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How Macy Gray Settled Her Heart and Mind

How the Grammy winner overcomes barriers on her way to success.

“I saw a rainbow just earlier today.

Lately those rainbows be comin' round, like every day.

Deep in the struggle, I have found the beauty of me.

God is watchin’, and the Devil finally let me be.”

"A Moment to Myself" by Macy Gray

Macy Gray’s featured vocals on Ariana Grande’s song "Leave Me Lonely" are getting rave reviews and introducing her to a whole new generation of fans.

 Norman Seeff
Source: Photo credit: Norman Seeff

For those who are learning about Gray’s work for the first time, they would be well-advised to check out her history of work. Not only has she been captivating us with her music since her hit song “I Try,” for which she won the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 2001, but Gray also has been making waves as an actor, appearing in such films as Training Day (2001) with Denzel Washington; Shadowboxer (2005) with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Helen Mirren; and The Paperboy (2012) with Nicole Kidman.

Underlying her longevity as an artist has been her ability to overcome multiple hurdles, including mental illness and racism, as she built a dynamic and creative career. And she has done so in part by following a very simple prescription:

Find what you are passionate about, and it will help you overcome any barriers.

While many successful artists start performing at a very early age, Gray did not start out stealing the spotlight. In fact, Gray described being extremely shy as a child. While the majority of people who are shy do not suffer from increased psychological distress, shy people do have an increased risk for social anxiety.

Gray described her experience of social anxiety as a child. “My childhood was difficult because I was shy, and I did things that I didn’t understand. And when you’re shy, you’re holding back a lot of things, which no one wants to do. And then you see people who are extroverted. People are drawn to them. They have a lot of friends. They get invited to all of the parties. So you kind of want to do that, too,” she explained.

For many people, being shy can start a negative cycle of low self-esteem and less social and academic success. Specifically, being shy can limit one’s ability to be assertive and to attain the accolades that often accompany assertive people, such as making more social contacts. As a result, the feeling of being less successful or popular fuels low self-esteem, which then increases shyness and reticence to engage with others.

“I don’t know if it’s so much that people beat you up for it, as much as you beat yourself up for it. Because if you’re shy, I wouldn’t say the things I was thinking. And I’d be in class, and the teacher would ask a question. And I knew the answer but was too scared to raise my hand,” Gray recalled. “And then you think about it all day. You’re like, ‘I’m the only one in the class who knew the answer. And nobody’s ever going to know it.’

“You just kind of beat yourself up.”

Gray explained that being labeled “shy” didn’t help the situation. “It’s just a label, ‘She’s shy.’ They might not be saying it to put you down. But they’re not saying it to pick you up.”

One of the factors that may have contributed to Gray’s reticence was the experience of racism. She grew up in Canton, Ohio, and reported experiencing various forms of racism growing up.

“It’s horrible because, especially as a kid, you don’t understand it. You haven’t been taught any lessons. You don’t have any hang-ups yet. So when people treat you bad for no reason, you don’t understand it,” Gray explained. “Even today — you didn’t get a job because you’re black — it stirs things for you.

“And it just brings on hang-ups and judging people back and reserving yourself in situations. Thinking that people might not like you. And if you’re in a crowd, and no one looks like you, you’re always a little uncomfortable,” she said. “And sometimes you don’t have to be, but sometimes you should be. It confuses things and holds people back. And it causes chaos.

“It really is an awful thing that has never made sense.”

Unfortunately, Gray is not alone in her experience of the damaging effects of racism. There is strong evidence that discrimination such as racism can be conceptualized as a form of stress that can damage physical and mental health.

One meta-analytic review of 134 separate studies found that perceived discrimination was associated with poorer mental health. As an example, a five-year longitudinal study of 714 African-American adolescents who were 10 to 12 years old at recruitment found that increases in perceived discrimination predicted increased conduct problems and depression over time.

But for Gray, having those negative experiences did not defeat her. Rather, they motivated her to find other ways to seek the adulation that she saw extroverted children receiving. “If you accomplish something, people tend to like you more. And I think a lot of shy people get caught up in that. You get really driven to find some way to bring people around you because you can’t seem to do it socially,” she explained. “So I had this need to make something of myself, to make up for my shortcomings. And I wanted to be great.

“And I felt that if I did something great, people would like me more.”

While Gray was hesitant at times to engage in social or academic activities, her mother was very clear that Gray and her siblings needed to be busy. “I was one of those kids that took every kind of lesson. I took karate. I took archery. I took swimming. I played sports every season. I think that I was just so busy, and I just did stuff because my mom made me,” Gray recounted. “That was just my mom. She’s still like that. If she found my brothers and sisters just sitting around, she’d have a fit. That was like committing a crime to her. She didn’t like laziness, and she didn’t like if you had nothing to do.,

“I just got used to it.”

