Be ready to work hard and study to improve your skills/abilities — practice makes perfect
Keep people around you who care about you enough to tell you the truth, not just what you want to hear
Step out of your comfort zone — when you change what you do, you can change what you get
As a part of our series about rising music stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Myrna Clayton.
From her experiences performing and teaching overseas — including her recent U.S. State Department Arts Envoy tours — America’s Songbird Myrna Clayton has been expanding her cultural exchange reach as a “Cultural Ambassador” in the Southeast region of the United States.
Ms. Clayton is bringing an awareness of the “essential” work performing artists of all abilities do in touching human lives, especially in times of challenge like we have been experiencing — here and globally.
Creating a team of artists, media/public relations/music promotion specialists, community organizations, and local philanthropy, Ms. Clayton is offering live and virtual music performances, workshops, and international cultural exchange, that include the African American experience as well as the international cultural sounds and vibrancy of other cultures from around the world. Her hope is for her events in Atlanta to be a destination for international cultural exchange in the Southeast.
She will be releasing two single’s over the next few months: “We Are One” ( from her collaboration with local performers in Namibia) and “You Are Beautiful” (an offering for women) — to bring peace, understanding, and cultural advancement of the indomitable human spirit.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
My “growing up” years happened in Atlanta, GA at a pivotal growth period for the city of Atlanta as a whole. A major element in my formative education was the access to music training I received through the Atlanta Public Schools’ Minority to Majority program.
From 6th grade to 12 grade, I was bussed to school in the “Buckhead” area of Atlanta — an affluent community in Atlanta. It’s where I learned to play the flute and appreciate another culture other than my own. I attended Northside High School, focused on my college prep coursework, while also participating in Northside’s top rated performing arts program, sports and student government.
My senior year in my racially diverse high school was filled with both musical and academic leadership roles. I was the flute section leader in the concert/marching band, president of Northside’s student body, and a performer in the touring stage band.
Within my family upbringing, arts and culture were major parts of our orientation. My parents had me take ballet and piano. In addition, my older brother and I grew up singing in the children’s and youth choir of our father’s church. We frequently attended civil rights events with our parents. My father was both a minister and a college professor — who loved to play his trumpet in solitary moments of reflection. My mother was a librarian-archivist who was chosen as the first research librarian of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in 1969. She later became head of archives and special collections at the Atlanta University Woodruff Library.
In short, my “backstory” revolves around my exposure to a rich and diverse range of American culture as I grew up.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
After receiving my MBA and having worked in corporate Marketing for several years, I realized that I was unfulfilled — and that I needed to exercise my GOD-given gift. Although I was moving up the corporate career ladder of success, I could see that my ladder was leaning against the wrong wall. I did a soul search and acknowledged to myself that I did not want to be 60, wishing sadly that I had tried to pursue my dreams. So I made a career change, and an abrupt lifestyle adjustment, to pursue a career in singing. I love my life in music — and have used my corporate Marketing experience to support the business success I have been blessed to experience as a singer, performer, and show producer.
My unique cultural (arts, Black/civil rights exposure, bussing, etc.) upbringing with my corporate business experience, is what, I believe, attributed to a recent life accomplishment that has been one of my greatest joys. In 2018, my band and I were selected by the U.S. State Department, as 1 of 10 bands (selected from 400 auditioning bands nationwide) to represent American music abroad in our U.S. Embassies worldwide. If I had not left corporate America to pursue my gift, I would never have known the joy of sharing American music — and experiencing an incredible “one-ness” — with so many wonderful audiences and musicians from around the world.
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?
While on my first performance tour in Russia, because Russia is so geographically vast, I agreed to take a 10-hour car ride overnight to the next performance location, rather than two plane rides that would take 15+ hours. Expecting limo type driver accommodations (like in America), after my performance, I went to get in the car for my long ride. I soon discovered that it was snowing outside, and that my driver would be chauffeuring me in a small Toyota-like car. I then discovered that my driver did not speak English — and had a friend along with him to help him drive.
As a Black American female (3 potential negatives against me, depending on my circumstances) who is now riding with two Russian men, needless to say, I paused to pray to GOD for protection before getting in the car!
We proceeded to drive through the mountains of Russia and, just as I had feared, our small Toyota-like car got stuck in the snow. Of course, we then had to wait for a tow truck to extract us, which then resulted in me having to wait to transfer to a “commuter-type bus” that, eventually, got me to the town where I was performing next.
What was supposed to have been a smooth 10-hour ride ended up being well over 15 hours, with practically no sleep for me. I arrived just in time to rehearse with the band and rest for an hour before show time. No one in the audience was the wiser, but I promise you, my agent got an earful. Since that adventure, my performance contract rider specifically states no auto travel longer than 2 hours — and no overnight auto travel! It’s a funny story now, but it certainly was not at the time. (smile)
What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?
