Music Stars Making A Social Impact: Why & How Michael Coleman Is Helping To Change Our World
Everything around has the potential to be your next song, so look and listen constantly. When I first started, I primarily focused on writing songs that reflected my truth and my experience and it was not until I started paying attention to what was around me that I developed what has become my signature of channeling others’ emotions and writing about the human experience. You open yourself up to a whole other level of writing style by just observing what is already around you.
As a part of our series about music stars who are making an important social impact, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Michael Coleman, Artistic Director of See Your Shadow Songwriting.
Michael Coleman also known as “The Metropolitan Cowboy” runs the Phoenix based music creation entity, See Your Shadow Songwriting. Writing and producing all the organization’s work, Michael has breathed life into many different styles of music and his pedigree includes many things, among them three iTunes Number 1s on the country chart in South Africa, songs in film and television, as well as a top 20 single on the Christian Radio Charts. Michael is a renaissance artist, as not only is he a professional songwriter and producer, but he is also a filmmaker, photographer, author, and the only professional songwriter to be nominated for the position of Poet Laureate for the State of Ohio.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
You know they say that there is a correlation between life and art and how I grew up probably could be some of the themes in my work. Especially since our focus now is country and western. I am originally from San Diego and that is my hometown. My mom was a teenage mother and I never knew my father, other than knowing who he was. At times things were difficult and I grew up faster than I probably should have. I was able to find solace in the arts however and joined the band and orchestra. That really laid the foundation for me to be able to understand music theory and things like that. I was part of the original MTV generation and would spend hours watching and taping music videos as well as watching old movies and that gave me the foundation for my love of the visual arts. For all intents and purposes, I should be a statistic, but through good decision making and God’s grace I was able to avoid the pitfalls African-American men with my beginnings often find themselves in. While my story isn’t Brady Bunch, Leave it to Beaver or Cosby Show, all of it was necessary for me to be able to write the songs I write and tell the stories I tell with authenticity.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
What took me in this direction was something quite simple. I was managing a law firm in San Francisco when I had a milestone birthday. I will not tell you which one it was, but when that hit, I was at a point in my life where I thought to myself, I have too much talent that is going to waste and I need to be doing something with it. So, I was always a good poet and my love of music was always there as well, so it seemed natural that I would try my hand at writing songs on a level that was more than just fooling around, and I focused on country because it was the genre that always told a story.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What was the lesson or take away that you took out of that story?
There have been many, but one that always makes me chuckle is the time I received death threats over my song and music video, “Rug Burn”. Now “Rug Burn” is a song I wrote put out by dance and disco duo Red Carpet Premiere. It is an LGBT themed dance track about oral sex. After we recorded the track, it was time to do the music video. For the music video I decided that we would do a tribute to trash filmmaker John Waters. Most people know John Waters for Hairspray, but it was his early work that he did with Divine that was so over the top and I love, and we decided to take the zaniness of his early work and put it on steroids. I mean we did some over the top stuff and it was the most fun I have ever had on a video shoot. So, the video comes out. One of the actors in the video gets so enraged they threaten to beat me up and kill me, one person gets so offended because the end-product was not something he could present to his grandma, and our singer refused ever to perform the song. Keep in mind they knew exactly what they were doing the entire time from the project’s conception to the end of the project. In any event we release the song and the video, and it shoots straight to the number 1 spot on the CD Baby Dance and Disco Chart and is played at LGBT dance clubs around the nation. The lesson that was learned was an important one and it was this, and I tell this to all artists, never apologize for the work you create. If you are inspired to take a certain direction on a project go with your vision and let the chips fall where they may, but always hold true to yourself as an artist. Incidentally, the premise I came up with for the music video, I turned into a live action game show that was being filmed here in Phoenix prior to COVID.
What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?
Always be professional and always do what you say you are going to do. What I mean by that is, show up on time, show up ready, and show up. Plus, your character counts, doing what you say you are going to do and being a person of your word is paramount to any success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
Years ago, I wrote a song called “One Life” and the opening line of verse two is, “Erase the words, I can’t from your mind”. I simply fell in love with that line, so much so that I adopted it as the See Your Shadow trademark and I really do apply that to every aspect of my life. I do not let the words “I can’t” stand in my way instead I ask myself, “how can I” and then put in the work to make it happen. The funny thing is I had always lived my life that way, but never thought about it in those terms until that line was written, which is probably why that line resonated with me so much.
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?
There is a myriad of folks who I am grateful to, but some not in the ways you may think. First there is my grandmother. When I was young, I landed a really great job with the government making a salary that was unprecedented for someone my age at the time and she would always say for me to be satisfied with what I got, but I knew I was destined for more, so if I had not been defiant, I probably would still have that job and not have taken the path that has brought me here. Additionally, and I always say this and am proud to say it, I would be nothing without everyone who is a part of the See Your Shadow Network of Stars. All the vocalists that sing the records and all the musicians I have worked with over the years that play on the recordings. I owe everything to them. Although I am at the top of the See Your Shadow pyramid as the one who writes all the work and produces the vision, they truly are the support that holds me up.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
Well, our latest single is the female empowerment anthem, “I Know My Worth” in anticipation of International Women’s Day. I have always been a huge advocate of women’s empowerment and just fostering confidence and self-esteem in people in general, but it seems that women and young girls have a more difficult time with this. I have observed the women in my own family struggle with this issue. The message of the piece is so powerful, and while it was a difficult piece to write, I feel it is one of the better pieces in the See Your Shadow catalog, both in the writing and the production. We did a lot of things that were never done before as the record is the first hick hop record done by a person of color and the first time a danceable record has used the banjo as its lead instrument. Then we decided to do an inspirational video just celebrating womanhood with a diverse look.
Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?
Well, the “I Know My Worth” project is a fundraiser for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network which helps survivors of sexual assault. When we put the record together, I knew I wanted it to be used to help raise money for a women’s centered charity. I lost my mom in 2019 and while I was taking care of her, she shared with me that she was a multiple occasion sexual assault survivor. Now I knew of some of the stories throughout the family, but I had no idea of the extent. I was conceived through one of those sexual assaults and it was not until my mom and I started talking about this that it really gave me insight into her and the dynamics of our relationship. My mom never sought help and carried the trauma with her, and while she was a successful woman in her chosen career, the trauma had a huge impact on how she lived, and I do not want other women to suffer the way she did. I felt it was important for me to speak up as well because it is important for us as the children of the survivors to gain a better understanding and insight as to why our parents may not be what we expected them to be.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
Well, I think that a lot of times passions and dreams do not manifest as a lot of times people do not know what they are passionate about. If you were just to ask the simple question to someone in a conversation, “What are you passionate about?” 8 times out of 10 you will not get an answer. I have done that as an experiment before, so I know it to be true. For the “I Know My Worth” campaign it actually did not t hit me until the recording was in the can that I was going to do the tie-in with the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Once the recording was done, I knew the project and the message of the project was bigger than myself and that it was the vehicle I was looking for to not only foster my passion for female empowerment, but also to do a tribute to my mother.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
When you use your art as your vehicle, sometimes, you do not know how the art you create makes a difference in a person’s life. There was a woman who commented on our YouTube Channel that displays the video about how she just had a baby and was feeling down about herself until she heard our song, and it was just what she needed. It is those types of victories that really let me know that we were spot on in the creation of the work.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
I think we need to continue having an open dialogue about sexual assault and the impact it has. I mean it got some attention with the METOO movement, but we need to go a step further and talk about the impact it has on the children of those who survived it. Especially how it impacts the male children. It is a tough conversation to have, which is probably why we do not talk about it as much as we should. You would be surprised by how many families are impacted. I have been a long time advocate that therapy should be free. A lot of times those that need therapy to get them through an issue do not get it because they cannot afford it. If the government did offer free therapy, I think so many people could be helped and the stigma of going to therapy would be erased as it would be more commonplace.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.
- The word NO does not mean you have no talent.
In show business probably more than any other business we hear the word NO so often and when you are just starting out all that rejection can play with your confidence and make you think that you do not have what it takes.
2. Rely on strangers and not your friends.
Most times strangers treat us better than those that are closest to us. I remember in those early days my circle of friends gave me no support and really could not grasp what I was trying to do. I think it is important early on for people seek out those that have the same passion and keep them close by. Doing that will lessen conflicts with your current circle of friends and reduce the harsh feelings you may have towards them when you do not get the support you thought you should.
3. It takes both sides of your brain to do a project.
In those early days I concentrated so much on the creative aspect of what I was doing that I was sometimes lax on the business aspect of what I was doing. It is easy to get caught up and so excited about a project that you forget there are more elements than just the creation of the work and you need to focus on both simultaneously.
4. Everything around has the potential to be your next song, so look and listen constantly.
When I first started, I primarily focused on writing songs that reflected my truth and my experience and it was not until I started paying attention to what was around me that I developed what has become my signature of channeling others’ emotions and writing about the human experience. You open yourself up to a whole other level of writing style by just observing what is already around you.
5. Success is born through sacrifice.
When you are first starting out there are a lot of sacrifices you must make, and one needs to be willing to make those sacrifices. It could be having to two or three jobs to pay for studio time, it could be not paying a bill to use that money for headshots, it could be breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend because the relationship is standing in your way, all of those tough times that you are guaranteed to go through and those tough decisions you will have to make will be the foundation for your success and make you appreciate it more because when success comes too easy, you are not grateful for it.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start 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. :-)
Boy I just think you helped me decide what See Your Shadow’s next release will be. I am a big supporter of diversity and inclusion and what we do not realize is that making our circle more diverse and building bridges with those that are different from us, starts with something so simple and that simple thing is an introduction, the word hello. That simple word is that catalyst to every dialogue and relationship and we have a song in our catalog titled, “It Starts with Hello” that speaks about the power of that word so if I could start a movement, it would probably go something like, “Diversity and Inclusion — It Starts with Hello”.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Politics, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. 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 if we tag them :-)
There are so many. One person that I would love to sit down with and share a Popeye’s chicken sandwich with is Gayle King. I really did not know much about her until this pandemic hit, but since I have been staying home more and have been able to catch the CBS morning show, I love the way that not only her, but both of her colleagues on that show interject humanity in their reporting. What caught my attention was one time when she was reporting on a story about a police shooting and she cried, and it was that kind of raw realness that I just love, and I would welcome the opportunity to sit down with her.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!
About The Interviewer: Growing up in Canada, Edward Sylvan was an unlikely candidate to make a mark on the high-powered film industry based in Hollywood. But as CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group Inc, (SEGI) Sylvan is among a select group of less than ten Black executives who have founded, own and control a publicly traded company. Now, deeply involved in the movie business, he is providing opportunities for people of color.
In 2020, he was appointed president of the Monaco International Film Festival, and was encouraged to take the festival in a new digital direction.
Raised in Toronto, he attended York University where he studied Economics and Political Science, then went to work in finance on Bay Street, (the city’s equivalent of Wall Street). After years of handling equities trading, film tax credits, options trading and mergers and acquisitions for the film, mining and technology industries, in 2008 he decided to reorient his career fully towards the entertainment business.
With the aim of helping Los Angeles filmmakers of color who were struggling to understand how to raise capital, Sylvan wanted to provide them with ways to finance their creative endeavors.