KATHY: Have you ever written a song?
TOBIN: Um. I’ve written a song one time.
TOBIN: It was for an assignment for a music theory class when I was a freshman in college
TOBIN: And the assignment truly was to just write a melody. Like, it could be instrumental...like a piano or cello.
TOBIN: I was in a rebel phase, where I thought of myself as a badass.
KATHY: Oh, god.
TOBIN: So I wrote a song with lyrics.
KATHY: Tobin, was this like a punk rock phase of your life?
TOBIN: No, it was like a chorale?
KATHY: Oh my god.
TOBIN: But the lyrics — and this was where I was really a badass — the lyrics were making fun of the dean of the music school because he had a fake British accent.
KATHY: Oh my god, Tobin!
TOBIN: But like, in my defense, it was so pretentious. And it wasn’t even a fake British accent, it was that he pronounced words pretentiously.
TOBIN: So somebody once heard him say, “I hear it’s gonna rain soon, I might need my umbre-LA.”
TOBIN: Like, unacceptable. You know? Unacceptable.
KATHY: Ok, how did the song go over in class?
TOBIN: Oh, like gangbusters! My theory teacher asked me for a copy of the song afterwards because she liked it so much!
KATHY: Wow, good job, Tobin!
TOBIN: Thank you!
[THEME MUSIC STARTS]
VOX: From WNYC Studios, you’re listening to Nancy.
VOX: With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
[THEME MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN: So Kathy…
KATHY: Yes, Tobin.
TOBIN: We are not alone in the studio.
KATHY: No! We are joined by radio producer, Daniel Gross!
TOBIN: You two are friends, right? You go back?
KATHY: We go way back. Daniel and I go back to 2014. Germany.
KATHY: That’s where we met.
TOBIN: You met in Germany?
TOBIN: That’s fun! Is that all I get?
KATHY: Yeah, that’s...End of story!
TOBIN: Ok cool.
KATHY: Now he’s here.
DANIEL: No more for you.
TOBIN: [LAUGHS] Well, you have another story for us...which starts with..sort of a coming out?
DANIEL: Yeah, it starts with sort of an accidental coming out.
DANIEL: So this story is about Myosha Smith, who’s in her late twenties, she’s Black, and she loves to sing. And in June 2014, Myosha decides that she’s gonna visit her brother Joe for his birthday. So she goes to the train station in New York City and she goes to visit him upstate. And the way they hang out, they’re always teasing each other. And she brings him up to speed on her life and suddenly she uses the word “girlfriend.”
MYOSHA: I mentioned her, and I was like yeah, my girlfriend. And he would just like, “Oh so what is this.” And I was like, what do you mean what is this? I was so used to being out in the outside world that it just came naturally to say, oh yeah, my girlfriend and my girlfriend this and my girlfriend that...like you know i’m just giving him a run down of my life. I just remember his face. He looked perplexed. He looked very confused.
DANIEL: Joe seems very uncomfortable with the idea that his sister could be gay. But there not exactly in a good place to have that conversation. And the reason is that Joe is in Sing Sing Correctional Facility. He’s serving 25 years to life on a murder conviction. He killed someone while he was in a Brooklyn gang. And so visiting him for Myosha means passing through a metal detector, getting her hand stamped, and then entering this visit room where they’re surrounded by all these families of incarcerated people.
MYOSHA: It's large. Full of chairs and empty at the same time. If that makes sense. Until it's full and all you hear are murmurs of everyone else's conversations.
DANIEL: And there's a view.
MYOSHA: Obstructed by the barbed wire. Yes. But it's a pretty view of the river. And I guess it's a little mean, well cynical of the prison to do that it's like oh let me just place this prison and show this barbed wire fence across the Hudson River. And it's just like. It's like I'm I have freedom but I don't.
DANIEL: Myosha’s brother Joe is tall and he looks like he works out. He thinks of himself as a man of faith, and he has this strong presence that kind of shows in his face.
MYOSHA: I've never seen him bewildered before... and I've never seen him give anyone that kind of look because he's so sure about everything he's the man with the with the answer. And this was one thing I felt like he did not an answer to.
DANIEL: Did he look disapproving?
MYOSHA: Um...I don't think he tried to look that way but he did. I don't think- you know sometimes our face says more than we expect. And in that moment, his did.
DANIEL: So suddenly the tone of the conversation changes. And she tells her brother, “Yes. I’m gay.” He doesn’t seem to know what to say after that...so he changes the subject...and they end up making awkward small talk. Myosha left the prison that day and got on the train back to New York City. She stared out at the Hudson River and felt crushed. Like her big brother disapproved of her. It was a hard day for both of them. Joe and Myosha had been through a lot together...and they had a lot to lose.