- Follow your gifting — that thing that comes naturally, and brings you the most joy
- Be ready to work hard and study to improve your skills/abilities — practice makes perfect
- Surround yourself with people who are better than you — iron sharpens iron
- Never think more highly of yourself than you ought…you can always improve
- Keep people around you who care about you enough to tell you the truth, not just what you want to hear
- Value your differences and uniqueness
- Step out of your comfort zone — when you change what you do, you can change what you get
- Don’t go the way everybody else is going — chart your own course, and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit
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?
That person for me is my cousin, Paula Hare-McAnderson, who lived in the DC/MD/VA area at the time I was traveling to DC en route to NYC, in hopes of finding individuals who booked artists like myself internationally. I knew I wanted to perform internationally because I had a prevision that I would perform worldwide. The person I had planned to stay with in DC unexpectedly had challenges, and I was left with nowhere to stay. I was stranded. An idea came to me, seemingly out of the blue, to call Paula, which I acted upon. Upon hearing my plight, she invited me to stay at her home with her family. Even though Paula and I hardly knew each other, she, her husband and two boys treated me like they had known me for years. Had it not been for Paula’s kindness to open her home to me, I would not have had the freedom to explore possibilities throughout the Northeast, and ultimately learn about opportunities to perform in Russia — and within the U.S. State Department.
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?
Whenever the State Department sends me to perform, I always request that they make a concerted effort to include people on the disability spectrum in our programming, and to invite individuals with disabilities to our shows. Few people realize that the largest minority population in the world is the disability community. In the United States, 1.2 billion people (20% of the U.S. population) have a disability; it’s the only minority population that anyone can join at any time.
A few years before my band and I were selected by the State Department to represent American music, I had started a 501c3 nonprofit organization. Our mission: to use music and the performing arts as a platform for Advocacy, Education, Empowerment and Entertainment to break down barriers for the disability community.
We describe the disability “community” as those individuals WITH visible or invisible disabilities — and the people in their lives who love them. It is the aim of our nonprofit — “SHOWAbility”(™), Inc. — to be for the arts/entertainment industry what the Paralympics and Special Olympics are for the sports industry.
We believe that “Everybody deserves a stage”.
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 saw a young boy, about 9 or 10 years old, struggle to climb three steps to enter a pulpit of a church. I guess he had cerebral palsy, because he had metal crutches under his arms to help balance himself. When he finally got in position, and started singing, his voice was amazing — powerful and angelic! I forgot all about his physical challenges, and became mesmerized by his voice.
Sadly, I didn’t think to get his information at that time. It just so happened that he crossed my mind about 5 years later. Thinking he would be a teenager by then, I began asking entertainment friends across genres and platforms if they knew any singers with disabilities. Not one person said “yes”! That made no sense to me, so I began looking and asking around for myself, only to find that no one I asked knew of any singers with disabilities. The only singers with disabilities in the music industry at that time were blind — which clearly didn’t represent the diversity of the disability population.
This was simply unacceptable to me. That’s when I began forming what is now known as SHOWAbility, Inc. (www.SHOWAbility.org)
Many in the disability community have shared with me that they see me as somewhat of an “odd duck”, to be so involved with their community — since I am not someone with a disability myself — or that I do not have someone with a disability close to me in my life.
That I am also from the performing arts world — a world that has traditionally been far removed from the world of disabilities — is certainly not the usual. That I am an African American businesswoman to boot — all of these characteristics of my involvement are truly outside of “the norm”, not only for the disability community, but for others as well. But, it’s not odd to me. I see the need so if not me, then who?
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Let me tell you about Rusty Taylor, an amazing jazz singer, who looked like a bigger version of Willy Nelson, but who actually sounded like New Orleans Jazz singer Aaron Neville. Rusty was a quadralegic — and is now deceased — but Rusty had a gift, and he took advantage of every opportunity we presented to showcase his gift! Even though he lived in Columbus GA, he and his loyal parents would drive him to Atlanta for every one of our performances.
Rusty wanted to perform at an Atlanta Braves game, so we arranged for him to do just that, on July 22nd, 2015, in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Our T-shirt theme was: Disability Rights Are Civil Rights).
