Janiva Magness: A Talent For Connection
As a journalist for more than three decades, I crossed paths with a lot of compelling characters and more than a few scoundrels, but I have never met anyone more inspirational than Janiva Magness.
Magness is a brilliant, award-winning blues artist who wins universally rave reviews for her CDs and live performances, but she endured so much tragedy and pain in her life that one has to wonder how she survived at all, let alone flourished.
Born 55 years ago into a Detroit family with two alcoholic parents, Janiva felt alienated and deeply depressed from a young age.
By the age of six, she was being sexually molested by one of her older brothers. Three of her four siblings would become serious substance abusers, as would Janiva.
When Janiva was 13, her mother killed herself. That's when she began drinking heavily, using drugs and hanging out with abusive older men.
Three years later, her father, an ex-Detroit patrolman she still loves despite the fact he often beat her when she was a kid, took his life.
Janiva was now alone in the world. As a ward of the state, she was shuffled in and out of 12 foster homes and three psychiatric hospitals in two years.
At 16 and again at 19, Janiva tried to take her own life, planning her demise so methodically and overdosing so badly that she's still not sure how she survived.
"I was so miserable all the time, I didn't know what else to do," she said recently. "I just wanted to stop the pain. Suicide always seemed like a friendly trap door I could escape through."
Janiva gave birth to a baby girl when she was 17. She tried to make a go of it but reluctantly gave her up for adoption four months later.
Still suicidal, she didn't want to abandon her daughter as she had been abandoned years earlier.
Janiva, who now lives in Los Angeles and has been clean and sober for more than 21 years, lived a tortured life of sorrow, depression and loneliness.
But when she was still a teenager, two seminal events slowly began to change Janiva and her outlook about life.
At 14, she talked her way into a Minneapolis club and was mesmerized when she saw blues legend Otis Rush perform.
"I didn't realize exactly what happened until some years later," she said, "but he played as if his very life depended on it. That awakened something in me I didn't even know was there. I just knew that whatever that experience was, I wanted more of it."
She began to immerse herself in the blues, finding a way to attend as many shows as possible.
Success Was Gradual
But it wasn't until a few years later, when her last foster mom took a genuine interest in her well-being, that she gradually began to think she might rather be alive than dead.
Carrie was a loving, compassionate divorced mother in her 30s with five of her own kids.
Her ex-husband was out of the picture; she was on her own. She relied on AFDC and worked on the side cleaning houses while trying to go to school to become a chemical dependency counselor.
Carrie took the time to connect with Janiva in a way no one had before. She heard Janiva sing and encouraged her to do something with her talent.
She also eventually helped her enter a drug and alcohol recovery program.
"I have a life today I could never have imagined. Your fate does not have to be your destiny. Fate is what you are handed. Destiny is about what you make of it.
"I’m living proof. The tragedies of my life no longer define me. That's why today every chance I get, I talk about foster care and how one caring adult can change how the story ends for a youth at-risk. It happened for me tenfold. If it wasn't for Carrie, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be here today."
For the past six years, Janiva has been a spokesperson for Casey Family Programs National Foster Care Month Campaign and Ambassador of Foster Care Alumni of America.
She is invited to speak about the programs all around the country and takes time at every performance to promote foster care as a way to help troubled youth find their way.
Musical success for Janiva came gradually, and she worked a lot of odd jobs to make ends meet while she honed her craft and built up her confidence.
"I walked away from the music so many times I lost count," she said, "but it kept pulling me back in. I can see now there was a purpose to it all, but I sure didn't understand it at the time."
Singing to Connect
Today, she is one of the most acclaimed blues artists in the world, one of just two women to win the coveted B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award handed out each year by the internationally known and heralded Blues Foundation in Memphis, TN. The other is icon Koko Taylor.
To see Janiva perform live is a transformative experience. She pours every ounce of her passion and energy into each song. It is easy to see why her growing legion of fans adore her.
She won't sing a song unless it resonates in her heart.
Aside from being fiercely talented with a powerhouse voice that is packed with conviction, Janiva gives the impression she is literally singing for her life.
"Being able to sing for a living is a huge gift," she said, "but I have come to understand that it's not my real job. My real job is to reach out and connect with people, to share some of what I have been through in my life and have the kind of heart-to-heart connection with another person that lifts up both of us. The music is the vehicle that allows me to do that."
Gary Delsohn is a native of Chicago who wrote for newspapers in California and Denver for more than 30 years before serving as former Arnold Schwarzenegger's chief speech writer from 2006 to 2009. He now serves in a similar capacity for Linda Katehi, chancellor at the University of California, Davis. He is also working with Janiva Magness on her autobiography and is author of The Prosecutors: A Year In The Life of a District Attorney's Office.