Devin Walker, Uncle Devin: “Know your worth”

I am a changemaker for racial equality in the field of family music. Children’s music is one of the fastest-growing music fields in the United States and is defined as music composed and performed for children. An artist can create any music genre to make children’s music, with the only criteria being that the music […]

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I am a changemaker for racial equality in the field of family music. Children’s music is one of the fastest-growing music fields in the United States and is defined as music composed and performed for children. An artist can create any music genre to make children’s music, with the only criteria being that the music must be age-appropriate. Therefore, with hundreds of music genres globally, children’s music can come in all styles.

However, today’s children’s music scene in the United States is dominated by children’s artists who play rock, pop, country, and folk music. These genres generally cater to the majority White community, which includes many children’s music radio stations. Many children in the black communities are left out because these are not genres in which they typically listen.

As a part of our series about music stars who are making an important social impact, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Devin Walker, a.k.a., “Uncle Devin, the Children’s Drumcussionist!”

Uncle Devin is an award-winning children’s artist specializing in Family Funk and owner of The Uncle Devin Show®, an interactive musical experience for children that uses percussion instruments to cultivate their minds — a dynamic cross between DC’s Trouble Funk and Schoolhouse Rock. He is also the Owner/Radio Producer of WEE Nation Radio!”

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?

I was born in Washington, DC, or popularly called “Chocolate City.” I was the youngest child of my parents, with a sister and brother, six and four years older. I certainly was the baby. When I was three years old, my family moved about two miles outside of DC to the small town of Seat Pleasant, MD, in Prince George’s County, MD (PGC). PGC would ultimately gain the title as the wealthiest majority-Black county in the country; however, our family was a modest working/middle-class family full of love and laughter.

People will often say that they grew up in the hood and on the “rough side of the mountain.” Well, that certainly was not my experience. My parents did an excellent job providing for the family, and while I knew we were not rich, I also knew we were not poor either. I came to appreciate everything we had, especially when you see less fortunate people in the world.

We did everything together as a family, from attending church, watching television programs and vacations. I was pretty much an average child who loved going outside to play, going to amusement parks, and listening to music. At the age of four, my parents gave my brother a set of drums. He never showed interest, but I, on the other hand, took over the drum set and never looked back. My father also introduced me to jazz, which greatly influenced my passion for music.

I benefited from the fact that I attended the same elementary school as my siblings because, by the time I got there, the teachers knew who I was, which made me feel very protected and unique. We were forced to attend an elementary school about 20 minutes away in the PGC’s northern part because of busing. Passing several other elementary schools on the way to ours never seemed to make much sense to me, but it was my reality that I would experience until I graduated high school. During those bus rides, I had conversations with my friends and let my mind venture about many different things.

However, the protection I felt in elementary school quickly vanished when I entered the seventh grade. Busing would now cause me to travel approximately 25–30 minutes away to a town that was, at that time, majority White, in the southern part of PGC. My seventh-grade year would also be the year the county decided to do away with sports and limit this activity to intramural games, which was very upsetting because I was looking forward to joining a team.

There was a lot of tension at my school based on race, and it was all shocking to me. The school we attended was named after Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney. Taney delivered the infamous majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), ruling that African Americans are not citizens and that Congress could not prohibit slavery in the United States territories. The county would eventually change the school’s name many years later to Thurgood Marshall Middle School.

I struggled socially and academically, having a hard time finding my way, but my saving grace was music. I joined the Symphonic Band as a percussion player in the seventh grade, and I stayed in the band each year after that. Because of colorism within the Black community, I struggled as a dark-skinned person and was called “Blackie” or other negative comments regularly. It did not help that many girls, for whom I was attracted, preferred the light, skinned boys with curly or wavy hair. Getting teased about my color was par for the course, but as I think back on it, everyone got laughed at about something, so I cannot say I was the only one going through this. As a result, I became a social introvert and one who stayed to myself a lot.

It was clear that I had an inferiority complex because of my skin color, and I did not know how to deal with it. I always received support and love from my family, especially my siblings, but my sister had left for college, and my brother would soon follow a few years later. By the time I was in the ninth grade, I certainly felt a sense of loneliness. I did not realize how significant their leaving impacted me until much later in life. Around this time, my father somehow worked full-time as a Communication Specialist for NASA while beginning the process of getting his master’s degree, a law degree, and becoming an ordained minister. His study routine required a lot of quiet time for him (and I), which resulted in me spending even more time by myself.