MYOSHA: Yeah I tend to disassociate things and compartmentalize them and just uhh “I'm going to hide this in a small space.” Like, I needed a hug in that moment and the only person to give it to me was myself and I went home and I had been living with my ex girlfriend at the time and I was just like I just need a hug. And she was like "how was the visit?" and I was like "oh it was good.” [raspberry] I just need a hug. And she just hugged me.
DANIEL: I went to visit Joe to ask how he remembered that conversation. Joe is still in Sing Sing, and I took the train up to see him. Just like Myosha had. Joe told me that his feelings about homosexuality … are complicated. And they go back to when he growing up in Brooklyn, NY. As a kid, Joe’s mom suffered from drug addiction, and wasn’t always around. His grandmother had health problems, but she did her best to raise him and run a daycare business. So, Joe learned from a young age to be a caretaker.
JOE: I was about 7 years old when she said I will teach you how to make something. And it was home fries… So this was the first time I actually used the stove by myself.
DANIEL: Were they good?
JOE: [LAUGHS] They were good.
DANIEL: Joe was 12 when Myosha was born. They're half-siblings—same mom, different dads. For a couple years, they all lived under the same roof. They went to church a lot and they loved watching this movie called The Five Heartbeats.
[THE FIVE HEARTBEATS CLIP]
ANNOUNCER: Our final act of the night have been singing together since high school. Ladies and gentlemen, The Five Heartbeats.
DANIEL: Which is about the rise and fall of an R&B band.
JOE: We would usually watch The Five Heartbeats and we would literally like watch it over and over and over again. And she would sing every single scene. Not every song! Every scene.
[MUSIC CLIP FROM THE FIVE HEARTBEATS]
DANIEL: At the same time, Joe was like the big brother of the family... which was kind of like being a dad.
JOE: I kind of like took on the responsibilities of what a parent would do... like OK changing diapers. I started packing groceries down at the local supermarket.
DANIEL: When their grandmother passed away, Joe and Myosha were split up. Myosha lived with her mom a while, and eventually landed in foster care. Joe was sent to live with a relative, who worked as a preacher.
JOE: This is where things... got really bad, right. There was a culture... that was, uh, illicit sexual activity with minors. And it was just, like, really awful... And whenever I brought it up I was...Uh, I was told that I was lying...
DANIEL: Joe looked up to this guy. He thought of him as a messenger of God. And that kinda messed him up.
JOE: After enduring what I endured, I couldn't understand why God would allow someone to be his messenger, yet destroy me. I couldn't understand that. And so for a long time, I didn't believe in God at all.
DANIEL: Myosha was going through her own struggles around sexuality and God, but in a totally different way. She was around nine when she realized that she liked girls. But it took her a decade to actually start dating.
MYOSHA: I like flirted with this girl for like two months and then I was like, “No Jesus is going to hate me so we can't do this anymore…um, and...
DANIEL: Did you believe that?
MYOSHA: Yes. And I still kind of do.
DANIEL: At this point Myosha and Joe were living apart, dealing with their own challenges. At the same time something that kind of saved them both was music.
MYOSHA: I had this really weird obsession with Michael Jackson. [laughs] When I was probably like seven or eight and we had gotten a dog and I wanted to name the dog Michael Jackson. And my mom was like you can't name a dog that. And I was like why? I can sing with it. I thought dogs would sing.
DANIEL: Sometimes music was a kind of escape. Joe learned to love Prince from of his aunts.
JOE: [SINGING] Until the end of time, I’ll be there for you...
JOE: I used to play that song over and over and over because—it was like the way he was moving through the song. [SINGING] I know we need each other. I know that you are my fix... And I'm like, yo, he's just moving in the song…
DANIEL: So, when life with the relative got really bad... Joe would grab his Walkman, put on his headphones, and hang out on the block. That way he didn’t have to go home.
JOE: [SINGS] Black woman and child... for you I really have so much love.
[BLACK WOMAN AND CHILD CLIP PLAYS]
JOE: I listened to more music at that time than I think I've listened to in my entire life. Because I zoned out. When I walked into the house I didn't want to talk to anyone. I didn't want to be a part of any conversations. So to avoid interaction I actually like wore my headphones. Literally all day.
DANIEL: He would shop for reggae cassette tapes on Utica Avenue. Sometimes, he’d steal them.
JOE: I can remember even going to do what we would call a “meow,” as we called it – related to cat burglary. Like going on a meow and actually have my Walkman on during.
