Singer and drummer Sheila E. has faced her share of audiences but says groups like the one she faced yesterday are the toughest.
Crossed arms, emotional walls and minds already made up about who she is and what she is about to say — that’s what the 55-year-old musician said she expected just minutes before addressing more than 100 incarcerated teens at San Mateo County’s juvenile hall.
“But I am planting the seed and if I can just reach one child that’s something,” she said.
Sheila E. — born Sheila Escovedo but recognized by her stage name — may be best known to certain generations for her hit song “The Glamorous Life” but the Grammy-nominated musician’s early years were far from it. While growing up in Oakland, she was raped by an upstairs baby-sitter at age 5 and sexually abused along with her cousins for years. She told no one, instead growing up mad and ashamed and guilty. She joined gangs in her East Oakland neighborhood and at her school. Guns and knives were no strangers. But at age 15, she played drums with her father, percussionist Pete Escovedo, and something clicked. She’d performed with him before but that time she found her purpose.
The teens at the Youth Services Center in San Mateo can have that type of purpose, too, she said. They just need to find it. On Tuesday afternoon, Escovedo hoped to help them realize it.
Many of these teens also have trauma as part of their story and Escovedo expected a lot to give her reasons why they can’t break free of the life they’re in — gangs, money, education, family. But she said, “Anything they say they’ve done, I’ve probably done.”
She said they need to know their experience doesn’t have to define their future.
“There’s so much more to life than that,” she said.
Escovedo’s life included launching a well-regarded musical career and co-establishing the Elevate Hope Foundation to give abused and abandoned children a chance through music, the arts and programs. Her challenges were documented in the television show “Unsung” which Probation Services Manager Todd Perras watched and felt was a story to which the county’s incarcerated teens could relate.
“She has a strong message about getting through major trauma,” Perras said.
Perras — and even Escovedo herself — acknowledged the ages of the teens mean most might not be familiar with her musical repertoire which includes collaborations with Prince and in 1988 becoming the first female bandleader on Magic Johnson’s short-lived variety show. But Perras said the similarities between her and the teens will resonate. And just to help out, the teens watched the “Unsung” episode Monday night.
Before her arrival, Escovedo also asked that the teens write down their names, age and what they want to be when they grow up. Perras said most of the answers were reachable ambitions. Sure, there were a few rappers and even an astronaut but most were realistic like lawyer and mechanic, Perras said.
But who knows? Escovedo said her two goals as a child were first to be the first girl on the moon and second to win a gold medal for track in the Olympics. While her success took her in another direction, Escovedo said it is that type of drive she wants to instill in these teens who might not otherwise see beyond the four corners of their own block.
“They have a choice,” she said. “There’s always a choice.”
(650) 344-5200 ext. 102