When the pandemic hit, everything came to a halt. About $250,000 worth of contracts and work suddenly went up in smoke for musician Alex Boyé, and he was stuck with nothing he could do about it.
“Then I thought, OK, well what can I do right now, in this situation where all of my friends and family are going through a hard time, what can I do for my community with just whatever gifts that I have?” Boyé said. He is at his core a musician and entertainer, so he threw out the idea of quarantine concerts online. Boyé said anyone could nominate a friend or family member, and he would show up with his own sound system and give a concert six feet away from their doorstep. He wasn’t sure who would take him up on the offer when he made it.
“But we got like 500 nominations, it was crazy,” he said. Boyé started giving concerts, and then his son asked whether he could come along. The concerts became a family event and started growing. Both the reactions of the concert nominees and his own were unexpected.
“Some of them were really, really sick, they would watch through the bedroom window and I’d perform on the other side,” Boyé said. “But there was just a really good feeling.”
He became good friends with some of the families he performed for and they’ve kept in touch. In the first months of the pandemic, Boyé visited some 70 families, and a number of patients he had performed for died not long after they met. Days after a concert, someone sent him a photo; it was of a woman he had performed for, taken on the day before she passed away, and she was wearing the T-shirt Boyé had given her.
There was an outpouring of thanks, Boyé said, and that really moved him. He’s given performances for health care workers and first responders and police officers as well.
“It turned out to be musically one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had,” Boyé said. “It just made you forget a little bit about our problems and what we’re going through.”
“It was really good for us to just get out and do stuff without really thinking about it,” Boyé said. In a way, he was sticking to the mission that got him started in music in the first place, and once he did that, everything else fell into place. Boyé started getting referrals and news coverage and with that, paid opportunities to tide him through the losses.
“And there have been messages saying, ‘You’ve inspired me to do the same thing in my area or my community,’ it’s just been wonderful,” Boyé said.
Music as a Mission
Boyé has accumulated a life philosophy that is relentlessly forward-looking, partly, as he sees, by necessity.
His parents are Nigerian, but Boyé never knew his father. As a child, his mother left to visit Nigeria and what was supposed to be a trip of some weeks turned into some years. Boyé ended up in foster homes, and was at one time homeless. At age 16, he was out on the streets in England, sometimes eating from trash cans; music became a way to survive, first as a street performer, then spiritually.
“When you get to that point, you can’t get much lower than that,” Boyé said. One of the things that helped tide him over was clinging onto a dream: he would stand outside big, fancy venues, and picture himself one day performing in one of them. “To take my mind off what I was going through, I’d just go into this dream, and I’d start enjoying it.”
It was escapism, but it had the undeniable effect of lifting his spirits. “Sometimes I still, whenever I can, I want to maintain that feeling of always dreaming, always looking forward to something,” Boyé said. “Because I notice that the times when I’m down the most is when I have nothing to look forward to. So I just always try to pursue my passion in that way and look forward to something cool that can happen for me, and just working toward that.”
During that low point of Boyé’s life, he says he was even driven to suicidal thoughts. Sometimes his DJ friends would find a way to let him sneak into the nightclubs they were performing in and sleep in some corner so that he wouldn’t be out sleeping in the streets. He remembers one night just bawling on the dance floor because he was so low, depressed, and adrift. Then a song came on, and Boyé says he can’t for the life of him remember the name of it or what the lyrics were, but he remembers vividly how he felt.
“It was just so inspiring,” Boyé said. The words were something about how he could do this, keep going, and “that spoke to me.”
“It changed everything for me. It felt [like] 10 years worth of therapy in 3:58. I just came alive. But before that, we’re talking five minutes before that, I was suicidal,” Boyé said. “How does that happen?”
“That was the day that I decided to be a professional musician,” he said. “Because I thought, if that song, whatever it is, if that artist could do that for me, and have no idea who I was, if I could do the same thing, man, I could be like, ‘I’m doing something right.'”
Boyé has remained incredibly true to his mission, even eschewing a popular band career when he felt it was leading him off his original path.
His mission is about “music that brings you good vibes,” he said. “That’s what I’m about.”