But my parents kept me involved in different activities, such as youth groups and joining the high school football team, playing all four years. Through all of this, I learned about discipline, organization, and commitment, which laid the foundation that would come to shape the very person I am today.

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

Before becoming a full-time musician, I worked for 25 years in the field of Equal Opportunity. Specifically, I am an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) investigator, mediator, and trainer, serving on many different levels. I started as a Federal contract investigator conducting investigations for over 15 various agencies and then worked as a Senior EEO Officer for the local transit authority for 20 years. Throughout this time, I continued to perform part-time as a musician with different groups. While working full time, I was averaging approximately 80 to 100 children’s shows per year.

In 2018, circumstances at my job, along with opportunities available for me in radio and the family music community, led me to leave my job and pursue music and radio programming full time. Working simultaneously for many years was starting to take its toll on me, and I had to decide whether to stay at my job or pursue music.

Music has always been a part of my life. As I mentioned, it was a saving grace for me when I was younger, and now, it is my turn to give back to music what it has given to me. I do not always advocate for someone to make the drastic decision to leave their job, but it was undoubtedly the right thing to do for me. All the years of working allowed me to build a nest egg, own a home, establish my official business, and build a reputation in the family music industry before stepping out on faith. In short, although I was turning to music for my livelihood, I did not need it to survive.

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?

The funniest story would have to be when I fell off the back of the stage while playing the drums. Gratefully, the only thing that hurt was my ego. We performed on a stage made up of eight different smaller 12′ by 14′ section pieces of stage that come together.

Well, my drum throne (stool) had small, linear leg rests. As I was playing, I moved my seat slightly, which caused the throne’s leg to fall between two sections. As the chair slid down one of the sections, it threw me off and onto the floor. I guess this was indeed a drum roll (da dat dat!). I am sure that the band members I was performing with are still laughing some 20 years later. I quickly learned to check the stage to ensure it was secure and not sit near or on one of the cracks.

What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?

The best advice I can give anyone is to make sure you have multiple sources of income. Do not just rely solely on your skill or art form. You should have at least three different income streams in addition to your art form. Doing so will keep you in the driver’s seat and help prevent you from thinking you must accept work that is well below market value to make it. Some people do not truly value music or artists’ talent, nor do they see the artist as having a legitimate business, so you are often asked to donate your time. It is essential to know your worth and get comfortable saying “No” if it does not benefit you or your business.

I would also suggest that you learn the business side with as much passion as you do the music side. Most artists only want to work in their art form but do not want to handle the business. They do not see themselves as entrepreneurs or business owners. Unless you can pay someone to do this for you, you must learn about registering your business, setting up a bank account, filing your taxes, etc. Most cities, counties, or states have numerous free resources to guide you in this area, such as your local Small Business Development Centers. They partner with the Small Business Administration (SBA). Seek legal advice in setting up your contracts or when reading deals provided to you for signature. Educate yourself to protect your interests. You do not have to go it alone.

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

My favorite quote comes from Kwame Ture, formerly Stokely Carmichael. At a lecture he gave at Howard University in 1990, he said, “There are two paths of development for which humanity can take. One where the means of production (both human and material resources) are used to advance a small group of people; or the other is where the means of production are used to advance the masses of the people. Each one of us must decide which side we are working on, but we cannot work for both.”

This quote forever changed my life because everything I do is to better the masses of people. It helped shape my philosophy in life. Everything I do is to ensure that we live in a society where people are primary over profit and where each gives according to their ability and receives according to their need.

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?

Yes, I must start with my wife, Lolita. We have become partners in business and life. She has helped shape our brand, image, and reputation beyond places I could have ever done on my own. Her belief in me encouraged me to walk away from my nine-to-five job and pursue the career path I am on today.

Lolita is highly detailed oriented and, because of her 22 years of experience working in the fashion industry in New York, she knows how to spot quality very quickly. When I was first developing a website for my brand, I had someone create it for me. In my eyes, at that time, it was fine. However, she took one look and immediately picked it apart. She helped me realize that I did not have to accept mediocrity, always strive to do better, and never rest on my laurels. We complement each other very well as we have similar work ethics.

