Nabil Ayers Searches For Connection In New Memoir
Written by Vocalo Radio on June 28, 2022
Nabil Ayers explores family, identity and community in new memoir My Life In The Sunshine.
If you’re unfamiliar with Nabil Ayers — author and president of the record label collective Beggars Group — you may be familiar with his father, jazz musician Roy Ayers. Though they share the same last name, musical passion and, partially, looks, Nabil Ayers really never knew his father growing up — not because Roy left him and his mother, but because, as Nabil outlines in My Life In the Sunshine: Searching for My Father and Discovering My Family, this was all part of the “deal,” so to speak.
As Nabil recalls, his mother knew she wanted to be a single mother at the time she met his father at a jazz club. She was 20 years old at the time, and wanted to give her child a better childhood than she had.
“The moment she met him, she said, ‘This is the person I’m going to have a child with,’” Nabil Ayers told Ayana Contreras for Vocalo. “Not, ‘This is the person I’m going to be with, or this is the person I’m going to marry,’ because she actually wasn’t that interested in the relationship. She wanted a child.”
The two dated briefly before Nabil’s mother asked him to father her child, without expectation of any presence in their lives. Roy agreed.
“He didn’t leave us, there wasn’t a divorce, he was never part of my life,” Nabil said. “So it didn’t really feel like he was missing.”
Born Nabil Braufman in 1972, at the age of 18, Nabil decided to change his last name when he moved to Washington state to start college. He wanted something simpler. But rather than choosing a name he was entirely disconnected from, he decided on his father’s.
“At the time, in my head, my father was famous [back] in the ’70s,” Nabil explained. “So it just didn’t really occur to me that, of course, he would have this incredible resurgence and be sampled and be revered for so long.”
My Life In The Sunshine begins when Nabil’s mother met his father, and spans until Nabil finished the book, about a year and a half ago. Over the span of the memoir, Nabil takes readers on a journey through his latchkey-kid childhood spent in Manhattan and in diverse suburban Amherst, Massachusetts, his adolescence in predominantly-white Salt Lake City, his college and his indie rock record store days in Seattle, and the full-circle feeling of returning to New York City.
Nabil Ayers sat down with Ayana Contreras on June 15 to discuss the memoir, what attracted a biracial pre-teen to the band Kiss, finding community in the music industry and the results of his search for familial connection. Check out their full conversation below…
Nabil Ayers: So the deal, or the arrangement, as people now seem to like to call it, is that my mother was 20 when she met my father. She lived in New York, she had kind of a hard childhood, and, I think, knew that she wanted to be a young single mother. And she wanted to give a child the childhood that she never had. That was her thing, that still is her thing. I talk to her all the time and we’re really close. She met my father at a jazz club, she was with my uncle who’s a jazz musician. And the moment she met him, she said, “This is the person I’m going to have a child with.” Not, “This is the person I’m going to be with, or this is the person I’m going to marry,” because she actually wasn’t that interested in the relationship. She wanted a child, and she thought that he was handsome and kind and charismatic and didn’t drink or do drugs, and sort of had this list of criteria.
NA: So they “dated,” in air quotes, a few times, and she said, “Will you be the father of my child? You do not have to be part of our lives.” And he agreed. And so, I’ve always known that story. So there, of course, there are issues and there are things I get into in the book, but he didn’t leave us, there wasn’t a divorce, he was never part of my life. So it didn’t really feel like he was missing. But that’s, that’s where it all begins.
Ayana Contreras: Yeah. You know, books have two different purposes, right? Maybe more than two. A memoir, in particular, can be extremely cathartic… can help you work out your own history, and can also be enlightening to the reader, I think, in some ways. And I think this book is exceptionally good at probably doing both. It seems like, me reading it is like, “Oh, my goodness, this man went through some things.” Even just in [the process of] writing this book and documenting some of those parts of your history that maybe you try not to harp on, you know what I’m saying? It seems like that’s what you really dug into a lot of.