Years later, things came full circle, culminating into a partnership with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
About two years ago, Boyé was working on an album with producer Randy Jackson of “American Idol.” Around midnight, after the team had finished, Boyé took a break and was struck by sudden inspiration.
“I just had this strong feeling that I needed to do another song—there was another song out there that I needed to put on this album,” Boyé said. He recalled that experience as a 16-year-old in the nightclub, and thought, “Do I have a song like that, could I be able to respond with a song that could make them feel better, feel inspired, decide not to do it, and just let them think, ‘Let’s just hold out for another day?'”
He realized the album didn’t have that song—yet.
“This was my chance,” Boyé said. “This is what I’ve always said I wanted to do and now I could work with some of the best songwriters in the country. So I ran back in there and I was like, ‘Guys, I know this is really strange’—and this was like 12 o’clock midnight—’but there’s one more song that we need to do.'”
“They canceled their Ubers and we got back in the studio,” Boyé said. The song they came out with an hour later was “Bend Not Break,” and when ASFP executives heard it, they asked if they could use it in an upcoming campaign.
“I’ve probably done 30 or 40 events with them where I come and sing this song, and it’s just so crazy, I’ve been getting these same messages as I felt when I was in that nightclub. They say, ‘Thank you for writing this song, this is really what I needed,'” Boyé said. “Just completely amazing.”
Life is full of ups and downs, especially working as an entertainer. So Boyé has determined that being positive is a choice, and it’s one he hopes he can share with others.
“Being a musician is not the easiest thing, but this is what I know I’m supposed to do,” he said.
Boyé says he’s dealt with his share of failure, but part of what drives him is “if you stop, you never know what you’ll be missing out.” This means trial and error, and putting his heart and soul into whatever he does so that he has the chance to move the people who hear his music. Key to this is authenticity, he says.
Boyé’s music is varied, from hymns to “Africanized” pop song covers, because the things that lend him spiritual strength manifest in his art. Faith is important to Boyé; prayer is part if his pre-performance regimen, as is a daily practice of gratitude. The media he seeks out is primarily that of inspirational stories and figures. Since he reconnected with his mother, he has sought out stories of his ancestry and history.
“Gospel music is pretty much part of my DNA,” said Boyé, who was the first black soloist with the Tabernacle Choir and a principal singer for eight years. “Here is one that has special meaning to me: the song is called ‘I Want Jesus to Walk With Me.’ After recording the song, the directors of the choir wanted to do something a little unique for the music video. I traveled to Ghana and shot my solos in a place called Cape Coast Castle, where 65 percent of slaves came from at the time. It was a powerful reminder of how far we’ve come; but also a tribute to many whose lives and future generations were changed forever.”
Learning about African cultures has been meaningful to Boyé, because it wasn’t something he always connected with.
“My mom used to always rib me, and say, ‘Why don’t you put some African music in?'” he said. Boyé laughed. “I live in Utah!”
But then a few years ago, The Piano Guys reached out to Boyé to do a collaboration, a classical cover of a Coldplay song, except they wanted Boyé to sing the lyrics in Swahili.
“I’m from England!” he thought. But he tried to learn it anyway, and it was a bust. Boyé called his mother, who started teaching him Yoruba, her language.
“Just how natural it felt—it was like I always knew it, it was part of my roots,” Boyé said. “And I felt so comfortable singing it.”
It sparked in Boyé an interest in his own heritage. It also sparked interest worldwide, as the music video collaboration, sung in Swahili and Yoruba, went viral within two hours and messages flooded in, with countless media outlets wanting to publish the video.
He called his mother, who promptly said, “I told you so.”
“I just found that there was something in that, in trying to be as authentic as possible, in being yourself, because no one can be that for you, you can find a way to connect with people,” Boyé said.
There was another story his mother shared that had a profound impact on Boyé. During the slave trades, fathers were often separated from their children and put on different ships heading toward different parts of the world, but mothers had an idea, he said.
