Sheila E

La-la, la-la, la-la, la-la…la, la la…

A fur coat of mink in the summertime. A Mercedes sedan. Discovering that money only pays the rent…



Ah, yes…“The Glamorous Life.” I learned early on, thanks to Sheila E., that without love, it ain’t much.

In The Beat of My Own Drum (Atria, 2014), Sheila E. shares a series of “loud” memories that amount to a compelling narrative of her journey from Oakland, California to global stardom as one of our most celebrated percussionists.  This was no easy feat for a woman who has been both celebrated and maligned for playing what she calls a “man’s instrument” in “a man’s world.”

“I’ve been trying to write this book for a long time,” she tells EBONY. “There’s a lot to tell…and it’s time.”

Indeed. In her memoir, Sheila E. displays her impeccable timing as she patches together a quilt of memories that chart her path toward becoming an Emmy and Grammy-nominated artist who has played with a number of musical giants, including Carlos Santana, Marvin Gaye, Lionel Richie, and Prince. In the book, we see her as the eldest child of legendary percussionist Pedro “Pete”/”Pops” Escovedo and his wife, Juanita; as a young Creole/Latina who was bullied due to being seen as ethnically ambiguous; as a rape survivor; as a junior-high school drop out; as a gang member; as a highly sought-after percussionist and performer in her own right; as Prince’s creative and romantic partner; as a child of God; as a lover of music…

Sheila E.’s life has been one of revision—and personal transformation; but through it all, music has been her closest friend and her most trusted confidante.

The Beat of My Own Drum contains its share of surprises (for example, she was an uncredited percussionist on Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”); memories of special moments with rock stars (my favorite is her description of the night she and Prince recorded “Erotic City”); and laugh-out loud moments (Sheila E.’s mother in a onesie, with “Pippi Longstocking” braids and a blacked-out front tooth yelling ”I’m Sheila E.’s mama!” in an airport). In all, the book presents a series of life reflections that elevate the power of hope, family, faith, love and, ultimately, forgiveness.

Here are three “lessons” that might resonate with all of us:

Family is Life.

“A lot of people ask questions about what it was like growing up in a musical family,” she said during our talk.  “It’s about the sharing.”

Sheila is the eldest of four musical children that include Juan, Peter Michael and Zina. Most of us are familiar with the adage that “blood is thicker than water,” but through Sheila’s narrative, we see that in the chaos of demanding schedules, competitive professional spaces, and the prioritization of others’ needs over our own, women need our families to keep us grounded. They love us unconditionally. They make us laugh. They share our earliest memories. We are accountable to each other—and when they hurt us, we can neither hide from them, nor they from us. They tell us the truth. They are our truth. We should hold this bond as sacred.

Music is Spiritual.

When I asked Sheila E. about the healing power of music for women—particularly in an industry that routinely presents women as hypersexualized or powerless in the creation of their own images, she said, “That’s what this book is about…Music is healing.”

Sometimes it is just that simple.

Sheila’s creative fuel is her faith, which is ultimately expressed through her music. Women of color are some of the most spiritually expressive people on the planet; but, we sometimes ignore the multiple ways that we understand what is going on around us or with us—how we feel when we walk into a room, or how our bodies are holding emotion, both positive and negative. Through artistic expression, we can let it go. Sing. Draw. Dance. Make a beat. Tell a story. Tell your story. Create. The connections we make through our artistic expressions can sometimes articulate our feelings and thoughts better than statistics or facts. Our grandmothers knew that when they hummed to us or held us. We can feel it when we dance or hold a rhythm in our body in other ways. It’s our legacy, so embrace it!

Love is our most powerful tool.

Sheila E. was raped when she was five years old. Her chilling description of this horrific event may lead you to tears, and that’s okay. If you don’t feel touched in some way by her pain, you might want to check your pulse. As a fellow sexual abuse survivor, I applaud and appreciate her willingness to share her story of abuse and healing. I also appreciate the resources and words of advice that she offers to others who have suffered similarly. What comes through very clearly is that we have the power to forgive—not just those who cause us harm, but also ourselves. One of the most powerful moments in the book is when Sheila E. writes a note to her 5-year old self and explains that she is not responsible for what happened to her and that she can—and will—reclaim herself such that she can realize her calling.

The ultimate gift of Sheila’s narrative is the Elevate Hope Foundation, a project that Sheila E. and her friend and business manager Lynn Mabry co-founded as an institutional commitment to the healing of young people who are recovering from trauma and neglect. Since 2001, Elevate Hope has been providing art and music therapy to young people who have experienced traumatic harm. Recently, Sheila E. and Mabry launched Elevate Oakland, which is designed to improve academic achievement through music and art instruction in Oakland public schools.

Sheila E. has not only experienced the healing power of musical and artistic expression, she has witnessed similar transformations in the young people served by Elevate Hope and Elevate Oakland. As painful as it might have been to initially share her own narrative, it has now become the testimony that she leads with. By sharing her journey and teaching young people how to create their own music, she can help them use art as a way to increase their capacity to heal.

“I understand that this is my purpose,” she said. “Music becomes the outlet for [the kids] to express themselves. Music and art therapy are some of the tools that they need to break down that wall of communication. Breaking down that wall allows them to make that connection…and that’s freeing!”

The Elevate Hope Foundation accepts in-kind donations (e.g., musical instruments, art supplies, computers, etc.) as well as monetary donations. For more information, please visit their website.

Monique W. Morris, Ed.D. is an author and social justice scholar. For more information, visit moniquewmorris.com and follow Dr. Morris on Twitter @MoniqueWMorris.



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