NA: Yeah, it’s interesting that you got that, because that’s absolutely true. When I was writing it, I was interviewing my mother and listening to records and doing all I could to kind of put myself in scenes from 20, 30 years ago, or from childhood. And that was really fun. But then what would happen is, something would happen, I’d find a new cousin or someone would email me or something very current would happen. And so sometimes I was writing about these old things, and sometimes I was running back from the cemetery to meet my grandparents… to see their grave, with my new aunt. And I was sitting in a hotel room just typing as fast as I could, trying to get down on the page what had happened just an hour [before]. So it was a real mix of, sort of research and writing.
AC: Right. And this particular book, it is very chronological in the way that it’s formatted, but obviously life is not… you want to think of life as chronological, but the way we unpack our own stories often isn’t as chronological as maybe we remember it.
NA: Right. Yeah, it definitely is. Obviously, it starts the moment my mother meets my father. And it ends about a year and a half ago… when I finished the book. But so much happened while I was writing it that it certainly didn’t feel like I wrote it chronologically. I didn’t start at the beginning and end at the end, it was really all over the place, because that’s how things were happening in real time.
AC: Right. I think the hook for a lot of people with this book is your last name: Ayers. Right? Which is a reference to your father, Roy Ayers. But, notably, for the first 18 years of your life, that was not your last name.
NA: Right. Right. I was born with the name Braufman and changed it to that name when I went away to college.
AC: Right. Which I thought was so interesting, because you’re very forthright in the book to say that you didn’t really have a substantive relationship with your father, although you knew he was your father… for most of your upbringing. And you took this name, which, kind of because of the way your face looks, would make people automatically, [at least] anybody who has any cursory familiarity with your father [ask], “Are you related to Roy Ayers?”
NA: Yes, happens all the time.
AC: Right. But… you created that situation in some ways… So how do you feel about your 18-year-old [self’s] decision?
NA: Yeah, because 18-year-old me had no idea that would be the case, because 18-year-old me lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, where Roy Ayers was not a thing, no one ever asked me about him there. And this was in like 1989. So at the time, in my head, my father was famous in the ’70s. But now, he was probably almost 50. Like, that’s, you’re not going to be a famous rock star, or you know, whatever star at that age.
So it just didn’t really occur to me that, of course, he would have this incredible resurgence and be sampled and be revered for so long. So I never imagined that this would be happening, but it started happening soon after that, and has happened ever since.
AC: So why did you do it? Why did you change your name?
NA: I think it’s because it was the only name I actually had a connection to. I mean, Braufman was my grandparents’s name, my mother’s name. And she’d changed her name, not legally, but for work, just because… it’s long story, but she was working in a position where she had to use her name a lot and found it really difficult to keep spelling Braufman. “Br-auf-man…” have people misspell it, ask about it. And she just said to me, “Look, now’s a really good time, you’re going away to college, you’re moving to a different city. Think about this, it can be a much easier life. Is, is there a name that you like?” And Ayers is the only one I have any connection to. So I think I thought about making up a name. But that felt a lot weirder than the one that, at least, there is a real connection to.
AC: That’s so interesting. Because I forget about that concept, where you can, theoretically, you could change your name to whatever you want.
AC: I was on your Instagram, and I saw you had a picture of yourself with James Spooner, [who helmed] Afro-Punk back when Afropunk was Afro-punk.
AC: So, you’ve known him for a while? I’m guessing.
NA: Yeah, we met through a mutual friend a while ago, like six or seven years ago in New York. And really, like connected, and I remember it was the first time I ever… Because we’re both biracial, or multiracial, it was the first time I’d heard the term: he said someone was “touched by the brush.” And I remember thinking like, “Whoa, I’ve never heard that. That’s a weird term to talk about someone who had some Black blood in them.” But then we kind of lost touch. And recently, that same friend got back in touch. And she was like, “Oh, my God, you guys are both publishing books, kind of on the same subject matter at the same time.” James’s book just came out a couple of weeks ago. It’s called The High Desert. And mine just came out last week. So yeah, we’re back in touch and hanging out.
AC: Yeah. I bring up James Spooner, because… one big part of your book is coming to terms with being a person of color who is in love with rock music, where the people don’t look like you, and MTV is not reflecting the reality of what you love and what you’re passionate about… of making a space for you.
AC: Like, you didn’t see yourself in the music, right? And every time I think of James Spooner, I think about back in the day when Afro-punk was like, niche, bloggie. Like, no, you know what I’m saying?
