Music Saved Me

Zenobia in New MexicoMusic Saved Me - by Zenobia Conkerite ('70)

When I hear certain songs on the radio, I get very nostalgic about my 4 years at MHS. It happened to have been a very important time for me because some of the major events of the world and in my private life took place around that same time.

Coming from the L.A. School District where my friends were Japanese, Chinese, Black and Black-Korean, there were no divisions amongst us regarding race or culture. I was never called “ni**er” or made to feel that I was less than my fellow classmates. My family consisted of an uncle who was Filipino, a great-grandfather who was an Irish Jewish Rabbi and a great-grand uncle who was the Mexican Revolutionary General, Pancho Villa.

Pancho VillaBut once I started school in the Inglewood School District my comfort level was snatched away from me - big time! Apparently, I wasn’t paying attention but I was different than my classmates who were mostly White and even more different from my Black classmates. I played the guitar and the harmonica and I was infatuated with the surfing world of which there weren’t any black people in the magazines or surfing at the beaches. And there I was, a light-skinned “colored” girl trying to fit in.

While I attended Monroe Jr. High, I got grief from both sides. I was in constant fear because in addition to what happened at school to me, my family experienced racism from some of the neighbors on our block. I was called a “White ni**er” by Black kids at school and on the beach. Despite the shame-based hatred and restrictions on my freedom – I experienced comfort and acceptance by the friends that I chose based on our common interests. I hung out with the theater and music crowd.

Music played a very important role in providing some sort of healing for me. The healing is a feeling that I get when I hear a song that still moves me, decades later, and takes me back to that time, to an event no matter how painful it was.

When I hear “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” I remember the 1965 assassination and the funeral procession of John F. Kennedy and my first deep hurt that was shared worldwide.

In 1968, with the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the songs on the radio were “Only The Strong Survive” by Jerry Butler, “A Day In The Life” by the Beatles, “Sunshine of Your Love”, by Cream and Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made To Love Her,” along with a host of other memorable songs that helped to ease the pain of our losses, anger and confusion. We had to hope that something bigger and better was to come.

James Brown, "Say It Loud"That same year, a call to action came in the form of a song that could not be ignored when James Brown’s “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud” hit the radio. It became a part of the Civil Rights movement’s theme and it galvanized the new Black generation like nothing that’s ever been known before. At least, nothing that one would find in those old history books that we were taught to believe were the gospel.

Music was soothing, exciting and provoking to me. Through the Beach Boys to Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Temptations, Sam & Dave and Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, I found my true rhythm. Music has no color.

The lyrics to songs expressed what we had in common, our differences, the greatest loves and the biggest heartbreaks known to humankind – all by the age of 18. We relied on music through the Watts Riots (“Satisfaction,” “In the Midnight Hour,” “Yesterday,” “People Get Ready”), to celebrate with the landing on the moon (“Whole Lotta Love,” “Come Together,” “I Can’t Get Next To You,” “The Thrill Is Gone”) and to revel in our very first kiss (“I Want To Take You Higher,” “Feelin’ Alright,” “Someday We’ll Be Together”).

I felt inspired and safe when I heard Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”, and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People.” I was grateful when Mr. Fontana let me sing, “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkin Singers.

Music colored the times and the political platform’s change was evident to me when I heard in Mr. Beale’s art class that Glen Campbell’s “Witchita Lineman” had crossed-over from Country to Pop radio. When blue-eyed soul singers like David Clayton of Blood, Sweat and Tears’, “You Make Me So Very Happy” and Janis Joplin’s, “Piece of My Heart” broke through the R&B/Soul airwaves, I was swept up in the rhythms and the joyful madness of the message and music did not demand that I be Black or White.

“There’s A Place For Us,” a beautiful song written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim for the musical “Westside Story” promised us all a place where peace and acceptance could be found. I will admit that I am still a little miffed that I was told to darken my skin in order to pass for a Puerto Rican in our class musical production, only to find out that there are Puerto Ricans in New York City, where “Westside Story” was set, who are lighter than me and have blue eyes. But I digress.

The Fifth Dimension, "Aquarius/Let The Sunshine"

The Beatles’ “Long And Winding Road” and “Let It Be” prepared me for graduation but unbeknownst to me then, “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” sung by the 5th Dimension predicted my future, the next chapter of which would carry me thousands of miles away from my friends and family to perform in “Hair” on Broadway.

Zenobia, digging the drumThough the Vietnam War really started in 1959, about the time my generation started speaking out against it in the late ‘60’s, our music helped the troops, our friends and families with all of the songs I mentioned here including “The Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire, “Revolution”, The Beatles, “Give Peace a Chance”, Plastic Ono Band and “Put A Little Love In Your Heart”, Jackie DeShannon.

And “ni**er” was replaced by “Hippie” and each time I picked up my guitar, there was a song to be written and sung.

So now when I hear, “In My Room” and “God’ Only Knows’’ by the Beach Boys, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” by The Hollies and “We’ve Only Just Begun” by The Carpenters, I know that my heart, which was once hardened, has now softened in my humanity.

Yes, those were difficult times, awesome times. I thank my friends and teachers who saw my heart and helped me to see a world greater than I could alone: Sandy Ricketts, Jack Belasco, Emi Ogata-Mueller, William Marvel, Jack LaCerte and the friends who are too numerous to name here. I think I survived brilliantly.

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