In that iconic, unmistakable voice, one of my all-time favorite singers, Roberta Flack, belted, “Set the night to music.” I have set my entire life to music, and it has been a richer, more fulfilling life as a result.

My father is a music lover. Growing up, he would blast music all through the house on Sundays after church service. I listened to the Motown greats like the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson Five, and Smokey Robinson. But he had an eclectic taste in music, so we also listened to hymns from the Ancient and Modern Hymnal, Beethoven, Stevie Wonder, Barry Manilow, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Dean Martin, Jimmy Reeves, Gladys Knight, and the Pips, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Cliff, Ella Fitzgerald, The Everly Brothers, Al Green, The Carpenters, Dionne Warwick, Nina Simone and music from our homeland. I imagine that I was listening to that music in utero. As a child, my dad played the piano, sang, and danced with me as he carried out his parenting duties while my mother studied to complete her Master’s degree. Unbeknownst to me, I was already tapping into the healing properties of music.

There’s nothing like music to capture every emotion, feeling, and thought. I have songs that inspire, soothe, embolden, comfort, console, bring about release, get me moving, and quiet my spirit. Our ancestors relished, embraced, and venerated music. We had mourning songs, birth songs, planting songs, harvesting songs, war songs, songs of peace. We had songs of praise and recrimination. We had songs that connected us to God and our ancestors. Our ancestors created soundtracks for every aspect of their lives.

I recall Sisi Mabel (my paternal grandaunt) humming as she rocked back and forth during what I now recognize as painful moments in her life. We cleaned our home to music. We played to music. We have a legacy of djalis who used music to chronicle and teach our history. The Yorubas have the Oriki. Many communities had musical instruments that communicated information, like the famous talking drums. Native Americans are renowned for music, including rain dances. Indigenous peoples have always been deeply connected to music and the powers that flow from it.

More recent, western-based research corroborates what we have always known and lived: music can reduce anxiety, calm emotions, lower blood pressure, soothe pain, aid in healing, improve sleep quality, alter moods, increase mental alertness, and improve memory. Music has been found to boost immune systems by increasing levels of the antibody immunoglobulin A, lowering cortisol (stress hormone) levels, decreasing depression, improving neurological conditions by reactivating speech centers of the brain, and even improving the memory of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.

Did you know that even plants are influenced by music? Scientists have discovered that soothing sound waves from music stimulate the plant’s cells, thereby encouraging nutrients to move throughout the plant. This promotes new growth and strengthens their immune systems. I often play music or sing to my plants while working in the garden.

I was fortunate to have been influenced by many music lovers. My Uncle Tonye had a collection of albums featuring Christiana Essien, Onyeka Onwenu, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Mike Ejeagha, Rex Lawson, Miriam Makeba, Victor Uwaifo and many others. My paternal grandfather, Papa Firi, was a phenomenal dancer. When Opobo music would come on, he would dance with the waist of a man a third of his age. I loved watching him. He could isolate body parts to follow the rhythm of the drums; it was a sight to behold. He mastered his body as a musical instrument itself. You could hear the music just from the movement of his body.

Some of my most meaningful memories with my dad include sitting or standing with him as he played and taught me hymns. He is a self-taught pianist. Our favorite hymn to sing was Lord I Would Own Thy Tender Care. But I also remember us, as a family, singing, The Longer I Serve Him, The Sweeter He Grows.

I was nine years old, wearing a red maxi dress, a short afro, and a flower in my hair when I sang Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly for the children’s program The Tortoise Club on national television. I do not know who permitted me to sing that song, but it spoke to my heart, so I did. I would sing Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend when I was down in the dumps. In my teenage reverie, I would imagine singing The Carpenters, Top of the World to the apple of my eye, and I could always count on Jimmy Cliff’s I Can See Clearly Now to snap me out of an evil spell. My melodramatic self imagined me singing Michael Jackson’s She’s Out of My Life as I strutted away.

I played out various love scenes featuring Diana Ross and Lionel Richie’s Endless Love and then, heartbreakingly, the Commodores’ Still. I climbed trees and belted The Hills Are Alive from The Sound of Music. And at one point, It’s My Turn by Diana Ross was my personal anthem. I cut my teeth on political and social anthems and songs from Fela, Gil Scott-Heron, and Bob Marley and lost myself in the lyrics and artistry of Boney M and ABBA songs like Rivers of Babylon, Redemption Song, The Winner Takes It All. And if you want to take me all the way to my maker, just play Shekinah Glory’s Yes. Woah, you are not ready for that anointing. To relieve stress as a college student, my friend Kim Pham and I would go to clubs early when we would have the dance floor to ourselves and leave when the real clubbers showed up.

In later years, other artists took center stage in my life, such as John Coltrane, Abbey Lincoln, Earth Wind and Fire, The Whispers, George Benson, Prince, Phyllis Hyman, Reba McIntire, Linda Ronstadt, The Gap Band, Dolly Patton, The Whispers, Gloria Estefan, Aretha Franklin, Bebe and Cece Winans, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, Ella Fitzgerald, Randy Crawford, Donny Hathaway, Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, Jimi Hendrix, Staci Lattisaw, Meshell Ndegeocello, Barry White, Cassandra Wilson and Tracy Chapman. Irene Cara’s What a Feeling was my get up and go anthem. Vandross’s Impossible Dream inspired me never to give up. Toni Braxton’s How Could an Angel Break My Heart was tied with Billie Holiday’s Good Morning Heartache for my favorite heartbreak song. I loved the chemistry of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. My all-time favorite anthem remains I’m Every Woman, and Love Jones has to rank in the top five of the world’s greatest soundtracks. Though I was never a hardcore hip-hop fan, even I could not resist Grandmaster Flash, De La Soul, The Pharcyde, Queen Lauryn Hill, Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, Rakim, Queen Latifah, Tupac Shakur, and many others.

I cannot think of a phase of my life when music did not play a significant role. I can easily change my mood by changing the song in my head. One of my favorite TV shows was Ally McBeal because the characters often had songs playing in their heads that reflected their state of mind, just like I do. I dream of playing the guitar with some level of mastery. I cannot imagine my life without music. I have written lyrics and created melodies and one day, they will not just be songs playing in my head but will go out and inspire the world as I have been inspired. Till then, in my Shannon voice, I say, Let the Music Play.

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