I suggested that Rusty audition for The Voice and his parents drove all the way to Nashville to audition. We were ahead of the curve — a few years before Kodi Lee on America’s Got Talent — so I think the folks at The Voice really didn’t know what to do about a singer who was a quadralegic. The stage was certainly not accessible — and probably not the green room, either. That did not stop Rusty. Once we opened the doorway, Rusty’s confidence soared. He was known to travel and perform all around middle Georgia and Alabama. Wherever there was a Jam session, Rusty was there — on or off stage, singing.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
- We can all look to shift an often held viewpoint of under-estimating the abilities of people who are different from ourselves, especially those on the disability spectrum. It will require all of us extending ourselves outside of our “comfort zone” to engage in conversations with people who are different from us, particularly individuals on the disability spectrum. They are not needing our sympathy or uninvited/unrequested prayers — just our respect.
- We must do more in the area of advocacy and public policy for the accessibility and inclusion of individuals with disabilities at arts and entertainment venues. There are more data reference points that need to be factored in, regarding stage areas, choice seating, green room tech booths, etc. This will require us going beyond current ADA building code compliance. This, in turn, will require effective and sustainable engagement as a society that has all disability advocate voices be included in the decision-making process of government policy. That, in turn, will take public-private partnership commitments, including philanthropic funding — whether we are in a COVID pandemic — or post-pandemic.
- We can encourage one another in the performing arts world to bring forward messages within our performances that highlight and embrace the universal truth in valuing our differences. I will be releasing two CD’s — one in February and one in March — in that spirit. “We Are One” and “You Are Beautiful” are songs designed from the experience of “one-ness” my band and I had while performing in Namibia with local artists, and from the need for women to hear about and see themselves as “beautiful”. Both songs are meant to convey the message of “We are one” and “You are beautiful” across the wide, diverse spectrums of our shared human experience — including the disability spectrum.
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.
- Don’t try to be like anyone else…be yourself. Because of my cultural exposure, I am a “singer of songs”, not a singer of a certain genre. Many have wanted to put me in a “box”. I have learned there are no “boxes”. I have the liberty to sing a variety of songs based on the energy and needs of my paying audiences. My band stays flexible, so we can shift on a dime, and pour into an audience exactly what they need.
- Put the oxygen mask on yourself before trying to help others. For the purpose of self-care and my own peace of mind, I have had to learn to say “no” even to good things that I really want to say “yes” to. Part of my “oxygen mask” is delegating certain key tasks to “busy professionals”. I discovered that things get done when you engage a busy professional, because they will get it off their plate fast!
- As long as your motives are pure, ask for forgiveness, not permission. I believe all music was created by GOD. It’s the lyrics that mess things up. So it is not unusual for me to sing a spiritual song in a club/theatre venue, or a Jazz Soul song in a church. If the message fits the moment, I sing it. When I have command of the mic, it is a power I am extremely reverent of. Over the years, the audience response to my song selections has overwhelmingly been positive.
- As long as your motives are pure, know the rules and choose to break them. If you don’t know the rules, then you are ignorant to the facts. I got started on this path in my 30s…well after others started. I had to start my own band because no one was calling me to do gigs. Now musicians that weren’t calling me, want me to call them!
- Love and value yourself — your own unique gift. I am grateful for my gift. How I treat and enjoy my gift is my way of showing the Gift-Giver how much I appreciate the gift. I believe that by valuing our gifts, we create the possibility of more gifts coming into — and through — our lives.
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. 🙂
If I could start a movement, it would be a movement in VALUING DIFFERENCES. We as human beings are simply not the same — and frankly, I think Sameness is bland — and boring! One of our challenges, I believe, as human beings, is to overcome our tendency to try and change someone else’s “difference” to our “liking”, Instead, we need to learn to embrace our differences — even add elements of something “different”, to expand our individual and collective capabilities. This includes differences in culture, ethnicities, race, nationalities, socio-economics, gender — and abilities.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you explain how that was relevant in your life?
“When someone tells you who they are, believe them” — Maya Angelou
I am gifted with the ability to sense a person’s potential — often before they sense it. However, just because I sense a person’s potential — and am full heartedly wanting them to pursue given opportunities to fulfill their potential — that doesn’t always lead to that person wanting to pursue the potential I see they have.
In the past, I would find myself working harder for a person’s potential/dream than they would be working on it themselves — to the neglect of my own dreams, and my own potential. I truly did not believe them when they would tell me that this was something they did not want. After a few hard and disappointing experiences, I finally began to listen — and I began to believe.
Now, I ask a person that I see has potential/talent if what I sense about them and their gifts is something they want to pursue. And, I watch to see if they are taking action steps in the direction of the potential I am able to see within them. If not, then I give them space — and grace — to be who they want to be — even if I think they are not living up to their potential. Because — if they are happy, then I am ecstatic!
How can our readers follow you online?
For more information, visit: www.MyrnaClayton.com
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!