DANIEL: So you like walked into a store to steal something and you and your headphones on.
JOE: Yes literally with my headphones on, music up.
DANIEL: Eventually, Joe started getting caught. He spent stints in jail on Rikers Island. And even there, music was a big part of his life. It was like there was a song for every occasion. Including getting dumped.
JOE: And my girlfriend at the time, I called her—and this is funny how it is connected to music. But I called her and she basically broke up to me broke up with me using the Lauryn Hill song. I don't know the name of it, but it's, [SINGS] “Care for me, care for me. I know you care for me. There for me, there for me. Said you'd be there for me.”
[LAURYN HILL EX-FACTOR CLIP]
JOE: She just put the song on and I literally listened to that entire song. It was like a goodbye, right.
DANIEL: Through the phone at Rikers Island?
DANIEL: When Joe got out of jail that time, he went back to the streets. His relationship was finished… he was alone… so he chose the life he knew.
JOE: ...I started hanging out with people that were doing bigger and more illicit things and more dangerous things... and that’s where that road led me, all the way up to the point where I actually killed someone. Which is like the worst thing that you can possibly do.
DANIEL: Do you remember the day when you realized your brother was going to be in prison for a long time?
MYOSHA: Um, yes. I do. I often revisit that day. I was 13. I was in junior high school and I don't know why but one of the kids had the newspaper clipping with his name and his face in it and they were like, “Yo ain't that your brother?” And I was like “Oh…” And I remember what it said like I said verbatim it said: WANTED Joseph “Weak” Wilson instead of “Wek.” They spelled his tag name wrong... And he was 25. He was 25 and he was going to jail for life.
JOE: This was different, this time. This wasn't a 6 month skid bid. This wasn't a year. And I'm thinking, what were you thinking?
DANIEL: Joe was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. And that kind of sentence—that kind of time—started to change him. One time, in prison, he ran into this guy he knew from Brooklyn.
JOE: He was like a totally different person. And I was like, I'm talking to him the way I used to speak. And he's not—he's not giving me the same energy, and I'm like, what's happening? He said, Look bro, I'm not doing that no more. I'm doing this. I suggest you get yourself together...And that. I started going to church. Cause I still believed I guess and I was like well, maybe, I need to find where God is...
DANIEL: I asked Joe how he felt about homosexuality when he was getting back into the church. And he said that his experiences with that male relative growing up led him to make some wrong assumptions.
JOE: Well because of what happened with me... I just kind of felt like they were molesters and evil and whatever the case may be.
DANIEL: Over the years, Myosha would visit Joe. They'd talk about how school was going...Joe had recently gotten married, so they’d talk about that... and they’d tease each other just like they always had. It felt good to see each other and talk. And then came THE visit. The visit when Myosha accidentally came out to her brother. I asked Joe how that moment felt for him.
JOE: She's my little sister, so naturally—or, to me, naturally—I'm believing that, well, she'll have a boyfriend and she'll have children... so when she says, “oh I'm gay.” That changes like the entire book that I've written about her life. I had to burn it.
DANIEL: Joe and Myosha both told me that on that day, there was more that they wanted to say to each other. But neither of them could find the right words.
JOE: So now I'm thinking to myself wow, what have I missed? And this is not who I once knew. So I really had to get to know her over again.
DANIEL: Joe says that immediately he had all these questions. But he didn’t want their conversation to be a big deal.
JOE: What I was trying to do was carry on. Right. Um. There's not a lot of time on the visits, um. I hadn't seen her in a little while. So what I wanted to do was, like, enjoy the visit. Enjoy our time because it's sacred...
DANIEL: After she saw his reaction, she didn’t want to go back. He would send her letters, checking in... But he never wrote about the conversation they had. And Myosha didn’t write back.
JOE: I think that a lot of people leave you in prison... I've seen relationships come and go.
DANIEL: And...was that a fear? That she just wouldn't come back into your life?
JOE: That was definitely a fear. It was- it was definitely a real fear of mine. It was something I didn't want to happen. And it felt like that's what was happening.
DANIEL: Weeks went by. Then months...and suddenly it’s been years since he saw Myosha.
KATHY: Coming up...Joe finds a way to win his sister back.
TOBIN: Nancy will be back in a minute.
DANIEL: What did it feel like to not see her for so long?
JOE: I didn't know how to interpret that. Right. Because I had reached out to her. She wasn't, she wasn't reaching back. And I felt like I had done something wrong. I felt like I had said something wrong.
