Internationally acclaimed gospel, jazz, and soul singer Lea Gilmore is also a well-regarded advocate and spokesperson for civil rights. She calls herself the “singing policy wonk.” We call her “delightful.”
Where did you go to school?
It is a curious thing about Baltimore. Whenever we are asked where we went to school, we automatically know it means what high school we attended. I went to Mercy High. Catholic. All Girls. Bobby socks and saddle shoes. All that being so, it was a great experience. I never had morning freak outs over what to wear, and I met the coolest nuns ever. In fact, one of the reasons I embraced music professionally is because of the support of one energetic choir director, Sr. Helen Daugherty. I still have a close relationship with the school, students and teachers. I am also an extremely proud graduate of Morgan State University. I sang in the choir under the unprecedented leadership of the late Dr. Nathan Carter, and received a degree in Political Science. I am a singing policy wonk.
What book or film most changed your life?
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. I was an 18 year old new wife and mother (yeah, for real, and 24 years later still married to the same guy) wondering what was next in my world. I read about Maya's life and it gave me the inspiration and determination to go for my dreams.
Who is your favorite Baltimorean, living or dead?
Dead? Billie Holiday. She lead one tumultous life, but her music, life and legacy are something in which Baltimoreans can be very proud. My very good friend and mentor Ruby Glover, who just recently passed away, had the dream of a Billie Holiday musuem, and I am looking forward to seeing it become a needed reality.
Living? My husband David. A native of “the west side” and the patient soul that puts up with my madness.
What is the best advice you ever got?
My mom told me that life does not have to be “either/or,” but should be an “and.” So, I never thought I should do just one thing in this here life. . . but become of master of several. Not sure if I have reached the “master” level, but I I keep trying.
What is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?
Man, you just want me to choose just one? I have learned from them all . . .
What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?
Childbirth. I know gazillions have gone before me, but two natural child births and one with an almost ten pounder—I feel it was brave as heck.
What is the greatest problem facing Baltimore today?
My heart often aches for my beloved city. . .
I feel so frustrated and overwhelmed by the myriad of problems, the most pressing I feel is crime—in all its forms. It's so scary. It is just a symptom of a pathology that has taken hold. We must fight for our kids. We must strategically invest in education, teaching our babies as soon as they are aware, that yes, a well-rounded education is “the great equalizer.” We must give them opportunities to pursue the arts, so they can express their souls. . . and maybe they will be playing with guitars instead of guns. My five year plan is to start a foundation that sends kids to the theatre, to Broadway shows, pays for music and voice lessons, and much more. I know it's idealistic as heck, but someone has to be. Thank God for ideals.
What was your favorite Smalltimore moment?
I have had so many! I often joke with friends, that you better not talk about anyone too badly, because (no matter what their ethnicity) I am sure they are second cousins twice removed—whatever that means! My favorite moment maybe shows how small the world is: I was stuck in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam waiting out one crazy storm. I started talking to some American tourists. To make the proverbial long story short, they lived on Charles Street, and one of them graduated from my high school a few years before me. I was just so glad to be speaking English, and even more excited to be doing so with some homeys.
How has Baltimore changed since you’ve lived here?
There are many more cultural opportunities and quirky, but fun places to go. I was never much of a partier, but I am told there are some happening night spots (man, that sounds kinda corny. . . ). Baltimore is still pretty provincial, in a nice way. . .
When were you most tempted to leave Baltimore?
When I saw the sunset over the hills in the Scottish Highlands. I thought, this is what is meant by “heaven on earth.” Maybe I can just hang out here for the rest of my life. Then I thought, no crab cakes? I better get home.
Who would play you in the movie of your life?
Definitely Halle Berry. Well, in an alternate universe. Seriously, I love Loretta Devine.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Trivia books! I am obsessed by them. Maybe I am revealing too much of the inner geek?
If you could write Baltimore’s motto, what would it be?
Can I get the half million that was paid for the current one if I do so?
You’re a musician and a civic activist. Do you see a connection between the two?
Definitely. It wasn't always so clear, until I embraced the advice my mom gave me about not living a life that is “either/or.” The reality is that I don't know of one great civil rights movement, including the one in the US that has allowed me to do the things I do, that has not had music and song as its soundtrack, foundation and catalyst.
As an advocate of civil liberties, do you find this to be a perilous time in our nation’s history?
Yes, perilous. Tumultuous. Frustrating. Our freedoms are under constant attack. This is mostly done on the “down low” or presented in a pretty package using euphemistic language like “Patriot Act.” Who doesn't want to be a patriot? How did we develop a culture where questioning the acts of government equals unpatriotic behavior? I love this country and I care about it deeply. I understand the need to protect us, and how that may sometimes mean that we give up some of our privacy. But there are limits, and we ordinary folks must truly embrace what Thomas Jefferson so eloquently stated that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. . . .”
You also lecture on the history of African-American music in our country. What’s something about African-American music that you wish every American knew?
I wish every American knew that when they listen to The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Elvis, Eric Clapton, and on and on, that they are listening to music that started in the cotton fields by hard-working Black sharecropper and laborers. The blues is the definitive roots of rock and roll; without Muddy Waters there would be no group called “The Rolling Stones”. . . their group's name is based on the title of one of his songs. All over the world, music created by African Americans has had and is still having a huge impact.
There was a lot of talk this year about the use of destructive language in rap music. Where do you stand on that?
I am a huge advocate of free speech and free artistic expression. That being said, I also believe you must deal with the consequences of whatever those expressions may be. The misogynist riffs of what has become to be defined as rap bothers me immensely. Women are subjugated and regulated to walking breasts and rear ends. It bothers me even more when I am in Europe and the only (I mean only) representation of African American women I see on the television are the video girls being shown on the music networks.
Hip hop and rap, like blues before it, were created to tell our stories. There are so many great vocalists out there—Jill Scott, John Legend, Bilal, Angie Stone and many more. Unfortunately, some “suits” saw that one part of the story (the one featuring the glorification of guns, violence, and “keeping it real”), makes billions. When green is the motivating factor, it seems that that overshadows what happens when so-called gangsters become so-called roll models. Thank goodness technology has advanced to the point that there is a huge paradigm shift in the music business. You can access what you want, and the “mainstream” is now global.
You sometimes are asked to sing the classics in jazz and blues. How do you take a song like that and make it your own?
I love the classics. Give me Ellington and Gershwin any day. Each song is a story. To make the song “yours,” you must live the story for yourself, and make every effort to have the listener living it with you.
Who is the one vocalist who makes your heart sing?
Mahalia Jackson. . . she makes my heart and my soul sing in multiple octaves.
What was your most fulfilling moment as a performer?
I have sang in European stadiums, and I have sang in tiny smokey clubs, but my most fulfilling moment was earlier this year singing a duet with my son Jonathan at the Mt. Hope Baptist Church right on the corner of Gwynns Falls and Reisterstown Road. So much of our life has happened there, and sharing that moment with him was very special.
Your most fulfilling moment as an activist?
I keep having them. I believe if I ever feel completely fulfilled, then the fight must have gone out of me.
So what’s next for Lea Gilmore?
I am spending this month in Europe, leading workshops on Gospel music and concerts, as well as being the Artist in Residence for Black History Month for the American School in Switzerland. Later in the year, we will be touring in France. I will also continue to work with the Maryland Black Family Alliance(MBFA). This is an alliance, created last year and lead by African American straight allies, committed to gaining civil equality and justice for all Black Maryland families, including those lead by same-sex households. I also look forward to doing more concerts in Baltimore. So, someone book me!