Tell your story

April 13, 2023

The following is a piece about a song I recently wrote with Patricia Vuvu, who is originally from the DRC and grew up in South Africa. I met Patricia while helping to organize the “Experiences with Displacement” panel for the Migration Summit 2023. This is a monthlong event that happens during April each year. This year the theme of the summit is “Co-creating Pathways to Learning, Livelihood, and Dignity.” People from all over the world join together to create panels, workshops, and presentations to discuss issues around migration and devise creative solutions. Patricia shared her story for the panel in the form of a poem and song that I helped to collaboratively create with her. The song has been embraced by lead summit organizers, and it has been played at the start of every session.

This is the first recording I made of the song.

Read on to follow the story of how the song came into the world.

March 29, 2023

I met with Sarah this morning and we spoke about the finality of death and how it ends all possibility. Her son-in-law’s father recently passed away after a long illness, and she talked about the perspective this can bring to live life differently. This is a lesson I think that surfaces when something painful happens. It is also something I notice in the way I see myself and other people living. I know the ways I can find meaning and joy in life—writing music, for example—yet I still find myself getting drawn into so many other pastimes that drain my spirit and energy until I am too exhausted to even listen to music and sing.

I talked with Sarah about how I find myself wasting precious hours of life, worrying about things that really don’t matter in the grand scheme.

I wonder, I mused, if I do this to avoid thinking about the finality or mortality, that everything could end in a moment, and there is no way to know when it could happen.

I think we all have a habit of doing that, Sarah replied. Unless we have experienced something that changes our perspective so much that are able to transcend this limitation and live differently.

My husband lives differently in this way. As a very young child, he lost his older brother and nearly died when the cabin where his family was staying was buried in an avalanche.  I notice time and again that he seems to have found a way of living that is more balanced between the propensity for focusing on the little things and appreciating and embracing being alive.

Sarah and I continued talking for a while, catching up on the past week’s events. We meet nearly every Monday, carrying on our tradition of meeting in person to write music by connecting on Skype. It’s not the same, but we find a way to carry on, staying connected and also creating poetry, stories, and music together.

We often talk about the work that we do to try to help make the world a better place. This work is nearly always as a volunteer, and it can all-consuming. We are often worn out and exhausted and we spend our time boosting each other’s spirits. In the same vein of wanting to shift our perspective to live life more fully, I mentioned the one moment I experienced recently where I was reminded of how much music brings me joy.

I have stepped into multiple volunteer roles, helping to organize a global migration summit. This is a monthlong event in April of each year with the intention of creating a space where people share the work they are doing to solve migration issues and people who have direct experience with migration can share their stories.

I have found myself spending an increasing number of hours each week in my volunteer efforts. I believe in the summit, and the experience has helped me to learn a great deal and meet wonderful people. At the same time, it has once again taken me away from the work that brings me the most joy—writing music with people from their stories.

At a recent meeting for a storytelling panel where refugees share their experiences with migration, I mentioned to the participants that I would be happy to work with them to write a song from their story. One participant was particularly excited about this possibility, and we met earlier this week to begin working on her song.

As soon as we began the call, I could feel my energy and joy rising. It was like the activity at a carnival where a person bangs a hammer on a scale with so much intensity that the red line flies up to ring a big bell. There was a near constant joyful ringing vibration in my entire being, connecting with this person.

Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, she is now living in South Africa with her parents, her husband, and six children. She introduced her mom, who was sitting next to her on the couch. She became flustered and worried that she didn’t look pretty enough to be recorded when I asked if I could record the session.

You are beautiful, I assured her. And she was. I could feel her radiant energy shining, like she was her own sun. It was a gift of be able to bask in the warmth of those rays for even a moment, and the experience stayed with me even after our meeting was over.

She told me her story, and as she spoke I typed her words into a Google Doc. I then shared my screen with her, and I explained the process of shaping the block of text into prose. We looked at the text together, watching her story take the shape of a poem with stanzas and a clear message of the importance of creating the space to their our stories.

I then invited her to sing any of the words she felt drawn to. I used the voice recognition app of my iPhone and first tried to accompany her on my ukulele but then suggested that she might just sing for a little while. I could find the key she was singing in and add chords later.

Her voice came through, vibrant and full. She first sang the words on the screen and then began composing an entirely different song with new lyrics, poignant and hopeful. I made a couple of recordings, and then we chatted for a while, lifting each other’s spirits and laughing and enjoying this creative connection.

When we finished the call, I spent a long time, listening to the recording and typing up the new words she had shared. I then created several new documents, shaping the song a bit more each time while saving previous versions just in case I needed to go back and find other possible words and phrases. When writing a song from a story, it is important to keep the tenor from the original story (no pun intended). It’s also necessary to cut out quite a bit of text because a human voice can only sing so many words and notes in one breath. In the process of shaping a story that begins as several pages into a single page with a few verses and a chorus, possibly a bridge, I sometimes find that I have shortened the text too much to the point where I am not sure if the listener can piece it all together. It is then that I go back and review the original text and bring some of those words back to the song that is taking shape.