MYOSHA: I thought of him often. Thought of him often. I actually received a card from him on my 25th birthday. [chuckles] And it was like he's very snarky... and the card was just like, “Oh hey sister. Hope you have a great birthday and maybe it will bring us closer for another year to be wiser and stronger.” And at that moment, I still wasn't, you know, there yet.
DANIEL: At this point, it’s been years since Joe saw Myosha. He’s tried calling. He’s tried writing. But all he gets silence.
JOE: I never let on how much I was actually hurting...It was generic. It was you know “Come out whenever you want you know they always come. Hope you're doing all right. DANIEL: Happy birthday. Hope you're doing well in college.”
DANIEL: In prison, Joe had a lot of time on his hands. Around that time, he heard about a program run by Carnegie Hall called Musical Connections. It taught incarcerated men how to play instruments... and how to write music. They also ran a songwriting contest - and the winning song would be performed inside Carnegie Hall. Classical music was a big part of the program, so Joe gave himself a mission. He was going to become a classical fan. One day, in his cell, he tunes into the local classical station, WQXR.
JOE: I laid down on my bed. I turned the lights out because I really wanted to concentrate on the music itself. I really wanted to hear it. So I turned the lights out, I put my headphones and just lay there and listened and listened and listened. And listened.
DANIEL: 10 minutes pass. 20 minutes. And Joe's like, wait a second. How is this song still going?
JOE: It was grueling initially... The first time I put it on, there was a song, a symphony. And I was like, the song's not over yet? Literally a half hour!
DANIEL: But Joe started to feel something.
JOE: I had an epiphany. I'm listening, I’m like OK this is not about just keeping the time, this is about conveying a thought, conveying a picture ... Where there’s no words... They're really moving from emotion to emotion. And then it started to make sense for me. Then it becae easier to listen to.
DANIEL: For Joe, music started to seem like a beautiful kind of math. He loved thinking about musical structure, how you can add voices together to create something that’s more than the sum of its parts. Like, maybe music was a way to communicate big, complicated emotions that he was feeling. Joe wrote a song to submit to the Carnegie Hall contest. It was called “Gnarly Knees,” and it included one verse about his sister.
JOE: Who am I to tell you to love. Who am I if God's our only judge? But if tolerance is key it can't be hate to disagree. And love doesn't like everything it sees. And I never knew if the song would ever reach her ears... But I think at some point I realized that I really needed to say it. And I said in a song.
DANIEL: At this point, Myosha and Joe are not talking… they haven’t seen each other in YEARS, but coincidentally, at the same time that Joe is using music to work through his feelings... Myosha goes through a bad breakup. And she discovers songwriting as a way to talk about it.
MYOSHA: [SINGING] I asked her can you stay with me. I even begged and plead, baby please don't leave me. I asked why she had to leave. Was it something that I've done maybe I'm no longer fun, did those feelings go away...baby I need you to stay…[SINGING STOPS] I've always been a singer I've never I not saying I never wanted to write. I didn't believe in my capability of writing until I had hit this point in my life and I'm just like you know what. What makes me me? And it's music. It's always been music. Music has been everything to me so I'm just like, you know what maybe I should write my own stuff.
DANIEL: Joe submitted his song to the Carnegie Hall contest. And to his amazement...he won. This song he wrote in a prison cell was going to be performed inside Carnegie Hall. Joe called his wife and told her all about it...and she decided to call Myosha and tell her all about it. It was good timing. Myosha had this feeling that she couldn’t explain.
MYOSHA: If something's wrong with someone that I care about. I feel it in my body... I may get an ache in a place that I don't usually get it or my heart literally start to like ache and hurt. And he was just placed on my heart like it was just heaviness there.
DANIEL: Was there something that triggered your thoughts of him, and brought him back into your mind?
MYOSHA: Um, I mean I had pictures of him in my apartment. But I’m not really sure. I just started thinking about him.
DANIEL: After that, Myosha decided it was finally time to visit Joe.
DANIEL: What was it like to lay eyes on him for the first time in four or five years?
MYOSHA: It's like you got fat. [laughs] Joseph was always very small in stature but tall so like seeing him be buff and now like kind of have a little gut and I'm just like "Your old age is showing, buddy." I hate to break it to you, you need to...
DANIEL: And I bet he made fun of you back.
MYOSHA: Yeah. He’s like, well you haven’t grown.
DANIEL: He’s like, you’re still short.
MYOSHA: Pretty much.
DANIEL: Joe and Myosha start talking about what they’ve been up to lately... and that’s when they realize that both of them have found a passion for songwriting. It’s a connection they never had before. Myosha sang her song for Joe. He started suggesting lines. Then they started talking about his song: “Gnarly Knees.”
