OUTstanding Virginians 2011

Gaye Adegbalola

Blueswoman, Griot

Adegbalola is a Yoruba name which roughly translates to “I am reclaiming my crown.” At the top of Gaye’s online bio page, you can click to hear her pronounce it. The 18-second clip provides a little sample of a big, irresistible personality. First Gaye enunciates the five syllables matter-of-factly, then repeats them with more inflection. Then she says in a teacherly voice, “You can say it with me” and starts riffing on her name – now soft, now firm, now stressing one syllable, now another as if discovering new meanings with each variation while inviting you to discover your own.

Discovering, teaching, playing and inviting wind through Gaye’s remarkably productive 67 years. Growing up in segregated Fredericksburg in the forties and fifties, Gaye Todd enjoyed a home life rich in culture and activism. Her father Clarence was a civil servant but also a painter, musician and founder of an experimental theater company.  Her mother Gladys was a community organizer and leader in the local civil rights struggle.  Between her father’s jazz and the old 78 records her mother took home from a youth center, Gaye developed a love for music. In the mid 1950s, at a Harry Belafonte concert, she heard Piedmont blues stars Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and got her first taste of the sound that would inform her life’s work.

After graduating at the top of her high school class, Gaye left Fredericksburg and a 45-cent-an-hour summer job sorting dirty laundry to attend Boston University. She graduated in 1965, ten years after Martin Luther King earned his doctorate there. By that time, Gaye was a veteran of civil rights protests and sit-ins.

Gaye lived in Harlem during the tumultuous late sixties, working simultaneously as a bacteriologist in a hospital, a union representative and an activist in the Black Power movement.  She also married and gave birth to a son, Juno Lumumba Kahlil, who grew up to be an accomplished musician and artistic collaborator with his proud mom. After a divorce, Gaye returned to Fredericksburg, where she helped run her father’s theater group and embarked on an 18-year career teaching science in the public schools.  She was Virginia’s Teacher of the Year in 1982.

Gaye moonlighted as a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist until becoming a full-time touring musician with her trio Saffire—The Uppity Blues Women. With Saffire and as a solo artist, Gaye has achieved legendary status: international tours; 14 albums, including three on her own label (Hot Toddy Music); and numerous awards. Her song “The Middle Aged Blues Boogie” won the W.C. Handy Award (now Blues Music Award—the Grammy of the blues industry) for Best Blues Song of 1990, and Gaye received a Blues Music Award nomination for Contemporary Female Blues Artist of the Year in 2009 after the release of her LGBT-themed solo CD, “Gaye Without Shame.” This was a major milestone. “The CD takes the healing power of the blues to the queer community and brings queer themes to the blues community,” Gaye explains.

In the midst of her busy professional life, Gaye had to deal with cancer and the decision to come out as a lesbian.  Fortunately, her health recovered and she came out with happy results. “I had to learn to fully accept myself before I could live an honest life,” Gaye says. Besides giving her the “peace that comes with honesty,” being out brought her art and activism together in a new way. “When one of my songs is used by a queer to help explain him- or herself to others, I am inspired to write more, to work harder,” she says.  Looking ahead, she expects to remain deeply involved with issues of diversity and the struggle for LGBT rights.

Gaye sees herself as a contemporary griot using song and verse to keep alive the story of those who have been marginalized by society, delivering messages of empowerment, ministering to the heartbroken and finding joy in the mundane. In her songs she seeks out “the humor in the pain” that will empower her listeners “to live and not just survive.” Helping others find their own voice has a spiritual dimension for Gaye. She cites a saying, “When you sing you pray twice,” and then invents a corollary: “When you sing your own song you pray thrice.”