I try in this process to use as many of the original words as possible. I see myself as a kind of medium, guiding the songwriting process as opposed to directing it. My role is to collaboratively create a 3-5 minute song from a longer story without losing the soul of the story or the authentic voice of the storyteller.

This is a fragile line to walk. As any qualitative researcher worth their salt will tell you, they become a part of the research. There is no way to be completely objective. As a participatory artist, I bring my own voice and ideas into the creative process. I think the song itself becomes its own entity, revealing turns of phrase and melodies through each of us. My role is to notice and guide the process.

I worked on the song until I came to a creative plateau. I then left it to simmer for a couple of days. Taking a pause from working on the song allows the space for revelation, for the song to reveal itself. I find myself singing different variations on melodies and lyrics.

When I met with Sarah this morning, I asked if she might be willing to have a look at the song with me. And it was the carnival experience, banging with all of my might onto the scale, the vibration of joy and energy in my being came to life with full force.

I uploaded the song into Google Doc so that we could work on it in tandem. We started with the first verse.


I love when we are given the space


To share our story


It’s in you, [it’s] an energy in you


Stories energize you

I shared my thoughts and concerns, the use of the word “you” three times in two lines, as well as “energy” and “energize.” I also wasn’t sure if the meaning from the first two lines fit with the second two lines. Was that what the person was trying to communicate about the importance of sharing our stories? Was there another message that might fit from her original story?

We played around with different phrasing and words, some that we liked but that we were not sure would be that easy to sing.

Sarah looked up synonyms for energize. “Stories vitalize you” or “there is a viltality in you.” I thought this was too many syllables to sing. Even energy has three syllables, which takes up a lot of space in a single line.

We looked at other phrases from the song for possible words.

What if we changed energy to light? I suggested.

 The line “an energy in you” became “a light in you” taken from another line from her original story: I had to decide to look for the light that shines inside

Then I wasn’t quite sure about the word “light” and if it was the most effective word for communicating the power of being invited to share your story.

How about “spirit,” Sarah suggested.

Eureka! That felt like a better fit.

Then we looked at the beginning of the phrase: “It’s in you.”

What if we try “There’s a spirit inside of you” followed by “When you tell your truth.”

It’s more than just recognizing the spirit. It’s the idea that the energy or spirit is sparked and becomes alive when you are invited to share your story.

Sarah suggested the word “awakens” and then “wake up” when I mentioned I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to sing the word awakens. There were too many syllables, and it can also be a bit challenging to sing plural words and words that end with consonants in general.

We still weren’t sure if “wake up” was the best choice, but it was getting closer.

At this point several questions arose in my mind. ` Were we changing the lyrics too much and thus the meaning and intention behind the story? Or was this a way to revise the lyrics to be succinct enough to sing while also getting the greater message across? This is one of the great challenges I find in songwriting from a story. The simpler the words, the more people will be able to sing along. More words can make it seem easier to convey a message, but too many words and the melody can be harder to follow. There is a kind of sweet spot where you can create a profound meaning even with only a few words. Great writers are able to do this, to share a universal element of life in such a succinct and seemingly simple way that the reader thinks, I could have written that. From my experience, this is far more challenging than is apparent from the polished, finished product.

I do not claim to be a great writer, but I think after many years of writing music that I have become better at noticing when one of these “simple” turns of melody and lyric reveal themselves. I also have found that this magical space of creative possibility tends to happen (for me, at least) when I collaborate with another person. When Sarah and I put our minds and hearts and creative selves together in this space, it is magical. We shift from a spoken dialogue to a dialogic creative process, a call and response, a back and forth where one idea begets another in a flow of ideas that begin as a trickle and become a flowing river with a life of its own. We simple follow the creative current until we reach a moment where a song is born.

From the first stanza of the first verse, we moved to the chorus. I said that the song didn’t yet have a chorus, and Sarah mentioned she like the phrases I had written later in the song under the words Bridge?

I added Chorus?



I am trying to sing a message from my heart


Stereotypes, they set us apart


There’s a different approach that we can bring


No matter where we are from, we are human beings. 

It took a long time, I had to decide

To look for the light that shines inside

That energy I see, it lives in you

Let us keep going together

I will sing with you

I sang this part in a minor key to create a bit of tension, I explained. In a song with a couple of verses and a chorus, you can add a bridge that changes the melody and tone to reveal something else from the story that is important before coming back to the original chorus and a feeling of resolution by coming back to the first chord in the scale and the message from the chorus.

I am also not sure if this is the main message this person was wanting to communicate, the message that would be told in the chorus.

We talked for a bit about what that message might be. I felt like it was this call to create the space for people to share their stories, so perhaps the chorus could be a call to all people to follow her lead and join a growing movement that would encourage all people to find their voice and share their story.

