Beauty In the Weeds
By Kendolyn Walker
“Ah… another brown girl.” Liz Vice said with contentment when we found each other near Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, New York. We made our way to FEED Cafe on Water Street and settled in for our interview.
Since February of this year, Liz Vice tunes have been in my regular rotation on Spotify. My mother’s church was playing Empty Me Out as background music before the service started. My ears immediately tuned in and I asked Momma, “What song is this? Who sings it?” I soon started listening to Liz’s album and tried to find out all that I could about the Portland native. When I found out she had recently moved to Brooklyn, I immediately reached out for an interview.
As we sat down sipping coffee and tea in the cafe, Liz spoke of Portland, music, the times we live in and her relationship with God. She was gracious and transparent right from the start. I soon put away my prepared list of questions and just listened. Here’s what she had to say:
“Freedom is scary.”
I love NYC. It’s hard not to. I love the diversity of brown people. Yet, as I reach the one year mark of being here, I feel an ache. I feel an ache to go back to where I was known. I feel a longing to go back to my “Egypt,” my place of comfort, where, even as I stood out and everyone knew me, I felt enslaved to who I thought I was because of what people told me I was. What I allowed myself to believe about myself. Does that make sense? Even though I was once called "a different kind of black girl," I could at least walk into any place in Portland without having to tell my story. And although I felt like I couldn’t breathe a lot of times because of people’s caricatures and ideas, comfort held me captive.
I think it is easier to be enslaved than it is to be free because freedom is scary for some reason. Freedom is not something everyone does well because it [is a choice that] gives you the ability to become enslaved in the first place. Sometimes feeling enslaved feels safe. Controllable.
In Portland, I felt like I was missing out on a part of myself. As a black woman, I dealt with questions and comments like “You're a different kind of black girl,” “You people and your attitudes,” and “they’re not treating you this way because you’re black. It’s in your head.” Comments and a journey of ill health and beyond led me to attend film school awhile back. I wanted to tell the bigger stories that exist about us. I wanted to make movies my niece could watch and say “that girl looks like me.”
Just sharing what is on my mind this week. I am a little less emotional now than I have been for the past couple of days.
On many occasions, a church I attended in Portland would preach about callings and walking in your purpose. I just knew I would learn, on those Sundays, that my calling was not music. Friends would come to me, wincing and bracing themselves, to share “You know, I think you should be singing.” I just didn’t want to do it.
One day my pastor said, “Liz, I have these songs, and I think they are for you. I want to be selfish and keep them for myself but I think they belong to you.” So we recorded a full album, two years after my pastor told me these songs “belonged to you.” I didn’t have management. We had an album release show at a local venue and sold out in 10 days. The venue booker then asked me to open up for Cody Chestnut. Each show opened up another door.
After attending an artist retreat, I met a man who believed I had the gift of song. I would meet in his office once a week for three months during the day and he would give me exercises to help me write songs.
“Hey, would you be interested in leading worship at our church?”
I knew the wife of the pastor I currently work with in Brooklyn. When he first reached out to me about becoming a worship leader for a church plant, I said no. I did not want to work for a church. Yet, no matter how frustrated I got or how I tried to run from using my gift of music, I was more committed to the mission of love, grace, mercy, and hope. I had to see beyond myself and practice seeing people the way Jesus sees them by using my gift of music to bring people of all backgrounds together.
So, I now lead worship. After a year I said yes. I am learning to feel safe in a church setting there and have learned to give myself the grace to do something I never wanted to do because it’s new and uncomfortable to grow and learn to lead as you lead.
“I told God I wouldn’t do another record unless He gave me the songs.”
ME: God, don’t you see what is happening in the world? Have mercy, have compassion.
GOD: What are you going to do about it? You are my hands and feet right now. What are you going to do about it?
What is my little black voice going to do for change? I don’t want to sound like an angry black woman, but I am. I am mad and disgusted, but that is the very essence of compassion; an issue hits you so hard in the gut, you feel sick if you don’t do something about it. I don’t have a million dollars to fix Puerto Rico, rebuild homes in Houston or provide therapy to those affected by the Paris terrorist attacks, but I can write songs. I can provide a space for people to gather and not think about how a person is different from them. I don’t want one to be color blind though. I actually hate that term. I want you to see my black face and I want to see what makes you different from me, what makes me beautiful.
I have been sad, and I am licking my wounds as I continue to see the trouble in the world around us. So again I question.
ME: God where are you?
GOD: Hello, I put my Spirit in you so you can be my hands and feet and my mouthpiece. What are you gonna do? How are you gonna show up in this?
These are things I think about before I go to bed at night.
How do I use my Blackness-Jesus-loving privilege to sing songs of hope? Even as I might sound vintage to one person, I am singing songs of Light. I am not trying to save you, I am trying to let you see the light that is in you.
If your gift is to write, then you need to write about these things. If your gift is to sing, sing about the issues that you want to change the most. If your gift is to dance, dance about the things you are most compassionate about. Rise up out of the ashes and show us something beautiful.
I can’t tell if this album fits the genre of typical artists. But I feel like… well, I am not trying to compete.
ME: Hey, I am just gonna start singing over here, if you want to join feel free. You might have to buy a ticket, but anyone can come.
I don’t feel like I am in competition. That has not been my story. It’s actually really awkward for me to be on stage.
ME:Why do I do this to myself?
I get nervous before every show and am definitely not the singer who feels as though they were made to perform.
My album is getting there. It’s close to being finished. I don’t feel comfortable with this statement. It’s definitely going be different from the first record. One song I included was a track I used to sing at age 15. This song is my foundation.
I decided that if I am going to take this calling seriously, I need to meet with people who are willing to write songs with me to articulate these feelings that I have. I decided that I am just going to show up.
One of my producers shared a story with me that left a lasting impression. Before he lived in his house, the backyard had weeds hip-high. There was a next-door neighbor whom the previous homeowner had befriended. Every day she would sit on the fire escape and throw seeds into his backyard. When he asked why she did that, his future neighbor responded: “I just want to see a little beauty amongst the weeds.” This neighbor soon passed away. When my friend moved into the house, he soon began clearing the weeds out of his backyard so that he could build a patio or deck. He came upon some flowers and wondered if the flowers just might have come from his neighbor’s seeds. The woman wanted to see some color amongst the weeds. When I think of this story, it reminds me of what I think we are supposed to do. We are not the heroes of this world but we can add some color to this mess.
So I have this call on my life, to bring people together. I am learning to surrender.
ME: If this is what You’ve called me to do, then I’m in. I don’t know what’s behind the door of each new morning but I’m in.
And that is me throwing seeds to see some beauty in the weeds.
Off-The-Record Quotes from liz vice
3 - “Can you cry to your own voice?”
2 - “And that leads me to A Handmaid’s Tale.”
1 - “...when all you want to do is stay in bed and watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians or The Only Way is Essex.”
To learn more about Liz Vice, visit her website.