting bands and adding her extraordinary voice as a session vocalist to numerous recording projects, albums, and films. After making others sound good up to this point, Debo has now embarked on a career to define herself as a solo artist with original material. She’s using her amazing versatility; from jazz, to rock, r&b, and classical to spread the joy she feels through music.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit about your “origin story”. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I was born in Cambridge, MA. My parents are Haitian immigrants and very active in the Christian Haitian Baptist church community — my grandfather and Mom (and many other members of my family) are pastors — so the church was a big part of my upbringing. Both my parents were singers, so in spite of the typical norm in Haitian households where the arts are not deemed important, my musical talents were always encouraged as long as I can remember. We moved around a lot and I was always trying to fit in with the other kids in school, and frankly I wasn’t always successful — my interests kind of went against the grain. I think I moved, what, ten times before I settled in the North Shore of Massachusetts at age nine.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve always been drawn to singing and music in general for as long as I can remember. My parent’s influence probably has a lot to do with that. Music was always a big part of the church services my family attended and they would have me sing when I was as young as four. Later, at age 11, I got a scholarship for the Handel & Haydn Society of Boston Vocal Apprenticeship Program where I was trained in the classical tradition. I fell so deep in love with singing and knew in my heart that it’s what I HAD to pursue, but it wasn’t until high school that I decided to take the leap and apply to Berklee College of Music. At age 17, I got in!!! And the rest is history :)

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Oh yeah! During a performance on a US tour with Women of the World — one of my many musical projects that features an ensemble of musicians from across the globe. Since things were politically tense at the time, we were all afraid that we wouldn’t be well received in this particular city. I was the only American citizen and black, and all the other members were immigrants. Typically, we have a Q&A section of our show to get to know our audience and for them to get to know us. And smack dab in the middle of the audience was an older gent wearing a MAGA hat. He raised his hand to ask a question. We FROZE. His question was about why we wore the things we wore (culturally significant costumes), and…he couldn’t have been sweeter! We answered his question as best we could, and he ended up talking to us even more after the show about how much he learned and how much fun he had. We were standing in disbelief because we were ready to be judged by others, and had passed judgment ourselves. It was a huge learning moment that you never know what’s inside the book by its cover; that the live music experience is a cycle of energetic trade. It was a reminder to always give folks the benefit of the doubt, at least at first.

It has been said that sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There was an open-mic night where I had the opportunity to sing but I didn’t know what type of crowd it was going to be or who’d also be playing. I was probably 15 or 16 years old and was super nervous; all I had done for an audience was gospel and classical music. I came in and saw a bunch of R&B musicians playing some really groovy music and decided: “Hey!! Let’s do a BALLAD!”.

Ohhhh boy. I got up to the keyboard and did a song called “Out Here On My Own” from the movie Fame, and decided to play solo without checking in with anyone else on stage. The bass player looked at me and said, “do you have a chart so I can play?” I didn’t know what a chart was at that time, so I nervously responded, “umm…no thanks”, not realizing he was asking me for the MUSIC to read!

I learned the hard way about the value of communication in musical collaboration. It’s okay not to know something. Just ask for help, and more often than not, you’ll receive it!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My parents were my earliest influences for sure, but I’ve also had many mentors along the way. At Berklee, the legendary Professor Hal Crook put together a big band with all the most accomplished students and asked me to be a part. Hal is very demanding and at one point, when my confidence was shaky at best, he gave me a stern lecture about what was needed to perform at the highest level. He expressed that talent is overrated, and discipline and awareness of my craft was paramount. I eventually realized he was right and I always remember that as a landmark in my evolution as an artist and as a person.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go FAR, go together.” Like many who strive to achieve at a high level, I’ve run into periods of self-doubt, sometimes to a debilitating extent. Through my many friendships with supportive, similar-minded folks, I’ve also come to realize that I’m not alone in this journey to better myself. That’s given me comfort and the drive to “keep on keepin’ on”. HUGE thanks to everyone who supports me. You’re the best!!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

After singing with many great bands and playing some of the top venues all over the world, including the Newport and Monterey Jazz festivals, Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, I am finally listening to the advice of many of my colleagues who have urged me to pursue my own career as a solo artist!

I’ve been writing and recording new material for the past year and a half and have released two original singles, entitled Filly and COPE. We also filmed an epic video for COPE. I’ve got another single ready to release later this year, and am working on a couple more which will be released between now and then. In the meantime, I’ve got a Residency at The Regent Theatre in the Boston area and am doing five separate shows over the course of 2023.

Oh yeah, and I’ll be performing in an opera entitled “The Jonah People” with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in April of this year. I’m still playing with my other collaborations, namely Terri Lyne Carrington’s Social Science and David Fiuczynski’s Screaming Headless Torsos. So, lots going on and I’m super excited about it all.

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in music, film, and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

I definitely think that there’s a need for people from a variety of racial, ethnic, and gender backgrounds bringing their own unique voices to their art. And I think that’s important for the evolution of all art forms.

Even more than that, I think that style diversity is also important. In other words, a certain style of music should not be gate-kept by race or gender, and so on. I’ve always felt like an outsider because I’ve been told that my musical tastes do not align with the “normal” tastes of my race and gender. I think it’s because there aren’t many examples of artists that look like me and do what I do in music.

Because of my unique background in classical music, jazz, gospel, blues and R&B, along with my love of all things rock and metal and my eclectic tastes in general, I think I am uniquely qualified to be an “ambassador” of sorts for diversity in all musical styles.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Be yourself. You’re the only YOU that the world’s got, so be the best at it!
  2. Be prepared. You never know what opportunity will POP out of nowhere!
  3. What other people think about you is NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS. Just consider what you think of yourself and let the rest fall to the wayside.
  4. Practice with a purpose. I wish I’d realized sooner that having a clear intention will make practice so much more fun and effective!
  5. You don’t have to be like everyone else, but be mindful to communicate your essence in a way that connects with others: my collaborators and audience are my lifeblood, so I have to speak to their wants and needs too.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Don’t neglect your personal life! This is SO important as so many of us are just “work work work” all the time because, let’s face it, there’s ALWAYS something to do. And it’s especially true for those of us whose art and passion is also our day job. But we all need to realize that time with our friends, our families — and not the least, ourselves — is essential in order to maintain the vitality and the endurance required to go the distance.

For example, I moonlight as an amateur bodybuilder, and one of the reasons I’ve decided to train with weights seriously and compete is because of the sense of mental well-being and confidence it gives me in all aspects of my life — not only just looks. Eating well, getting proper rest, and regular exercise are all a very important part of my life. And we can’t forget our support systems. Mine got me through all the hard times with my head held high!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Oh yeah, personal care and tolerance for others. I think we need a lot more of both these days!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I’ve always been a huge fan of Yoko Kanno, the prolific and world-renowned Japanese anime/film/tv composer and probably my greatest musical influence if I had to pick one. I’m a huge fan of anime and discovered her through that. Now that I’m an assistant Professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, one of my dreams would be to teach a student ensemble where we would play her music exclusively. My secret hope is that even though she’s super reclusive, she’d become aware of the ensemble and attend a performance and I could pick her brain on how she wrote such amazing music! One can dream, right :) ?

How can our readers follow you online?

I always encourage people to start at my website, www.iamdeboray.com which is basically the hub for all my activities — music or otherwise. You can also subscribe to my YouTube channel and follow me at the same handle, @iamdeboray on all social media platforms.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Thank you so much! I appreciate it!

Photo credits: Holy Smoke Photography

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Elana Cohen
Authority Magazine

Elana Cohen is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She covers entertainment and music