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?

I am a changemaker for racial equality in the field of family music. Children’s music is one of the fastest-growing music fields in the United States and is defined as music composed and performed for children. An artist can create any music genre to make children’s music, with the only criteria being that the music must be age-appropriate. Therefore, with hundreds of music genres globally, children’s music can come in all styles.

However, today’s children’s music scene in the United States is dominated by children’s artists who play rock, pop, country, and folk music. These genres generally cater to the majority White community, which includes many children’s music radio stations. Many children in the black communities are left out because these are not genres in which they typically listen.

The top five music genres in the black community are R&B, gospel, hip-hop, rap, and smooth jazz. While some children’s artists fall in one or more of these categories, far too few artists make children’s music that caters to the black community. Additionally, those who do cater to this community do not receive the same exposure via radio or television as their counterparts who play rock, pop, or country music for children. There is also disparity and inequity in PR/media/agent representation and financial compensation as well.

Therefore, my wife and I started WEE Nation Radio. This free 24/7 online music radio station streams R&B, Hip-Hop, Funk, Jazz, Go-Go, Reggae, World music, and more music specially created for children and their families. WEE stands for Watoto Entertainment and Education. Watoto is an African Swahili word for children. We not only help children see themselves in the artists we play, but we also provide a platform for these artists that often do not exist.

We do not dumb down the music for children, and we do not shy away from the tough topics that parents and caregivers may need to address with their children. We play songs and interview artists regarding race, bullying, and child safety, including trafficking and internet safety.

This year, we have expanded to provide teen authors and child storytellers with a platform to share their art form for children between 0–12 years. Our goal is to provide young artists opportunities to learn the business, including music and radio production.

Last April 2020, we launched Uncle Devin’s WEE Nation Radio on WPFW 89.3FM here in Washington, DC, as a companion show. With the digital divide, many marginalized families do not have access to the internet. WPFW is known as the station for Jazz and Justice. It has given us a platform to reach our community, especially those in under-represented areas, and spotlight Black and Brown storytellers, book authors, and children, positively impacting their communities.

In November 2019, I presented a workshop on “Racism in Children’s Music” for the National Association of Independent School’s (NAIS) People of Color Conference in Seattle, Washington. There has been much debate in the family music industry on whether we continue to use nursery rhymes and stories that depict racist and offensive lyrics. Since that presentation, I have presented that workshop for libraries, schools, and organizations across the country. It has sparked great debate and tear-filled conversations. Many are grateful for these discussions as they are now more conscious of what they present to children at home and in their workplace. Unbeknownst to me, NAIS posted the presentation online, so I am still getting contacted by people worldwide, including Australia and China. They seek my help in addressing this very issue in their communities abroad.

Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?

I have always been active in the fight against oppression worldwide, which all started when I was in college. I was a student leader that was active in protesting discriminatory practices on my campus, which led to a five-day sit-in that made national news. I then began organizing with Black students throughout Maryland and helped form the Maryland Black Student Alliance. As my historical and organizational experiences increased, I joined the worldwide Pan-African movement centered on the liberation and unification of Mother Africa and her scattered children.

Therefore, I have organized on many different levels, including students, adults, churches, and now family music. My current work is an extension of my lifelong purpose, and I am grateful to be part of a movement that is making fundamental changes in the family music community.

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?

I attended the 2012 Kindiefest conference in New York and was honored to be selected to perform. Kinderfest was a conference where family music artists worldwide gather to connect, attend workshops, and share music. I was probably one of five Blacks out of approximately 150 people in attendance, with most artists being White.

One workshop included the leaders in our industry, including those who are regularly played on the radio, television, podcasts, and more. The moderator asked each one to describe the children’s music scene in one word. Most of them answered by saying, “fun, exciting, creative, etc.” When Grammy Award-winning artist, Dan Zanes, responded, he said two words, “Too White.” Dan is a White artist who has made it. However, when he made this comment, it shifted the tone and the mood of the panel. People became very defensive, arguing against Dan’s assessment.

Listening to this exchange, I knew that I had a purpose to fulfill in this industry. I also knew that it was not my position to try and make White stations or organizations change. It was my duty to create a space for and with the Black community to control our destiny. There is an old Isley Brother’s song that states, “If you don’t like our music, you don’t have to use it!”

