As one of today’s most acclaimed and beloved singer-songwriters of inspirational music, Rickie Byars has spent a lifetime impacting audiences around the globe with deeply soulful and uplifting songs of realness, as both a solo artist and Founder/Director of the world-renowned Agape International Choir. Rickie has amassed over 200 original compositions, including special performances for Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness The Dalai Lama.
What brings you joy right now?
Service lights me up. I like to make people feel good by singing; sharing my music.
Part of my story is that when I was three years old, I was encouraged to sing by Miss Anita Stroud of Friendship Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC. Miss Anita who didn’t have children of her own, would gather together the toddlers known as, “The Tots Choir,” and we’d sing with her “I got the joy, joy, joy, down in my heart,” and we sounded sooo good. She sticks out as a heroine in my heart, and in my life because she made us all feel good about singing. We knew we sounded good because Miss Anita Stroud would encourage us to really sing out. “Sing babies!”
I’ve always loved to sing. It’s something I came here to do. And not to just sing music that makes people happy, but music that makes them cry too, you know… and that makes them touch down deep inside. When we get into that deeper zone, that’s when the world opens up.
I’m now at a place where I can really shine and feel very secure in doing what I love to do.
Is it fair to assume that in your prolific career as a vocalist and composer, performing for Desmond Tutu, and His Holiness The Dalai Lama would be among the highlights?
Both were delightful, but I actually had real moments with His Holiness The Dalai Lama. I was in session with him on five occasions. My first audience with HHDL was in 1996 for a beautiful presentation for about 400 people in New Delhi. There was no piano so I sang a cappella and guided the people to sing with me. It was a very moving experience; and afterward, I went to His Holiness who was sitting on a bench on the stage; and he bowed first, and then I bowed. Then he bowed again. So, the second time when our heads were down there together I asked him, “Well, did you enjoy the song or what?” And he just laughed so hard and asked me to offer another song.
So I did the same song again, guiding a diverse and somewhat older audience of 400 people to sing along with me in a syncopated rhythm. They sang so well together. When the song was done, I knew a miracle had happened there. All these people, moving in rhythm sang their parts and then ended in an OM. It was a moment. Then His Holiness The Dalai Lama said these words: “She’s led us in active meditation. Now I will lead you in silent meditation.”
He is a very special person who does not usually lead long meditations. When he led the silent meditation, there was an energy in the room that just moved me. I was like, “ah, okay, I see who you are.” Oh my God, with his whole being, he just opens the door for so much good to download in whomever is blessed to be present. His presence and guiding wisdom made me a better person. He invited us to simply make friends and meet people who may live right next door but don’t look like you. Something as simple as that, left a lasting impression on me.
Is there something in your life’s journey that you gave up trying to do, or just sort of let go of, to move on?
That’s a big question… it’s always a constant letting go. But I think probably one of the greatest things is what my daughter helped me release. It’s pristine in my awareness because it was such a very telling moment.
Somebody I knew, another artist had left me a voicemail saying, “Oh my God, I’m on the radio. They’re playing my record! And thank you for giving me your photographer, and thank you for your stylist, and thank you for everything.” She’s thanking me, and I’m wondering to God why does this particular artist get to go, to be known, to be all over the radio… and I don’t.
I went to my bedroom and sat on the bed and just let the tears flow. I was crying because the frustration was just too much for me to hide. My ego was whipping! My mom, who was visiting at the time, came and sat next to me; and then my daughter Georgia, who was 14 at the time, came in and asked what was wrong. I was so embarrassed to even articulate my feelings, but finally, I said, “It’s like, I just don’t understand why she gets to go and I don’t get to go. Why does her music get on the radio and not mine…when people are singing my songs all over the place?”
And though I felt ashamed about my feelings – I spoke honestly from my heart. Then, my daughter, who now was also sitting by my side and rubbing my back to console my weeping, spoke up.
“Mommy, Mommy… One day, you’re going to realize that your music didn’t come to make you famous; your music came to heal people. One day you’re gonna realize that and that’s gonna be enough for you.” I came to heal people and that IS enough for me…now. But I had to let go of wanting to be known or being a celebrity.
You have an aura about you like you’re fully present wherever you are. I’m wondering if you see yourself in that way, and how does one get to that place?
I think life gets you there; and doing the things that really bring you joy might get you closer to your real purpose. Honestly just a simple inquiry into “Who am I?” gets me there. When I get back to Self, there’s nobody I really want to be, but mySelf. I’m thankful to have gotten to the place where I can say, I love who I am, just being Rickie. And I can accept who I am with all the flaws and everything. I can accept my voice and triumph in the joy that the music brings to so many. It’s an exercise in self-acceptance.
Hmm, and how do you learn that? I think that’s what a life is for; to learn that there’s no distance between you and God. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to learn that but for me, that is and shall forever be the pearl of great price.
What’s something you’re really horrible at doing?
Social media. I want to learn it. I want to do better. Because I know if I could learn to drive, I could learn how to do that. It’s not hard. So many people do it so well, there must be some space for me to do it a little better.
I love your tune “I Release and Let it Go.” Is there a song that’s carried you through some tough places, one, in particular, that is your baby?
I got a lot of babies. Ha, ha.
One of my favorite songs is not as famous as others, but it’s called “Supreme Inspiration.” And the lyric is, “God of my Spirit, Supreme Inspiration – God of my Heart, I take refuge in your great love – Creator and Ultimate Wisdom, may all be blessed and may all be at home. “God up my Spirit, Supreme inspiration – God of the stars, I take refuge in your great love – Creator and Ultimate Wisdom, may all be blessed and may all find the way to love.”
The song came to me in the wee hours of the morning, inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh, before we did a Peace Walk together at MacArthur Park.
How do you feel about birthdays?
Oh, I love my birthdays. My birthday is a High Holy Day that I truly enjoy and I love saying that I just turned 71 years old. It’s such a golden time to be alive and still doing the things I love to do. Last year on my 70th I wrote down the things that I looked forward to doing in my seventh decade. On the top of that list was taking time to be with family, and creating or being a part of outdoor festivals. Just a few weeks ago I curated an amazing festival that took place in Allensworth Township Historic State Park. Colonel Allensworth founded the first African-American township in California back in 1908. It was an honor to do what I really love to do… create incredible environments where Music & Art can just do what they DO!
Instead of doing everything by myself like I used to, I want to invite people to be with me. I want to help create gatherings where we share, I want to do things that require teamwork. It’s a new way of collaborating — you’re learning more about yourself and you’re learning from others and they’re learning; you’re all getting there together.
Sometimes you go into the later years with the old pattern that’s reliable. You can have that as a foundation maybe. But I find that sometimes I’m looking at the present with the eyes of yesterday, and I don’t want to do that. I need to be really clear that I’m not recreating something that’s already happened, just because that’s what I know.
Good To Know:
As a message to Intentfuls, Rickie shares an excerpt from a tribute poem by Gwen Gorg written for her 70th birthday.