And while some people question whether “overscheduling” is harmful to children, Gray found that though she didn’t always enjoy the various activities her mother chose for her, she emerged with a sense that she could accomplish any task. “I think if you have parents who keep you busy, and you’re into everything, it teaches you that you can do anything. Like, I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do. And I know I’m so wrong about that,” Gray said. “But I feel that because my mom was always having me do this and that, she could put me in any situation, around all kinds of people.

“So, I don’t think I have any fear of trying anything.”

Interestingly, many children who go on to be successful in music show interest at an early age. However, Gray was not particularly interested in music or acting. In fact, she reported hating her music lessons. “I didn’t really have anything I was crazy about. I did hate piano lessons. I didn’t hate my teacher, but she was just so boring, and she made my lessons such a drag,” she said.

Throughout high school and college, Gray continued to be engaged in several activities — but had not found her passion. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do later in life until my early 20s,” she recalled. “Up until then, I was just doing stuff. I was into a lot of things. I was in a lot of clubs. I hung out quite a bit when I was in college.”

But when she eventually started playing music and performing for others, she found her passion. “I don’t know how to define passion, but I know it’s something that you’ll do for free. You’ll do it whatever, whenever. It’s something that has a magnet on you,” Gray said. “You want to do it, and when you do it, you feel right. When you’re doing it, it’s probably the most comfortable that you are. When you’re doing something you love, you don’t have no problems at that moment.

“[You’re the] most settled in your heart and your mind.”

Gray found that her confidence increased and her reticence in social situations was reduced. “I started performing and that was good,” she said. “Performing does amazing things for your confidence when you get up there, and everybody knows the words to your songs. And they scream every time that you say something: You go, ‘Boo,’ and they go ‘Wahhh!’”

Gray’s music has many influences. “I actually started out in jazz. I’m an undercover jazz vocalist in terms of how I sing,” she said. “But I was open, I was in a jazz band, and then a rock band. I’m really open musically.”

In part because she has had so many disparate influences, one of the challenges that Gray has faced in her career is the difficulty in classifying her sound. And unfortunately, Gray has repeatedly encountered racism when it comes to interpreting her style.

Sometimes, the racism has been more subtle, such as labeling Gray generally as an “R&B” artist, even though it’s not quite the right fit. She feels that she was put into that category mostly because of her race.

“I always felt like I’ve just done my thing. I get why they call me R&B because there’s a rhythm and soul to my music that’s not too pop or rock. But there’s a pop or rock to my music that’s not too R&B,” Gray explained. “Because I’m black, they call me R&B. But I’m really not. There’s nothing in my music that compares to Usher or Chris Brown. It doesn’t bother me. It’s not something that I worry about.”

While Gray isn’t as concerned about how her race affects how her music is categorized, she does see other forms of racism in the music industry that she considers to be quite damaging. At the 2016 BET Awards on June 26, actor Jesse Williams brought up the issue of cultural appropriation, which Gray has observed for years in the music industry. For example, the practice of Caucasian singers employing “blaccents” – or vocal stylings that are designed to make them sound African-American.

“In music, there’s definitely a weird kind of discrimination going on. It’s very strange, but it’s very obvious. So, that’s sad to me. There’s just this hunt for white artists that sound black. It’s overwhelming,” Gray explained. “I actually had an [artists and repertoire] person say to me, ‘You know, I can get a black girl to sing these songs and sound great. But if I go and find myself a young white girl to sing these same songs, we’re going to sell quadruple the records.’ And the sad thing is that she was right. But what’s even more tragic is that that’s what everyone’s looking for.

“So, it’s kind of getting back to Elvis.”

The negative effects of this mindset are real. “It’s tragic because I don’t see that changing for a while. The tragedy is that you’re going to miss a lot of great artists. A lot of great artists are not going to get an opportunity because they’re not white,” she said.

“There are a lot of singers that get an opportunity but are probably not ready for it. Just because you’re young and you’re white doesn’t mean you should be in the spotlight right now. It’s definitely disturbing. It’s just weird that it’s coming up in 2016. That’s what’s so crazy. It affects a lot of people. It affects everything.”

While Gray was more reticent as a child, she has grown to become very assertive about her feelings on racism. Recognizing the damaging effects of discrimination, she has been very outspoken on racial issues, including the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown. And she feels that what she is seeing in the music industry is part of a bigger picture. “I think it comes down to ignorance. Like Obama bashers – they seem to have no awareness of all of the things he accomplished,” she said.

