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Nehemiah, Native Son: Introduction

Updated on July 22, 2016

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

James Baldwin, NY Times, Jan 1962

Nehemiah Luckett
Nehemiah Luckett

It was a hot sunny day in the summer of 2004. Had to be near 90 degrees. I was likely wearing my traditional summer-uniform: black tank-top, black skirt, and black Sketchers with my black collared shirt and green apron in a shoulder bag, wearing as little as possible to survive the heat. I entered the gratefully air-conditioned Starbucks, already dripping with sweat in the 5 minutes from my front door. I cheerfully greeted my fellow staff and customers before heading to the backroom to begin my shift. My manager was in the back, in the middle of an interview for a new hire. I grabbed my stuff, said a quick hello and dashed back onto the floor. But not without catching a good look at our new potential coworker. He was a young black man, with a hint of the South in his enthusiastic hello. He has a proper way of speaking. Not a heavy accent, but the southern is noticeable in the slight drawl of his words, a languid way of articulating, slow and deliberate. Glasses, 5 o’clock shadow, big smile. And a corduroy jacket. Tan, with little brown leather elbow patches. In July. I couldn’t shake that image. His smile was welcoming; his demeanor was friendly. But the jacket just made him a little weird. I must say I appreciated his formal business attire when applying for such a menial job as a barista, but corduroy in July? He would later tell me that, being from Mississippi, he barely noticed the heat. Little did I know, that, in the year we worked together, that weird smiling man from Mississippi would become such an influential person in my life.

He was Nehemiah Luckett.

Infinite Finale at Rockwood Music Hall — with Nehemiah Luckett
Infinite Finale at Rockwood Music Hall — with Nehemiah Luckett | Source

At that time, during sabbatical from school, he became a good friend and an inspiration in my own creative and literary life. Nehemiah is creative genius with a die-hard work ethic, often serving as a muse for my writing. It was one of the most productive times in my creative life, writing, drawing, and sharing ideas with a diverse group of people. I was inspired by Nehemiah’s drive and imagination. He was, at the time we worked together, writing an opera in 5 different languages. I felt blessed to be invited to a play he co-wrote and musically directed, with friend Ross Wade, who wrote the book and lyrics. It was an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, musical theatre style, called Brick by Brick. Brilliance. I enjoyed sharing my favorite books with my friends and coworkers, so many a novel had been passed around our little corner coffee shop. But Nehemiah introduced me to James Baldwin. Someone had given him Giovanni’s Room as a gift, and he passed it on to me. Reading this book felt like running head first into a brick wall, in an enlightening way. After consuming so much of the American and British Literary Cannon, James Baldwin was a welcome shock. A story about alternative sexuality, diving deep into the inner life and social stigmas of the world around us, visceral and palpable.

Maybe that’s how I felt about Nehemiah, as well. A welcome shock. A vivid and inspiring difference in the blandness of life, while also being a continuation of tradition. For one cannot have a Baldwin without having the Literary Cannon that came before. The modern revolution that is Nehemiah cannot exist without the foundation that created him.

Though our paths have diverged, I’ve thought about Nehemiah throughout the 10 years or so since we last met, and he was an inspiration in choosing to study an entire semester of Baldwin’s works. As I learned more about James Baldwin’s life, I could not help to make comparisons to Nehemiah. By the end of the course, I was seeing Nehemiah as a continuation of Baldwin’s legacy, and the following biographical interview illustrates this comparison.

Photo credit: Mike Zacchino, The Oregonian — with Nehemiah Luckett and Billy Talen.
Photo credit: Mike Zacchino, The Oregonian — with Nehemiah Luckett and Billy Talen.

One sunny day in May, the temperatures in the late 80s, I make my way to Manhattan to meet an old friend. Not quite the small ritzy town where we originally were introduced, but Lexington Avenue was close enough in atmosphere. As I caught sight of Nehemiah crossing the street from the subway station, I nearly expected to see him in that tan corduroy jacket. To further the nostalgia, we found a Starbucks to escape the heat, and caught up on his life. His open countenance and jovial disposition made me feel as though ten years had not passed since we last met. But Nehemiah has done so much since then.

Currently, Nehemiah Luckett is the Musical director in both the Church of Earthalujah, In New York City, and Asbury-Crestwood United Methodist Church, in Tuckahoe, NY. He is also a Freelance Music Director, Vocal Coach, and Accompanist. A consummate workaholic with an interminable passion for his music, which nearly cost him his life. While still working for Starbucks, a few years ago, Nehemiah put as much creative time in his day as there were hours, leaving him no appetite and no time to sleep. He explains his schedule at the time: “In 2010, January. I was working at Starbucks, and I was teaching voice lessons, I was working at the church, I was giving piano lessons. I had been asked to music direct a show in Brooklyn, and I had been asked to work on my first Off-Broadway show. All of this was at the same time. I would do the morning shifts at Starbucks I would work 445 to maybe 915. I pulled some strings to get that. Normally they don’t like you leaving before 10 o’clock.” I put myself through college and worked several other jobs during my time at Starbucks. It is a physically grueling job and it takes a lot of effort to get the schedule you desire around the life you want.

Nehemiah continues: “So I would go directly to the off Broadway job which was 10-6. Then I would go to Brooklyn and have rehearsal from 7-10, and because things were so crazy at that time, my voice students were coming to my house at 11 or midnight, and I would work with them.”

Reverend Billy And The Stop Shopping Gospel Choir Rehearsal with Nehemiah
Reverend Billy And The Stop Shopping Gospel Choir Rehearsal with Nehemiah

Here, I pause. Admiring his dedication, but confused as to the amount of energy this needs, I ask, when did you sleep? “I didn’t,” he says, “I actually didn’t.” I could hear the strain in his voice, as he had stretched himself too thin. There was a lasting scar from his over-activity, and the stretch-marks were still with him. “I wasn’t eating and I wasn’t sleeping. And then at some point, I wasn’t able to keep water down. And that’s when everything went south.” He had worked himself to death, and the doctors at the hospital told him if he had not gotten there within 24 hours, he would have been lost.

Fortunately, by the time he had passed out from malnutrition and overexertion, one of his roommates had found him. Nehemiah describes his encounter, barely conscious on the floor, with a confused Ross: “He comes up to me, on the ground, and says,” putting on a soft, sleepy whisper, “should I call an ambulance? And I said, if ever the time to call an ambulance, Ross, it is now. Please.” By that point, his kidney and liver functions were failing, his body was shutting down. Put on an IV to rehydrate, the doctors ask about his daily routine. The doctor was incredulous and gave very stern advice: “He was very clear,” Nehemiah says, “You have to give up at LEAST 20 hours of work per week. I would say at least 40, because you need to replace that with SLEEP. I don’t know about what else you’re doing with your life, but you have to sleep at least a minimum of 20 hours a week, minimum. Zero is an unacceptable number.” The doctor had to convince him to give up a part of his day, to choose a job to get rid of and replace that with sleep.

It was one of the most difficult decisions to make, since he loves all of his creative and musical jobs. How do you give up something that you love, that is so much a part of your very being? And Starbucks was a steady income with health insurance. At that, he says, “the doctor laughed for so long. Guys, come here and listen to this! This guy’s job for health insurance put him in the hospital! Anyone else see the irony in that?! Because he HAD to have a job to pay these bills and have health insurance, he ended up in the hospital!” Nehemiah knew that he had to make change in his life in order to survive. Making changes has been a theme throughout his personal history, and the path that led him to this point was not an easy one.

“If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”

Michael Jackson, Man in the Mirror

Keep following for the continuation of Nehemiah's story.

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