AC: [Years ago] I was teaching youth and there was this young Black kid who was totally into rock and had the nose piercing and all the jazz. And this was before he knew that there was, like, a whole world of people like that. And I was like, “You should check out Afro-punk.” You know, and he did and his life was different.
NA: Wow, that’s incredible.
AC: Oh, my God, I felt so good for him.
NA: That’s great.
AC: Because, this was back when Afropunk was Afro-punk, I keep saying that, because now it’s just like Coachella for Black people, kind of. With some rock leanings.
NA: And white people, too.
AC: Well, that’s true. That’s true now, but I mean, it’s very commercialized.
NA: Right, it was pretty counterculture in the beginning.
AC: Yeah, for sure.
NA: That’s really… what it was, it was great. Yeah.
AC: Yeah. I think that’s also a part of this book, that I don’t know that necessarily people are going to gravitate towards as much. But I do think that that part of the thing: of finding space for yourself, and not just that… making space for yourself, in that world is also really… it’s an interesting thing. [There are] certain scenes that just really resonate with me. Obviously, I’ve mentioned it once, but the MTV thing, right, kind of going back. Because it’s like, your experience, watching, like, [no Black artists] but Billy Ocean and maybe Prince.
AC: You know what I mean? Like, very little representation.
NA: Right. MTV was, it was so white when I got it in 1982. It was a year old. And I loved it, and I devoured it, but it was pretty much all white artists.
AC: Yeah. Which, I mean, there’s a couple of reasons for that. Right? Looking back, I don’t make excuses for people. But it was one of those things where, as you know, as a record label person, it’s like, they’re putting money where they think the money is.
NA: Right. “This is what the audience wants.”
AC: Until BET comes out.
NA: Right, or until Michael Jackson drops “Thriller”!
AC: Well, that too! He was an artist that they felt like they could play, for whatever reason. I mean, we can get into that, that’s a different book.
AC: Yeah, I mean, thinking about that space. But I also think about the really adorable vignette where your mother sets you up with the Kiss makeup, the makeup of the Kiss drummer, and then you actually put the photo on your Instagram. I’m like, “That doesn’t look anything like him.” But…
NA: Like the Kiss drummer or like me?
AC: Well, I mean, yeah, like…
NA: I needed a wig, right? That was really…
AC: No! I mean, well… let’s tell the story for people, right? So, you’re — how old were you at the time?
NA: I was probably 7 or 8, because my mom took me to see Kiss at Madison Square Garden when I was 7, which I remember well, and it was truly, like, a life-changing moment. But then I was one of the Kiss members, Peter Criss, I think, for Halloween with a cheap drugstore mask and a cape or whatever. But then my mom was like, “I think we could get some makeup and really do it.” And so, we tried to do it. I mean, there’s a picture on my Instagram. It’s me, I was a drummer already at the time, at 7. I started playing drums at 2 and a half. And it’s me with a full face of Kiss Peter Criss makeup on, and a really lumpy, like, out-of-bed afro, sitting at a drumset smiling, wishing I was in Kiss.
AC: Why were you attracted to Kiss?
NA: Right. It was such a weird thing. Because, like we were just talking about, this is before MTV, but we had lots of different records. I was always around music when I was a kid. I remember LaBelle, and I remember Seals & Crofts and Stevie Wonder and the Beatles. And you know, a pretty good mix of people. John Coltrane. But I remember looking at all these records, and, especially at that age, really spending a lot of time looking at them and thinking, “I don’t look like any of these people. I have a Black father and a white mother. Sure, I kind of have an afro, but, like, Stevie Wonder’s is tighter than mine, and his skin is darker and look how, like, perfectly round it is.” And the Beatles, of course, like so pale, and the straight brown hair, like, “I don’t know how I’m gonna be in a band, if I don’t look like… that’s, these are people who are in bands. I don’t look like them.” Like, I think that was the very simple young brain.
But I think that’s a real thing in lots of people, I think people who want to do something, whatever it is, identify with those who are doing it, and you try to find someone that looks like you because that’s the easy way to see, “Here’s how I fit in. I could be in this band, or I could be with these people.” And I didn’t see that. But weirdly, for me, Kiss, who I knew were white men, of course, and my mom used to brag that they were Jewish, she was really excited about that. I just saw them as like, “I could do that. I could look like that, because that’s just makeup.” And so, in a weird way, that was the thing that kind of made me feel like I could belong.
