When it Comes to AIDS Outreach, Singer Nhojj Keeps the Beat
by Chael Needle
If time heals old wounds, perhaps music heals fresh ones.
Singer-songwriter Nhojj was playing some dates in his own backyard, New York City, when a friend caught one of his shows and, struck by the “healing quality” of his voice and music, suggested he perform with LIFEbeat. At the time, Nhojj had not heard of the music-industry AIDS nonprofit, which, as part of its mission, raises prevention awareness among youth by sponsoring concerts and events, and teams up with musicians for outreach, among other activities. Nhojj soon joined its Hearts & Voices program, an ongoing live-performance series for people living with HIV/AIDS throughout New York City.
Last winter, he performed in a holiday show at Rivington House, a long-term AIDS care facility on the Lower East Side. The response, he says, was, as it always is when he returns, welcoming. “You think you’re going to uplift their day and make them feel better, and it turns out that they end up blessing you, and you come away feeling great!” he gushes. He also appeared on one of LIFEbeat’s patient-distributed CDs, Hearts & Voices 2006 Superstars CD, contributing the track “Sorry.” “Nhojj is always in our hearts as one of our superstars,” says Aly Panichi, manager of Hearts & Voices. “He’s a caring soul.”
His friend’s comment about the healing power of music turned out to be a perceptive one. Though he did not set out to infuse his music with a quality of healing, he discovered that music offered just such a tonic for himself, one that resonates with listeners. He understands the connection very well because he seeks out that same vibe in the music of Bobby McFerrin, Cassandra Wilson, Sade, Seal, and Nina Simone, among others. Nhojj describes his style on his MySpace page as nu-jazz, neo-soul, and fusion, but categories are quickly dissolved by the fluidity of his sound.
His so-soft-it’s-strong and soaring voice reminds one of lullabies, though ones that work in reverse. They help gently wake you to reality rather than send you off to dreamland. His 2001 debut CD, I’ve Been Waiting for You, chronicles his journey toward finding harmony within himself. His follow-up effort, Someday Peace, Love and Freedom, uses reggae rhythms and transcendent vocals to explore politics, religion, love, and social injustice. The CD earned him an Outstanding Male Recording Nomination at the 2004 Outmusic Awards and won him Best Male Performance at the Fresh Fruit Festival. He also released an unplugged performance DVD, An Intimate Evening with Nhojj, in support of the album.
Audiences from Britain to Guyana were also treated to a concert in support of Coming Home, a CD tribute to the hymns, anthems, and inspirational music that provided an early education for Nhojj. “I grew up listening to and singing those songs in church,” he explains. “We ended up rewriting some of the lyrics…growing up, we would sing them and rearrange them and I always wanted to record them and add my own twist to them.” He recorded the CD under his given name, John Martinborough, because it was a present for his parents and it seemed right to honor them and this period of his life in this way. “A Song for Mother,” the CD’s only original composition, received honorable mention at the 13th Annual Billboard Song Contest.
Born in Guyana, and raised in Trinidad for some of his life, Nhojj eventually moved to New York City. This transatlantic odyssey was more of a matter of spirit than geography. He earned a B.A. in economics at NYU and, after a bit of soul-searching, began writing and making music in earnest. Nhojj
was able to find his unique voice—both musical and personal—amid lifelong pressures to conform.
He soon realized that his voice could also hit notes of social consciousness. Nhojj was instrumental in making the Underground to Peace and Unity Concert a reality. A couple of years ago, when the U.S. was mounting a response to 9/11, Nhojj was listening to interviews on NPR with Iraqis on how they felt about the U.S. Army coming in, and found powerful what one young woman said: “‘Our philosophy on life is that we accept the journey, we accept the past.’ There was a peace that came from her, in spite of the anxiety and fear.” Upset and appalled by the war, Nhojj suggested that he and others in New York’s underground music scene who felt the same way come together with their fans for a free concert, “lending their voices, lending their talents,” as well as building awareness and a sense of community.
With the help of his friend, seân, founder of Uni Aum Entertainment, they arranged for a venue, enlisted artists, and sent out flyers. The response was good, and the music from the concert even garnered airplay on NPR, and college and Internet radio. “I thought that it was my little part—saying something instead of sitting back and feeling like I can’t do anything.”
It’s hard to imagine Nhojj feeling like he can’t do anything: He has been proactive about raising awareness about homelessness, disability issues, and LGBT rights, and he supports many causes and organizations. Later this month, he is playing the first annual benefit gala for L.A.V.A.A. (Lesbians Against Violence & Aggression) at Brooklyn’s Catty Shack.
AIDS is a social justice issue close to his heart, as well. “I remember seeing that ad, with all the celebrities…it goes, ‘If one of us has AIDS we all have AIDS.’” He didn’t understand it at first. “But then I got it. We’re all connected, and if one of us is down, if one of us is hurting, if one of us isn’t doing well, then it affects us all.”
High on Nhojj’s list of priorities when it comes to AIDS is less of a disconnect between thought and action. “Every time I read the numbers [of those infected] I find it so startling, right? On one hand, people talk about AIDS or know about it, but then on the other hand the numbers are getting worse. Somehow we need more information, or a different type of information. We need change.” He can understand why resource-limited countries around the world are struggling to fight AIDS, but does not understand why the U.S. cannot do a better job of meeting the needs of those living with HIV/AIDS. “There needs to be a cure; there needs to be something—we can spend all this money going to other countries to do whatever but where’s the money for this?”
Nhojj is currently putting the finishing touches on his new CD, which he describes as “very upbeat, positive, fun.” One of the songs, “James Donovan,” is a tribute to two good friends he lost to AIDS years ago. “It’s my song, my thoughts, my dedication to them.”
Perhaps music heals old wounds as well.
Check out Nhojj’s music and tour schedule on www.nhojj.com.
Chael Needle interviewed actress Andrea Bowen for the June cover story.