We came back to the idea of sharing our stories and began the back and forth dialogic process of writing a chorus

Share your story, far and wide

Share your story, you decide

Share your story, you will see

There’s no difference between you and me

If we just sing

The words “you decide” came from the line where she had talked about her own process of deciding to look for the inside of each person. The idea was to communicate that every person can become empowered and get to a place where they decide how they will live and how they will be in the world.

We played with several different possible words in this line. Repeating “Share your story” three times felt like too much. What was the importance of sharing a story? Was it the words?

We tried changing the line to, “Share your words” and “Share your own words,” but this still didn’t feel like it was quite capturing the essence.

Words then became voice and share changed to lift, then raise, and finally, find.

Find felt like the right word. Not as aggressive as “raise” but an invitation to step into one’s own authentic self and to become empowered to choose how to tell your story.

There’s no difference between you and me

If we just sing

This was far too long, so we shortened to “there’s no difference between you and me” and then took out “between” to make it even shorter and simpler. Simple phrasing does not imply simple meaning.

I tried singing through the chorus as we were revising and shaping the words. The body reveals elements of the song by being embodied. I can look at the written words in front of me and sing something different. It is not my mind changing the words, but my body.

Feeling better about the chorus (and that the song now had a chorus), we returned to the second half of the first verse and the second verse.



There’s a lesson in everyone’s story


Even if the story is sad


There’s no difference between me and you


I am a human, too


The world where we are living

Is full of pain

what drives me is the beauty I see

the hope that we can be free

You don’t need to label me a refugee

Freedom is supposed to be

for all human beings

Sarah remarked that there were several places in the song that were a bit repetitive. There are several places where there is a reference to freedom and everyone being human beings. Could we find one place for this message and then bring a different messages from the song to fit into other stanzas?

Even the bridge had a similar message:
No matter where we are from, we are human beings

We looked back at other lines of text and Sarah said, I really like the lines, No matter where we are form, We all deserve to belong. What if we put those with the part about not labeling people refugees?

No matter where we are from

We all deserve to belong

Not quite sure what to do with the rest of the stanza, we jumped over to the second half of the first verse.

A variation of these lines were now incorporated into the chorus, and then there was the line about being human.

So what is the message in everyone’s story, even if it is sad? I reflected.

And is the word sad ok here? What rhymes with sad?

Even if it’s bad? I laughed. That is really cliché.

Just a side note here to say that this method of songwriting often does not rhyme, and I don’t have a strong feeling that lyrics need to rhyme. I think there is lyrical, poetic flow and beauty to the words we speak. The spoken word is musical in and of itself, and trying to make every line rhyme can begin to feel cliché and contrived. I am looking for authenticity and honoring the way each person speaks their story. It just happened that this song had begun to unfold with stanzas that had a rhyme to them. This person shared phrases that were already rhyming. Once this format began, I felt a need to follow and honor that flow.

We could change sad to “dark” Sarah suggested, but it’s maybe a bit cliché.

And I am not sure it has the same meaning, I followed.

Yes, and I like the word sad here. Because it’s true.

What if we go back to words we changed earlier, like energy and light? We tried a few ideas and finally decided on, There’s an energy I see, a light inside. This was again inspired by a section of the bridge:

I had to decide

To look for the light that shines inside

That energy I see, it lives in you

On to the second verse.

Sarah mentioned that the first line seemed longer than it needed to be, so we shortened it a bit.

From There world where we are living

To The way we are living

what drives me is the beauty I see

the hope that we can be free

I tried singing through the entire verse. Then I tried singing the last line as “That we can be free.”

Then I took a creative leap and just sang “We can be free.” This felt like one of those seemingly simple turns of phrase–deleting a few words—that honors the original meaning while adding so much more and also shifting from the possibility of being free to the believe that we can be free. The message is one of determination. It’s active. And it invite the listener to join in this change in the way we approach life and how we treat people.

Now we came back to this idea of labeling, trying different variations.

You don’t need to label me a refugee

When you label me a refugee

Don’t label me a refugee

I tried singing the words, “Don’t label me a refugee” and then the words “Just sing with me” came to me.

This felt like another deceptively “simple” revelation. This is the call to action from the person sharing the story to the person listening. To join her, to share your story, and to sing that chorus together to inspire everyone to join this movement.

Now going back to look at the song, we decided to keep the first stanza of the bridge since we had taken elements from the second part and moved them to other places in the song


I am trying to sing a message from my heart


Stereotypes, they set us apart


There’s a different approach that we can bring


Why don’t you try singing the entire song, Sarah suggested to me.

Ok, I will go and get my ukulele and my phone. I dashed off and returned, instruments ready.

I hit record and began playing. I paused here and there to talk with Sarah.

For example, I noticed that when I sang the line “even if the story is sad” my body shortened it to “even if it’s sad.” Sarah went and changed the words to reflect this in the text. And I carried on singing.

After singing through the bridge, I asked if Sarah thought it might work to repeat the first verse as opposed to going back to the chorus, which is the more traditional format.

I finished singing and ended the recording. We were elated. The song was taking shaped. I just needed to practice and keep singing.

And isn’t that the message of the song?

To keep sharing our stories. To keep singing.

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