“They were putting a mark on their kids’ faces, so that if they saw them again 20 years later they would recognize them,” he said. His mother shared the meanings of these different marks, and how she could recognize the region, tribe, or in some cases even the last name based on the marks alone. “It’s powerful; that resonated with me so hard.” In some of Boyé’s videos, you can see him wearing a white mark under his right eye.
“That was my tribute to my culture and my mother,” he said.
Breaking Through Fears
Not all of Boyé’s experiments have turned into successes. There have been many failures, and one of them even became widely televised and haunted him for some time.
“I’ve been on ‘America’s Got Talent’ three times in the span of 10 years,” Boyé said. The first time he didn’t make it in, but the second time he made it to the point of a televised audition.
“I was so pumped, so excited,” he said. Everyone had loved his pre-audition and he felt good about his chances. “And I get on stage … within 10 seconds I got my first buzzer.”
Then he got another, and another. In no time, all four judges had buzzed him down.
“Now, I’m a professional singer at that point,” Boyé said. “The judges are like, ‘You’re not that good, you’re not ready, maybe you should consider another career.’ It just messed me up so hard.”
Boyé cried the entire plane ride back home, and the depression wasn’t short-lived. He realized that audition and subsequent dress down was going to be aired. “It was so humiliating,” he said.
He felt wracked with anxiety every time he saw a stage from then on, thinking about those judges and the audience that chanted “Off, off, off the stage!” His self-esteem plummeted.
“I wanted to give up music, actually,” he said.
He started watching music talent shows. He watched other people brave their fears, and decided he was going to audition again, for the same exact show.
“I’m a glutton for punishment,” he said with a laugh. In truth, it was one of his best decisions. He knew he could run toward his fears or away from them, and because performing music was what he did for a living, that meant he would be running for the rest of his life. He had to face it.
“It was the scariest thing in my life,” Boyé said. It was a panel of different judges this time, waiting as he stood backstage with his band and sweat running down his back. “And I got four yeses.”
“I definitely grew a lot through that. It made me appreciate music and also appreciate the power of not letting your fears get the best of you, because it really did for me and I couldn’t let it win,” he said. “I knew I needed this final way to break through this barrier—and it could have gone either way, but I just thought, I’m going to take this no matter what happens. That way I have nothing to lose. I’m glad I did it!”
It’s a lesson Boyé shares regularly with his kids.
“I just do all this cheesy stuff,” he said. When Boyé puts his kids to bed, he tells them they’re a winner, and he gets them to say it, too. “I’ll be like, ‘What are you?'” Cue eye-rolling and groans, but they relent, because Boyé doesn’t. “OK, yeah, I’m a winner, Dad.”
They’ve come to appreciate it. His son had been struggling to accomplish something and one day decided, “I think I can do it now,” even though he couldn’t the day before. Boyé asked him what changed.
“Because I’m a winner!” his son announced.
“And my daughter, she’s 10, she’s been through a lot for a year and a half. She’s in gymnastics and was one of the top, but then she got to something that’s called a back walkover, a back walkover on the beam, and she just could not do it and got really, really depressed,” he said. “She was put down back another level, so now she’s not where she was before, and she was just heartbroken, and distressed.”
“But I just kept telling her, ‘You know what? This is OK, this is good, because more than all the successes you’ll have—because success doesn’t always make you grow—your failures do. The hard stuff,'” he said. Then one day, while on the road, he got a call from his wife who said, “She’s finally got it.”
“I talked to her and she was so excited, and I asked her what it was, how she did it,” he said. “And she said, ‘Dad, I just went in, and I had it on a piece of paper and I just wrote ‘I’m a winner’ and I put it in my locker and looked at it before I went on. I just felt this was the day I was going to do it.'”
Boyé often likens life to the English weather.
“It can be really sunny one day, but bring your umbrella because it’s going to rain. And then it could be raining, but just hold on because the sun is going to come out again soon,” Boyé said. “Whatever you are going through is going to pass.”
He hopes his music is a reminder of that.
“For five minutes, I just want to put a smile on someone’s face, because that can mean the world. That can mean the world to someone, like how it was for me,” he said. “It was like a drink to a thirsty person, you know? Especially nowadays; we need to find ways of getting light, and sharing it.”