On February 9, 2018, one of my musical mentors died. Her name was Wesla Whitfield. She was 70 years old. And she was one of the most brilliant interpreters of song on the planet. She was also an excellent teacher, a straight shooter and one smart cookie!
Since her death last month, I can’t stop thinking about her. I find myself talking to her, in my head, sometimes out loud. I ask her for guidance as I’m working on a song, hoping she’ll appear in a vision where she’s standing, walking, dancing, swaying and laughing.
Wesla lived most of her adult life in a wheelchair after being shot in the spine in 1977 by two young boys as she walked down the streets of San Francisco. This ugly twist of fate may of tinged her perspective on life but it never stopped her from following her heart and doing what she loved most: singing, performing, and bringing the songs of the Great American Songbook to life.
I once told Wesla that she was my musical hero, and she immediately got a little snippy. “I don’t want to be anyone’s hero,” she told me. “Be your own goddamned hero!”
Her sharp response, I realized later, sprang from her strong aversion to being seen as someone who triumphed over adversity, as a handicapped person who had overcame physical obstacles to live a rich and rewarding life. She didn’t want to be admired for any of that. She only wanted to be known and acknowledged for her work, her talent as an artist, her musicianship and excellence as a performer.
She didn’t realize that when I told her she was my hero it had nothing to do with her paralysis and everything to do with the fact that she’d achieved a level of singing and song interpretation that I could only aspired to. She was my hero because she’d honed her ability to shake down, turn around, and transform a song into a personal truth, a fully-fleshed out narrative, a declaration, a reminiscence, a confession, a redemption.
Wesla never simply sang a song; she revealed the human experience within it. With honesty, directness, nuance and a playful yet profound sense of humor.
Because I realize that so much of what I love and admire about Wesla as an artist relates directly to what you and I are doing here together: learning how to use our words to reach, touch, move, inspire and connect with others.
The qualities I loved most about Wesla’s singing are the same qualities you and I want to develop in our own communication and copy. Honesty. Personality. Courage.
She was a master at using her art to communicate a message, a story, a revelation, in a way that reached and connected deeply with her audience. She infused each song with her own truth, perspective and personality while staying true the message of the song. And she did this with such honesty, subtlety and skill that every song she sang would reach inside of you, stir your heart, shake loose an old memory, or reawaken a forgotten dream.
How was she able to do this? How was she able to use her art to touch, move and connect with others? Well, the obvious answer is, years and years of focused practice! And these 3 qualities:
Wesla had a way of delivering a song in a very matter of fact, reflective, emphatic way that was full of feeling yet never overly emotional. You felt, as she sang, that she was simply telling you a personal story, sharing a revelation, or celebrating an insight that was real and true.
She meant every word. And when you listened, you believed her.
The stark honesty of feeling and story would spark your own inner truth, your own story, and all the feelings associated with them. You were glued to her every note while at the same time having your own personal experience.
This is why, when you write to your clients, you want to share what’s true for you. Be honest with what you know, what you feel, and what you want to say. Let your message come from a place deep inside of you, from your own story, as you stay connected to your heart and your truth, and your desire to connect with your audience.
You don’t need to embellish your message, doll it up, or turn it into an entertainment. Just deliver it honestly. Be you. Be real. Share your truth. Mean what you say. Stand by your message.
For when you do, your message will be infused with an emotional truth that cannot fail to touch, move, and resonate with others.
While Wesla was a master at singing love songs and was a romantic at heart, she didn’t tolerate mushy-gushy demonstrations of affection. At least, she didn’t tolerate them from me.
Her love and romanticism were tempered by a dry, sometimes edgy wit, a smart sense of humor, and a cheerful playfulness that was sometimes brushed with shadowy undertones of bitterness and sarcasm, but never self-pity.
All of these aspects of her personality she expressed elegantly in her artistic choices, her performances and in every song she sang. As you listened, a song you may have heard a thousand times before became something new, surprising and fascinating. Because Wesla sang it from her perspective, from her heart, and gave it the energy and edge of her own personality.
If you want your message and copy to come alive in a way that’s surprising and new, if you want your words to wake people up and get them to lean in and pay attention, you need to infuse those words with a big dose of you. Whether you’re writing a blog post, email, sales page, essay, or social media post – do so in your own way, with your own personality, in your own style.
How you deliver your message – your word choices, your phrasing, your attitude, your energy – is as important as the message itself. Because we all use the same language, but how you use that language expresses who you are, your personality, your one-of-a-kind-ness. Your humanness.
It takes tremendous courage and a special kind of craziness to choose to express what’s true for you in a public way. To take the stage – whether it’s a stage in a cabaret room or a virtual stage online – and honestly express your truth while staying connected to your heart.
It takes guts to share the passion and knowing you feel and tell the world, “This is who I am. This is what I love. This is what I’ve got to give… and I’m giving it to you.”
When you own your voice, your perspective, your truth and express it openly “on stage,” you risk rejection, judgment, criticism or, even worse, indifference. You risk making mistakes in front of the world. You risk the possibility that you may try and fail. A lot. You may even risk the loss of your dream.
Wesla risked all of this and more in order to live her life true to what she loved. She risked it every time she went on stage. Every time she cut another album. Every time a music critic wrote a review. Every time she woke up in the morning.
She was freakishly good at what she did. But few people know this: she worked incredibly hard to get that good. Every day. She demanded a lot of herself in order to be true to her vision and her desire to sing. Yes, she had a gift, but mostly, she had balls, grit, determination and a deep devotion to what she loved.
I believe you have the same kind of courage. As an entrepreneur. As a human being.
You have the courage to put your heart where your mouth is and consistently, even loudly, express what’s true for you, with clarity, personality, and emotional honesty.
You have the courage to own your voice and share your unique perspective, your hard-won wisdom, your passion for what you do. Consistently. Openly. Proudly.
You must also have courage to risk rejection, judgment, and even indifference in order to share your voice and what you love, in order to serve those who need your skills and talents… and stay true to who you are,
You need to risk not getting it right the first time, to make mistakes, knowing you have the capacity to learn, to recalibrate and keep moving steadily towards the vision you’ve created for your business and your life.
You need to believe in yourself and what you love enough to use the hard times as kindling to fuel the pot belly stove of your determination and passion. To have those black days when you can’t get out of bed so you can also have those dreamy days, weeks, even years where you’re dancing on the ceiling with jubilation, appreciation and joy.
I know sometimes it’s scary to own your voice, be seen and heard, and risk all that might follow as a result. You doubt yourself and wonder if you have anything to say, anything new, or anything others will care about. Or you doubt your ability to express it in a way that others will understand and resonate with.
But you do have something to say and share. And it’s new because it’s coming from you.
But the only way you’re ever going to know this is to risk it. To do it. Again and again and again. Get support. Get guidance. And take your stage, whatever that stage may be.
Own our voice. Express your truth, your passion, your gifts, your knowing. Turn up the volume and let ‘er rip! Again and again and again.
Wesla was my musical hero not only because of her remarkable ability to make a song come alive in a way that touched others, but also because of her courage to live her entire life in service to what she loved. She persisted even when everything in her life and in her body was telling her, “No!” She faced those dark days, lots of them, and she kept on going.
She let Love triumph over her fear, over her doubt, and over every crappy circumstance that came her way.
You and I, we can do the same.