How often do you hear a feel good story about someone who has actually taken their second chance at life, turned away from bad influences and headed in a better direction? R&B artist Larry Joe is such a person, an artist with a true story of hope and redemption.
Sentenced to 5 years and 6 months in prison for housebreaking and theft, Larry Joe’s life has done a complete 180. He recorded his debut album, Crazy Life in Douglas Prison which was launched on the day of his release in December 2010. We sat down with Larry Joe to discuss his past, his present, and future.
1. Your debut album is entitled “Crazy Life”. Does the album title reflect your thoughts on your own life and your own story?
Definitely, I don’t think it just reflects my own life, but life in general – how I see it and what my hopes are for my future and the country.
2. Some people might be wondering, “What life is Larry talking about?” Tell us a bit of your story Larry.
I was born in a very small town in the Northern Cape and I grew up in a poor township. My father was an alcoholic that used drugs. So I grew up in a very violent home. The only role models I really had, the only ones in our community, were gangsters. So at the age of 13 I got involved with gangsterism (the 27 number gangs) and started experimenting with drugs because it gave me a sense of belonging.
In 2001 I broke into a house and was on the run for seven years without a vision or dream for myself – I didn’t know what I wanted in life. I thought life was about survival.
One night in 2007, while I was sleeping on the street under three cardboards and a piece of plastic, still running from the law, I had a dream. In my dream, I was sitting on a bar chair on a stage, with a guitar and a microphone in front of me. There was one light from the roof shining on my head and there was an audience of 150 000 people all shouting my name. The venue was Madison Square Garden.
I had never felt as happy and as fulfilled in my life as I did in that moment. It was the most awesome feeling. I woke up from the dream and I realized that the first thing I need to do to make my dreams become a reality is to take responsibility for my actions. I realized that I was the leader of my own life. I then handed myself over and went to prison.
About three months into my sentence both my father and my daughter died. I asked to be put into solitary confinement and started composing my own songs.
3. Your music is really inspiring. It has so much soul? I think we can all recognize the sense of both remorse and redemption. Do you feel that your bad past has made you a better song writer?
Not just a better songwriter, I think it made me a better person. If it weren’t for my past I wouldn’t be the person that I am today. I learnt a lot from it and that’s what I’ve been sharing. I’ve been working with 35,000 kids in the past four months just sharing my story and my music. I’ve been putting my mistakes out there so that they can learn from it and not make the same ones I did. So yes, most definitely.
4. You have become an inspiration to many the youth struggling with drugs and (ex-) fellow prison mates. What and who inspires you?
It’s a four letter word – LIFE. And life is about people. Life inspires me.
5. You’ve mentioned that you spent hours and hours thinking and reflecting on your life, both future, past, and present. Did your thoughts ever wonder to faith/religion and did it play a part in your amazing transformation from prisoner to R&B star?
Most definitely. As much as I want to take all the credit for what I’ve achieved this far it would be unfair to not say the creator of all existence played a very key role in my decision to becoming a better person and contributing to society.
6. I’ve read that you’ve written 40 songs in English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Spanish and Portuguese. Do you plan to record all of them and what other plans do you have to further your career?
I am currently in the process. I was actually in studio a little earlier working on one of the songs of my new album. I’ve just released a new single called “Middle of the Night”. The night represents the darkness and I’m singing about taking my hand and dancing with me. The dance would represent the hope and the belonging.
To get back to your question – I compose in different languages because I believe music is a universal language and even if you don’t understand the words that I am singing you will feel where it’s coming from.
Five weeks ago my producer and I, Aaron, performed for the Queen in Netherlands. I’ll be returning there in September. I’ve been invited there to perform with my band, called Larry Joe Live.
Two weeks ago I was on my first movie shoot. So a lot of stuff is happening. It would take me a long time to get through it all.
The new album is going to be released at the end of September, hopefully.
7. What is your creative process like? How do you write a song?
My record for writing a song is 45 minutes, both lyrics and music. I haven’t quite cracked that time yet. I actually never just think about it, it’s a feeling, you know. I take out a book and write down my feelings and then I take out a guitar or a keyboard and search for the right feeling and sound to match the lyrics.
Since I’ve been released from prison, me and Aaron have been working very closely in studio. Sometimes he will come up with a piano riff, or lyrics or an idea and I’ll add to that. We work together on most of the stuff.
On my new album I’ve been working with Karen Zoid and Vusi Mahlasela, a South African legend. I’ve been working with a lot of different people. I’ve worked with Loyiso and Zolani. And I have no formal training in music.
8. Having toured the world, playing alongside some very big acts, including Freshlyground, how do you stay grounded in the midst of all the cameras and screaming fans?
I never learnt to be anyone but who I am. I woke up four years ago and discovered myself. For 27 years of my life I pretended to be someone who I wasn’t. It feels super nice to be me. That’s why it’s not an effort. Tomorrow I don’t have to remember what I pretended today to be.
9. Given your background in drug abuse it’s great to hear that you are actively involved in social work, developing talent and inspiring youth. Tell us more.
I do a lot of charity work. I give 10 percent of my time to community work. I also work with MSC with Nedbank and with YIP (Young People in Prison). I’m also an ambassador for ShoutSA. I’m working with a lot of companies, charities and NGOs.
10. Is there anything you would like the world to know about Larry Joe, that perhaps they don’t quite know yet?
I’m scared of one thing – being stuck in America at the airport without the necessary documentation to get back to South Africa.