MYOSHA: He was like, well, I wrote the song um based on our interaction. And I was like, “Huh??” He's like, “remember when you came and you told me?” And I was like...I remembered it, but I didn’t want to think about it. He's like, “You know, I thought you didn't come because you were mad at me.” And I was like, “I kind of was mad at you, I'm not gonna lie.” Now the cat's out of the bag.
DANIEL: Music starts as this thing that Myosha and Joe both like talking about, and feel comfortable talking about. But then it becomes this language that they speak. And that starts conversations that they never had before.
[FADE IN: GNARLY KNEES]
DANIEL: Not long after their reunion, “Gnarly Knees” was performed in Carnegie Hall. Joe wasn’t allowed to be there, but Myosha was in the audience. And afterwards, they spoke on the phone.
[MUSIC FADE OUT]
MYOSHA: Joe Wilson. You sound established, man. Look at you. Coming up in the world.
JOE: I’m trying.
MYOSHA: Try to be trying to be like you when I grow up. Goals.
JOE: Nah, you good. You inspired me, definitely.
MYOSHA: It was. It was really, really moving... I was very impressed. And I noticed — I saw which part was like our part...and I like I was like “Aww. I didn't cry, though.”
JOE: Did you get it?
MYOSHA: Yes I...
JOE: Don’t cry?
MYOSHA: Yes, I got it. Duh. No, I gotta be a thug in these streets for Daniel. Daniel can’t see me crying.
DANIEL: Music gave Joe and Myosha a new connection. But the old tension is still there. As Joe says in his song, “Love doesn’t like everything it sees.”
DANIEL: Do you think it hurts Myosha to know that you disagree with something that she does? Or that you think that she needs forgiveness for what she does?
JOE: I don't – that's a good question...but I think that in deepening our relationship, that's a question I would ask her. Because I would like to know, and if it does then I think that we just kind of steer clear that and I wouldn’t discuss that with her anymore... Because I don't want to hurt her feelings. That's not my intention. My intention then to understand her and for her understand me and once we have an understanding we can love one another.
DANIEL: There are still a lot of things that Joe and Myosha need to say to each other. For now, music is kind of their middle ground. I told Myosha what Joe said to me. That he loves her very much. And at the same time, he disagrees with her.
MYOSHA: I think that's his politically correct answer. And I don't feel like he'll ever accept homosexuality as a whole. But he wants me to be happy. He wants the individual to be happy. You get what you can take…
DANIEL: Do you think that's where the story ends with that part of your relationship. Do you think it will always be this way?
MYOSHA: I hope not. ...I don't know. I think time will tell. That's the best way to put that one. Time will definitely tell.
DANIEL: Um, I heard Myosha came up here recently with someone else.
JOE: Oh! Ok. Yeah, she came up with her girlfriend Lu. She was cool, man. And we actually really bonded she's nice, I enjoyed it. We had some really deep conversation. Like, she's really into science. So we talk about the sciences and that was cool, I enjoyed her company. I really like her.
MYOSHA: Every time he calls, it just so happens that I'm always with my girlfriend... So he'll say hello to her and they'll have a slight little conversation and just like okay guys he called to speak to me. Hate to break it to you…[laughs]
KATHY: That was radio producer Daniel Gross.
TOBIN: Special thanks to the reporter John J Lennon who first brought our attention to this story. Also thanks to Carnegie Hall Musical Connections. Engineering help this week from Ania Grzesik.
KATHY: Ok and that’s our show.
TOBIN: But before we go, we have a special project in the works and we need your help.
KATHY: In the months ahead, we’re gonna be exploring the ways that the economy is built for straight cisgender people…
TOBIN: ...and how queer people navigate that system. Maybe it’s in planning a wedding or trying to figure out how to get healthcare or start a family. You know, there are so many times that money plays a part in the milestones in our lives.
KATHY: So we wanna know, has there been a time when you’ve noticed you’ve had a harder time navigating money than your friends who aren’t queer?
TOBIN: We wanna hear about it. Record a voice memo telling us about your queer money moments and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, that’s email@example.com. We may end up using your story on the show. Now, credits!
KATHY: Our producer...
TOBIN: Alice Wilder!
KATHY: Production fellow…
TOBIN: Temi Fagbenle!
KATHY: Sound designer...
TOBIN: Jeremy Bloom!
TOBIN: Jenny Lawton!
KATHY: Executive producer...
TOBIN: Paula Szuchman!
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC ENDS]