The first time I met Paul Williamson was during a church choir rehearsal at Knox United Church. At that time, Barry Anderson was choir director and the choir was radiant and strong. Over the next few years there, I got to hear him sing and man, could he sing! He became a mentor in the choir for me, and later a friend. But at the time, I never really knew him. Back then I didn’t know that he was born in Jamaica. I didn’t know that he was at risk of being deported every single month, those were things that I didn’t see. All I saw was a singer giving everything he had for 5 minutes every Sunday. Luckily for me, I stayed in touch and 10+ years later, I think it’s time that I finally get to know him. He has called me out on it many times for not messaging him sooner. But since we both love music and chocolate, we have been able to be at peace with each other. Because honestly, sharing a love of music and food is the door to peace. So, with that being said, let’s start at the beginning.
Where did your love of music start Paul?
“My love of music began when I was a child. My father had an old Sony reel to reel where he would play classical music every Sunday. Music would permeate the house, and I began to appreciate listening to the blend of instruments. I give credit to my Dad for that. My mother insisted that ALL her children had to learn two things: how to swim and how to play at least one musical instrument.”
Oh wow, what did you have to play?
“I was made to play the piano for 10 years, and now looking back, I thank my mother for her insistence.”
With your love of music beginning as a child, did that grow after seeing a performance and if so what was one of your favourite performances in Jamaica?
“Sort of. As a child, we did not have many public music performances, but we had drama!!!” I grew up in a children’s Christian ministry that was heavy in public speaking, drama and music. So not only was I exposed to watching drama but I was also on stage a lot!”
Did you have an Aha! moment? That feeling of knowing you wanted to pursue that experience. Did your family support your decision?
“My Aha! moment, did not happen in Jamaica. For me, it happened when my family took a trip to Europe, and on the last stop in England, Luciano Pavarotti was giving a free concert just around the corner from my hotel! My father and I went and when I saw him sing, I think that was the first Aha! moment I had.”
That sounds amazing. He was a hero to you.
“Yes, I was transfixed! I remember the sound that came out of his mouth and it was something truly wonderful.”
Wow! I can’t imagine what that would have been like. Was this before or after you arrived in Canada?
“Before, I arrived in Canada in 2004. Originally I was only going to be there for 3 weeks doing an opera apprentice programme. I knew that if I had any shot of a career, I had to settle in a place like Canada.”
Was that a difficult choice to make, staying in Canada and have you been able to go back to Jamaica?
“While at the apprentice programme, I got recruited, and then I made the decision to stay. I was hard at first, but I knew that this was my shot, and I had to take it. Thankfully, I have been back since being here, I travelled to Jamaica and have done numerous concerts, and also with some very talented colleagues.”
Was it emotional for you to perform back in Jamaica?
“It was a great feeling. To go back and perform there in my native Jamaica. But, it also gave me a strong desire to be part of the desperate change that needs to take place to raise the level of performances and performers. There are so many strong, creative and passionate performers in Jamaica that are struggling to be heard.”
You want people to know, there’s more to Jamaica then just reggae, jerk chicken and steel drums.
“Yes much more! But no one is listening.”
What are some of the struggles have you faced since living in Canada? Did being a Canadian citizen helped you feel included?
“Since living in Canada, I have experienced various forms of racism. I have been shut out of various programmes, and I have shown up to auditions (I won’t say to which companies) where the audition was clearly over before it started. It was never a question of talent. I know this because of how well I prepared for them. Even after I sang as a soloist at Carnegie Hall twice, I was still passed over! Being a Canadian citizen however, has helped tremendously as now I am able to apply for grants, and take advantage of the many opportunities available to citizens here. But that wasn’t always the case.”
Have you experienced this anywhere else, even as a performer?
“Yes! I remember when I was living and performing in Russia. I was there doing a Master’s degree in Opera Performance and Pedagogy. I was given an opportunity to audition at the provincial opera house to sing the role of Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. A few days later, the conductor spoke to my teacher, telling her that it wasn’t possible for me to sing the role because of my skin colour! Simply put!”
Since then, has it gotten better overall or worse? Has there been a shift?
“It has been consistent, that racism relegates artists like me to the sidelines. I usually get gigs when someone has had to drop out and they need someone who can learn music fast; a reputation I have established over the years.”
You’ve been the “second choice” for companies.
“I have been to auditions where everyone was either talking to each other or fiddling with their phones instead of paying attention to my singing. One might say that maybe it’s because I am not that good. I am not trying to toot my own horn here, but I have worked very hard to get where I am and I have relationships with prominent musicians who tell me straight up how my singing is. If I am not singing well, they have earned the right to tell me.”
Does that make you want to stop singing at times?
“There were times I’ve wanted to give up, but my love for singing was too strong to let it go! Singing is in my blood and my soul!”
That’s very beautiful. Talking about sharing your love of music with kids, you taught a Mini Mozart Camp, how was that experience for you and the kids?
“In August 2015, I and the lovely Allison Arends, were able to go and teach kids about classical music at the St Andrew Settlement in Majesty Gardens, downtown Kingston, Jamaica. It was a great experience for all. I was very grateful that St. Andrew Parish Foundation was able to pay and support the camp.”
Is the support still there for the kids?
“Donations and support have been low, but hopefully I will be able to get back there and do it again.”
Hopefully create lots of aha! moments. Is there a venue you’d like to perform at one day?
“The MET! Period!”
That’s a good choice! MET, Make this happen!! Alright, Paul, having to sing multiple verses of text and speaking different languages daily. What text speaks to you the most?
“Mine comes from the Bible. Proverbs 3:5-6. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths. Even if I have nothing else, I know I will have Him to guide me.”
What are your hopes for the future? Going back and teaching in Jamaica, working around the world as an Opera singer, or being a Canadian citizen with dreams and goals.In your words, Is there hope for kids and the minorities in the performing arts?
“One of my biggest hopes is to raise the bar of music in my native Jamaica. There are so many talented musicians who do not have the opportunities to showcase their gifts and get paid for them. That has to change, and I am on a mission to do so, by God’s grace.”
*Photo of Paul Williamson. Support the St Andrew Settlement here.