Moreover, Gray has been outspoken when she sees other groups of people enduring the same type of discrimination that she has faced. In particular, Gray has talked publicly about the dangers of the anti-Muslim bias, including harassment, threats, and attacks on mosques that have occurred since the 9/11 terrorist attack. And the damage is similar: One study of 108 Arab-Americans, the majority of whom were Muslim, found that perceived discrimination was associated with lower self-esteem and increased psychological distress.

One major issue Gray has is that anyone can claim to be Muslim without following the principles of Islam. “People don’t get that terror is not Muslim. Islam doesn’t teach terrorism. I could say I’m a Muslim [but] it doesn’t make me one,” she explained. “Or they say ‘radical Islam’ but that doesn’t even go together. Either you’re Muslim or you’re not. There’s no ‘radical.’ What is that?

“It’s like Charles Manson saying he was a Christian.”

Gray has also stated that the policies associated with anti-Muslim bias are counterproductive. The National Counterterrorism Center agrees with her, clearly stating that promotion of inclusion and tolerance, as well as building trust with law enforcement, is critical to reducing vulnerability to radicalization.

“None of it really makes any sense when you get down to it. When you start advertising your hate or your disdain for people, or bringing up things like bans or boycotts of people who have nothing to do with it, then you’re going too far,” Gray described. “You know generalizing is always really, really dangerous. But it’s just a weird time. I feel like we’re back in the day again.

“All of a sudden, we’re back 20 years.”

The progress that Gray has made since being a young child struggling with shyness can also be seen in her managing her bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is distinguished by manic episodes, in which one’s mood is elevated or irritable. Bipolar disorder is often characterized by increased substance use and impulsive behaviors such as gambling, both issues that Gray had described struggling with in the past.

And the stigma of mental illness is pervasive. People with mental illness report discrimination in work and health care settings and that people tend to engage in “social distancing” or avoidance of them. One study of 392 people with bipolar disorder found that not only was there a high perception that they would be stigmatized by others, but also that stigma was associated with reduced self-concept and quality of life.

Thus, just as she was vulnerable to the negative cycle of being shy, avoiding interactions, and then perpetuating lower self-esteem, Gray was at risk for the same painful cycle often caused by mental illness. But instead, she has felt very resilient against any stigma.

“I never really thought about what people may be thinking. There are so many crazy people that have no disorder. I don’t think people know the difference anymore,” she said. “Some people get written off as crazy when they’re really just super-smart or have different ideas about the world.

“It doesn’t make you off because you see the world differently.”

In fact, she’s embraced her identity as someone who may think or behave a bit differently from “normal” people. There is an ongoing debate as to whether mental illness is associated with increased creativity. One study that compared 30 creative writers to control groups found higher rates of affective disorder, particularly bipolar disorder, among creative writers.

Gray described how for some people, mental illness can propel creativity. “I know that there’s a lot of people who are successful who have issues with drugs and mental disabilities,” she said. “When you’re insane you say or do all kinds of shit. And sometimes you’re, like, ‘Whoa, I can’t believe you did that.

“You made history in a delusional moment.”

Similarly, Gray feels that while she does not condone drug use, she has experienced improved creativity while using. “I know that drugs do amazing things for bringing things from your subconscious to the forefront. Or when you’re in the studio, and you smoke a little weed, and it settles your brain,” she said. “You get inspiration. You get ideas that you normally wouldn’t get for some reason. You’re not thinking so much about the stress in your life. You can open up and feel things a little deeper.

“I know I’ve written some great songs when I was in some kind of stupor.”

Acknowledging that there are positive effects of drugs helps Gray keep things in perspective so that she doesn’t stigmatize herself or others. “I mean, that’s why they’re drugs. They do things — bad and good. I know that some good things have come from people doing drugs. I’m not recommending them at all. You don’t want to do them too much.”

Ultimately, Gray encourages people to wade through all of the barriers and seek out their own path to happiness. “It’s just life. It’s a very individual world. You get put in it, and you go where you go. It’s just kind of different for everybody. I don’t think there’s a straight formula for everyone. People try to label it, try to understand it and analyze it,” she said. “But really, you’re just doing your thing.”

For her part, Gray is moving along and continuing to pursue her passion. “I’m working on a new album. It’s going to be awesome. We have a few songs that I really like — I really love, actually — and I’m really excited about putting them out,” she said.

“But that’s all I know, full stop.”

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