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"My Mom said, 'life isn't either, or, it's and.' And I think that's why I do so much, maybe too much."
Lea Gilmore was pregnant and married at 18. She describes herself as a "statistic." But, she tells NPR's Celeste Headlee, lessons learned from a family of "very strong Southern women" meant that she did not allow that to dictate her circumstances.
Trained as a classical pianist, she has developed an international career as a gospel, blues and jazz singer. She returned to the more traditional genres of music that she grew up with in church and at home because she is "such an emotional person" and loves the freedom that they give. "Gospel means 'good news' and so we have the freedom to tell the story the way that we want to tell the story. And you'll never hear the same songs sung the same way the same time because we are singing it as we're feeling it at that moment," she explains.
Gilmore has played to packed audiences as far away as Siberia, but she says that they all respond to this emotion in her music. "It goes beyond race, ethnicity, where we're from. The music is soul-to-soul speaking. There is so much we can say to each other through music."
A devoted civil-rights activist, Gilmore realizes that she can use her voice to highlight issues that are important to her. For 13 years, she has performed concerts in Belgium to raise money for the Damien Foundation - a nongovernmental organization that specializes in leprosy and tuberculosis control in Africa, Asia and South America. "At one time, we had a choir of 2,000 Belgians singing African-American gospel music, me, and an audience of 5,000 people. We sold it out every night, and you haven't lived until you've heard 2,000 Belgians singing 'Oh Happy Day,' she laughs.
Gilmore has also toured Siberia three times, and says that she is overwhelmed by the way they respond to her. "Literally people were stopping on the street....because I'm black. Because they hadn't seen someone in person like that," she remembers. "But for the music, the Russian audience was astoundingly appreciative." This did not come as a surprise though, "we don't laugh in black, we don't cry in white. These emotions are human emotions. And the thing about music is that it brings out the emotions that all of us [feel]," she adds.
Gilmore laughs when asked what her calendar looks like, and says that "being able to have the gift of music, and having the drive for social justice and advocacy, and being able to merge the two, I think I'm one of the luckiest women in the world."
That said, her family comes above everything else. Twenty-nine years later, she can happily say she is still married to the same man, and her "most important job is a mother. There's nothing that comes close to being a wife and mother. It kind of informs everything," she declares.