AC: Yeah. It’s so interesting. I mean, I also think that’s a theme of your book, like, finding ways to belong in a whole bunch of different spaces and places.
AC: Sometimes it was because you were wearing, like the right polo shirt. And sometimes it was… all these different reasons. But, I think ultimately, what also drew me to the story of the book was this concept of what is it to not feel like you have the right to identify as something, that is your birthright, because it doesn’t feel true to you?
NA: Meaning, why would I ever feel like I can’t belong to something, I should be able to belong to everything? Is that kind of what you’re saying?
AC: Well, I think you should belong to whatever you think you belong to, to a certain extent. [But] I mean, you know, I get it. It’s like, “Well, my experience is not that experience. So maybe I’m not that.”
NA: Right. But no, I think I know what you mean. When I was a kid, of course, I couldn’t have this knowledge. But me loving this music, loving what it sounded like, loving what it made me feel like, should have been enough for me to say, “Great, I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna be one of these people.” But instead, because I didn’t look like those people, there was this big doubt that hung over me. Is that kind of what you’re talking about?
AC: Sure. I mean, you could play it that way. I think there’s a couple of different plays here. But even the flip of that, where it’s like, “I don’t know if I should call myself Black, because my reality doesn’t reflect what I think that reality is.” But it’s like, I mean, you call yourself what you want.
NA: And it depends on what room you’re in, or what room I’m in.
AC: No, exactly. So that’s also… the ambiguity is also interesting. That’s a privilege, to be able to walk into a room and it’s weird, because it’s like, “What is that person?” Which is a horrible concept, but it’s real.
NA: It’s so real.
AC: But literally, because of the nature of migration, the nature of the history of the world, you could be all sorts of…
NA: Right, and then you throw in my name, which is Middle Eastern, which my mom and uncle just got from a book that they loved, but, of course, makes a lot of people lean that way. In the Uber on the way here, the driver asked me where I’m from, which happens all the time in Ubers because my name is sitting on the screen.
AC: Yeah. I think that’s interesting. I was just talking to somebody upstairs. And I was like most African American people are, they say on average, are only [about] 75% African.
AC: That’s wild.
NA: That’s crazy, right?
AC: That’s like, wild.
NA: Yeah. Right. And that’s, is that largely because of slavery?
NA: I mean, we know why it’s…
AC: It’s not because of Loving Day, unfortunately.
NA: No, that took a lot longer to come.
AC: It took longer for that to happen, yeah… But thinking about that, and thinking about where we come up with, “What is this? And what is that?” And these hard lines, it’s like, I don’t think any people… people of African descent in the United States of America are as cut and dry as we want to believe.
NA: Right. It’s literally not black and white, like everyone wants to think it is.
AC: I think a big chunk of this book, and a lot of your formative years, were in Salt Lake City, you know, kind of homogeneous.I just picture, like, dirty blonde people. They’re not dirty, but they’re, like, dirty-blonde-haired people.
NA: Yeah, they’re like slightly, yeah. Not California blonde, but blonde, yeah.
AC: Yeah. A little, little lighter. I picture those folks just kind of walking around, and then you, walking around, you know, like…
NA: And it was so funny. I was there a few nights ago, I did a reading at a store in Salt Lake City, which was really fun, because I spent a lot of time growing up there. And it’s a big part of the book, so I wanted to make sure I went and it was great. I was at a great bookstore. And the reading was really crowded. And the woman who was kind of my conversation partner, this woman, Liz, is half Black, half Korean. And it was amazing, because she started by talking about, she runs the Utah Black History Museum, which is this really great mobile museum. It’s a long story. But, so she was talking about the Black history in the state and how the state is still only about 2% Black, and then she looked out in the crowd. And I think there were about 50 people there, and I saw one Black person. And that’s like, the math works out to exactly 2%. We’re still here.
AC: Oh, that’s funny. I thought you were gonna say, “And all of those people are in this room right now.”
NA: Nope, they did not make it the other night.
AC: Oh, man.
AC: I think part of why that is such a formative time…. and this is, you know, armchair book reader… is that there was so much cognitive dissonance between your reality before that point. Like, living in New York, the “dirty apple.”
