Brooklyn-based musician, record executive and author Nabil Ayers on Thursday evening will stop in Lawrence as part of his current book tour to share his powerful story navigating life with an absent father, who is also a famous musician.
When Ayers was born in 1971, his parents — Louise Braufman, a white, Jewish former ballerina, and Roy Ayers, a famous Black jazz musician — had an agreement that his father would have no part in his life. Ayers met his father a few brief times throughout his childhood but was ultimately left to wonder about that missing piece.
As an adult, Ayers connected with several half-siblings as well as learned the history of a great great great paternal grandfather who was an enslaved person. He was then able to meet and form a close relationship with a descendant of that plantation owner. This opened up doors for him to make more meaningful connections with those related to his family tree.
Ayers’ 2022 memoir, “My Life in the Sunshine: Searching for my Father and Discovering My Family,” encompasses his journey, from finding his personal identity to his heritage and discovering his own meaning of family.
Q&A with Nabil Ayers
Q: What is the overall purpose of this book?
A: I think at a certain point in my 40s I realized I’ve led an interesting life, I have a lot of interesting stories, and it would be fun to just sort of document them.
So I started doing that and just kind of writing on my own just for fun and that turned into publishing a couple shorter pieces; that turned into writing more and just kind of all swirled into this thing where at a certain point I realized not only have I written enough to maybe make this into a book, but I also can kind of identify how all these different pieces of my life could sort of be weaved together.
Music is sort of the common thing, but it’s about my father and my race and my childhood — all these different things. So it came together really naturally, but it wasn’t the purpose.
It was never like, “I need to tell the world my story.” In a way, it was the opposite. It was like, “By doing this I’m figuring out more of my story.” And this is a weird way to do it, and it’s turned into this sort of public way of doing it, and I love that, but it’s still this thing I’m doing for myself that just happens to be public-facing.
Q: What are the main themes in your memoir?
A: I learned that I can do a lot more than I thought I could.
On paper, my childhood sounded terrible. My mother was single and 20 when she met my father, and he’s Black and not in the picture, and we’re on welfare … But even those years that were hard were so wonderful and so fun and so magical, and that’s all due to my mother surrounding us with great people and really positive environments and where there’s nothing weird about me – all the kids were kind of like me. I guess my point is it would be really easy to look at that situation and blame things on it, but really it was like an important part of my life that made me … appreciate things and realize that you can just do a lot more on your own. It’s not about the situation that you’re handed. It’s about doing a lot of work and finding things and people that make you happy.
Q: How did you decide on your book title, which plays off of one of Roy Ayers’ most famous songs, ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’?
A: The song begins with the lyrics, “My life in the sunshine,” and that just made so much more sense because I was like “It’s a memoir, it’s literally about my life, right?” But it’s definitely more than just a kind of tribute to the song. The sunshine is sort of the positivity or all the good things. So it’s almost a metaphor to where it’s about my great life, and that title happens to work perfectly for it.
Q: What drove you to dig deep into your heritage, and how did connecting with relatives on your father’s side help you define your own meaning of family?
A: It was really my mother, who I’m really close to — she lives in Brooklyn, so I see her all the time — I grew up knowing so much about her side of the family … So there’s this huge extended family on my mother’s side, and my father’s side, I never knew anything except that there was him and then I think he had a couple more kids and I think he has three sisters, but that’s kind of all I ever knew. And when I was 35, I finally got in touch and we had lunch, and he told me some things but he didn’t go too deep. Then we lost touch, and that’s the first time I started to feel angry or resentful towards him because I really wanted to know more about his side of the family, but the person who could tell me wasn’t really doing so. So that’s when I decided I needed to go around him, and so I did 23andMe and that just really opened up this huge treasure trove of information where someone got in touch and sent me a family tree on my father’s side.
There’s my biological father, but I’ve never known him. I didn’t grow up with him, and that was never the plan … He never left us. He was never supposed to be part of my life in the first place, and now he’s still not. So kind of the last quarter of the book is really me finding all these people, some of whom I’m definitely related to, some of whom I’m definitely not related to, and some of whom I’m not sure, and just deciding that I get to make that decision of who my chosen family is.
Q: What are you looking forward to regarding your stop in Lawrence?
A: I’m excited to go. I think I was there like 20 years ago — I played in bands and toured for years, and I remember playing at the Bottleneck. I’m excited to go to Love Garden [Sounds] — I don’t know them, but I know people who know them, so I’m excited to pop in. I love going to record stores.
Author talk at Lawrence Public Library
Ayers will be discussing his memoir from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22 in the auditorium at the Lawrence Public Library 707 Vermont St. Admission is free and does not require pre-registration. It will also be livestreamed via LPL’s YouTube channel.
“I am so excited for Nabil to visit Lawrence. The story of his life is so fascinating,” Brad Allen, library director said via email.
“From a young childhood in a loving community where his ‘difference’ as a bi-racial kid wasn’t ‘different,’ to navigating a very different white world in Salt Lake City, I love how Nabil was always seeking to connect with others. His journey through the world of music from the 80s to present day is kaleidoscopic and a thrill to read as a music lover. I can’t wait to hear the stories he’ll tell us.”
LPL’s event is co-sponsored by the University of Kansas’ School of Music, Department of American Studies, and Department of African and African American Studies. To learn more about the event, visit this link. The Raven Book Store in Lawrence will have copies of Ayers’ memoir for sale, according to the event page, and there will be a book signing following his talk.