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I was being interviewed on a local radio station in 2019 in a small town in Maryland. The station hosts a children’s music show every Saturday morning. As I walked into the studio, I heard familiar family music that I often play on my station. I have listened to their station in the past, and it certainly was not the music they usually play. The host immediately said that she listens to our station regularly and thanked me for introducing her to many Black and Brown artists that she had never previously heard. She also said that she now regularly plays many of these artists after hearing them on my radio show.

As we speak, many white-owned radio stations are now playing many Black artists because of our work and research. Consequently, we impact children, caregivers, radio producers, and artists by amplifying Black and Brown voices in family music.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

Yes. The three ways to support what we do are:

  1. Listen to WEE Nation Radio every day. We are available on Roku TV, Fire TV, Hey Google, and Amazon Alexa and directly on to help bridge the gap between independent Black and Brown family music artists and the communities we serve.
  2. Donate to WEE Nation Radio through our fiscal sponsor, Fractured Atlas, by clicking on the “Donate” button on our website. WEE Nation Radio is a fiscally sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Online contributions for WEE Nation Radio’s charitable purposes must be made payable to ‘Fractured Atlas’ and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.
  3. Sign our petition to request Black-owned award shows to recognize “Children’s Music” as an award category, like the GRAMMYs and the Latin GRAMMYs recognize it.

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 five things I wish someone would have told me when I started was:

  1. Take advantage of the free resources offered by your city, county, or state. Most municipalities have Small Business Development Centers to help you build your business and provide advice every step of the way. You will be surprised that many start-ups do not take advantage of this resource and miss out on opportunities available to them.
  2. Know your worth. Find out what the going rate is for your industry and be willing to fight for equal pay. Too many new businesses think they must start with extremely low-paying jobs just to get in the door. This practice is a mistake. Doing so lowers the bar for everyone, including yourself. Do your research and make sure to get paid fair market value or more when you begin.
  3. Make sure to hire a professional to help you in your work. You are only one person, and you do not want to burn yourself out. For example, as a musician, I handled all mixing for my music — a big mistake. I have quickly learned that two heads are better than one, and four ears are better than two. I know that many of my recordings would have been much better than they are now if I had someone else to handle my recordings.
  4. Do not expect everyone to have the same passion or commitment to your business as you do. Keep in mind that this is your passion, not theirs. Your family and friends want to see you succeed but make sure you expand your network beyond them because there is a whole world of people who share your passion and would love to support you. Make sure you spend more time cultivating your external support base. These relationships are the ones that will help you grow over time.
  5. If you hire someone to help you with your business, hold them accountable and make sure they do the work, not you. Some companies are masters at getting you to hire them, and before you know it, they have shifted all the responsibility back to you. Remember, you hired them to take the workload off of your shoulders contribute to the load. Do not be afraid to speak up.

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. 🙂

I would start a movement to outlaw poverty, which will make it against the law for anyone to be poor. The reality is there are so many poor people in the world because we have an economic system that allows it. Therefore, to outlaw poverty, we also must put restrictions on how much certain people can have or earn.

A 2019 Time Magazine article stated that the top 26 wealthiest people owned 1.4 trillion dollars, or as much as the 3.8 billion poorest people. There should be a crime against this. In the board game “Monopoly,” the rules are such that everyone starts equal, but as the game goes on, one person can control as much as they want, which usually lands others in poverty and jail. Well, our campaign will teach people a new way of playing this game.

Instead of allowing one person to own and control as much as they want, we will change the rules. No one can earn less than 50,000 dollars, and no one can earn over 300,000 dollars (or whatever this threshold will be). All the extra money should pay for healthcare, housing, education, and other necessary social programs. Anyone caught earning more than the maximum amount of money will be punished. This economic structure reduces conflict, tension and promotes unity.

No one in their right mind wakes up and says, “Today, it is my goal to starve to death, not to have enough food to eat, not to have a place to sleep,” unless it is for a higher religious, spiritual, or political reason. It is society’s responsibility to help every one of its members to know that they are valued, loved, and needed.

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 🙂

I would love to meet KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions. We both are of the same generation, and I grew up on his music and movement. He provided a soundtrack of music that represented most of my social and political philosophies in life. I would love to discuss with him his evolution, especially on religion, African consciousness, and where his journey is taking him next.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!

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