Musician turns past pain into beautiful music
He liked Saskatchewan the best, that time they crossed the country in a Suzuki jeep loaded with all their worldly possessions. Perhaps because it was as lonely as he was, or because it was as inviting as the blank pages on which he drew superheroes reigning over new worlds. Better worlds than the one he knew. A boy wouldn’t stutter in a world like that, a boy wouldn’t have to endure a condition like Tourette’s, and have his face do things he wished it wouldn’t. A boy wouldn’t practically keep mute, speaking through his drawings instead of his tongue.
It was good being able to draw. His mom was proud, and at school they called on him, Zain Campbell, when they needed some artwork. A poster, say, to advertise an upcoming assembly. Only it wasn’t enough. Being able to draw didn’t stop his classmates from being mean. Calling him the N-word because of his coffee-coloured skin, calling him gay even though it wasn’t so, calling him weird. He wasn’t weird. It was just hard to hone your social skills when you never settled long in one place, when he was always changing schools — 10 times at least — trekking back and forth from Orillia to B.C.
It was hard to be confident when his stay-at-home dad didn’t want anyone coming over, conscious perhaps of their living arrangements. An apartment sometimes, and sometimes a trailer at a campsite. Or perhaps trying to protect his son, shield him from an unkind world. Or because he struggled with his own demons, depression, bipolar disorder. It made life hard for that little family.
Sometimes there was nothing going right, things bad at home and things bad at school. Zain still thinks about the time in Squamish when he developed a crush on a girl. Wished later he’d never gone over when he saw her crying, never asked if she was all right. She spat gum in his hair, that was her thanks. Perhaps because she was too upset to control herself, or because of peer pressure, perhaps because Zain’s bushy hair and hand-me-down clothes made it easy to believe what everyone said: he was weird.
Afterward, the teacher called Zain to the front of the class and cut the gum from his hair with everyone watching. It made him feel humiliated, stripped of whatever dignity he had.
Holed up in his room that night, Zain wrote a poem. He rhymed some words about being on the road, his memories of travelling the only means he had of getting away.
Only there was another way, there was a whole new way. Because his dad noticed the poem he had written. His dad, who often made him feel stupid, his dad read his words, and maybe what was between the lines, and saw the value of it. He saw his boy in a new light, and maybe something of himself, the talent and the struggles they shared. Because that day, he made his boy a beat song, the man who had once had a music career, who’d toured with a reggae band and appeared on Much Music. Got ahold of a cheap microphone so the 12-year-old boy who, until then, had never shown any musical talent could record a song. Helped his boy with software and mixing and lyrics, and must have felt something lift from his shoulders when Zain started to rap with no stutter at all. Must have felt the life flowing back in his veins making music again, when the music he and Zain made got noticed on Facebook. Kinnie Starr made an appearance at Zain’s school (Zain was 13) and asked to meet him after she heard him freestyle. The kids who used to bully Zain suddenly changed their tune, looked at him with new respect, said they were sorry for being mean.
Except it was real life, not a movie. Which meant there wasn’t an instant happy ending. It meant that as Zain got better, more musically independent, that his father started to feel the music in his life slipping away again. Meant as Zain progressed, had a following, and a girlfriend, that his dad grew angry, seeing things work out someone else, not for him, for the boy for whom he had given up life on the road. It must have made him feel old.
One night he struck out in a rage and hurt his son. He felt so bad afterward he bought himself a plane ticket. Worried, no doubt, that he was doing his boy more harm than good. Even though he’d tried, taught Zain how to carry himself, taught him that the people who make an impact in this world are the people who do things their own way, not the kind that follow the herd.
It made an impact on Zain, his father leaving like that. It was worse than all their hard times, being abandoned. It must be his fault, Zain thought, and nothing ever worked out so what was the use of trying, the point of going on? He couldn’t get it sorted out, couldn’t sleep at night, too sore in his heart and head, couldn’t shake off the shadows. The sleeping pills his father left helped him temporarily escape but when they started taking over, Zain wasn’t himself anymore. He was turning into his father, lashing out at his girlfriend, when she was so good to him.
Thank goodness for his mother. And that he met Brian Adams (a now retired social worker). Thank goodness Brian listened, and even took him to a recording studio out in Warminster. That Zain later met Taylor Abram (of the James Barker Band) and that his best friend Logan helped him direct music videos. Thank goodness he recorded an EP (Theory of Love, under the name Alphabreff in 2016) and got through that bad patch. And being the thoughtful type, a thinker by nature, a hard worker; the kind to teach himself to be ambidextrous or read the dictionary to improve his rhyming ability; the kind to write rap songs without resorting to curse words (Zain’s early work was free of profanity but later occasionally incorporated stronger language); the kind to progress to R&B because it is melody that lingers, its melodies that live for centuries; having seen how tough life can be, Zain is wise enough to know there are better things to seek than fame and fortune.
There’s being at peace with yourself, and having love in your life and meaningful work.
He’d like to have a house one day, a home to call his own. He’d like to have a nice wife and maybe even a kid. He’d like to become a music producer, use all his artistry to make the whole package. Like those new and beautiful worlds he once created as a boy.
Zain’s content is available on YouTube, Spotify and iTunes under the name Alphabreff.
Twenty-year-old Zain Campbell records rap and R&B under the name Alphabreff.