Mu­si­cian turns past pain into beau­ti­ful mu­sic

Packet & Times (Orillia) - - NEWS - KATE GRIGG Kate Grigg is an artist and writer who grew up in Oril­lia and tells sto­ries of lo­cal peo­ple in her weekly col­umn. If you have a story you think she might be in­ter­ested in, email kate­

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.

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