AC: In the ’70s and into the early ’80s. It was a very different place, like starkly different place, you know, and then going on to be in, was it Massachusetts?
NA: Yeah, Amherst, which, at the time, where we lived was just so, in a great way, just so sort of diverse and idyllic and so many kids with single parents and so many kids of different races and mixed races. So, that’s what was interesting about going. When we moved to Salt Lake City, I was 10, but I had 10 years of never being the weird kid. I fit in everywhere I was, because everyone was sort of like me, in a way. And then in Salt Lake, of course, it was like, “Whoa, I am different.”
AC: In all of the ways. It is interesting, and you weren’t Mormon. Not say everybody’s Mormon.
NA: But it was like, I think it was six… Salt Lake itself, which is the least Mormon city, was 60% at the time.
AC: That’s still a lot, a solid majority. Moving back to New York, going full circle, how did it feel the second time around? Did you feel, immediately, anything?
NA: I felt like, I really did feel like I was home. I lived… so, after Salt Lake City, I went away to college in Seattle and stayed there for another 15 years after that. So really long time, I’m well into my 30s. And I moved to New York in 2008. And Seattle, I loved Seattle, but Seattle’s a very white city, or at least Seattle feels like a very white city. And then my sort of indie-rock-record-store world was very white.
So moving to New York, and moving to Fort Greene in Brooklyn, which, to me, was then and still is a very mixed neighborhood, in a way that feels natural and real, just felt like, almost like a bit sad and regretful. Like, this is amazing! I wasn’t thinking about this for the last 15 years, and I wish I had, maybe I would have moved here sooner or maybe I would have changed my life somehow in Seattle, but it feels so much more comfortable. And I feel so much more at home. Not among people who are like me, but kind of like Amherst, among people who are just all over the place. That’s where I feel most at home.
AC: I think also the ability to be sort of anonymous.
NA: Right. Maybe. Like, nobody asking where I was from.
AC: That’s correct… To wrap up, the little pull-quote on the front of the book says, “Ultimately redefines what it means to be a family.” That’s what the book says, on the cover. And I guess, yes? Maybe? I don’t know. Because, you know, the other character in this book that we haven’t mentioned is DNA testing.
AC: Which, I think, came in clutch in a whole lot of these connections… So, thinking 20 years ago, a lot of these connections wouldn’t have even been possible.
AC: Because that’s the other part. Like, the lede of this of this book is that you are searching for your father. But what really happened was you did find, like, kinfolk. Skinfolk-kinfolk.
AC: …That were happy to be with you and be around you… that you didn’t know existed. I mean, I would argue that, growing up, your uncle was your father… I mean, you can say whatever you want [but] that was my takeaway.
NA: No, I 100% agree. Yes.
AC: I don’t want people to walk away saying, “Oh, little Oliver Twist. He had nobody but his Mommy!”
NA: Exactly… No, that’s the whole thing. And I spent so much time talking about this. I hope the book does this. But, I mean, on paper, my childhood was so terrible, right? Young, single mother, Black father who’s not in the picture. We were on welfare, all these things. And it was incredible. It was a wonderful childhood! We had everything we needed. My uncle is a huge part of our lives, he was my father figure. And everyone we knew was in the same boat, seriously. So it wasn’t like, “Oh, we don’t have anything, but everyone else has this or that.” This was… I had a really great, idyllic childhood.
AC: And it was like the ’70s and ’80s. Like, the ’70s was different. Especially when you were a little kid. It was just… it was rougher. That was okay. One of my friends last night was saying to me, you know, “Don’t mess with Gen X people, because they know 12 ways to get blood out of a shirt.” You know what I mean? Like, they know how to like… you know, take care of business.
NA: It’s true, we used to like, go do crazy things and whatever that was. Throwing rocks at each other, you know, obviously riding bikes with no helmets. I mean, just like you, we would just go out and play and come back when it was dinnertime, and things were okay.
AC: Feral! Now they call them feral. That was, for us, that was the usual thing. We had keys… to everything. Yeah, latchkey kids.
Learn more about Nabil Ayers and My Life In The Sunshine on his website, and follow Nabil on Instagram.
Interview and audio production by Ayana Contreras
Introduction written, transcript edited for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca
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