Embarking on the often emotional trek of uncovering family history can be daunting, especially when you’re already aware of its complicated nuances. For Nabil Ayers, that experience, via his memoir “My Life in the Sunshine: Searching for My Father and Discovering My Family,” became nothing short of rewarding. Released last June, the book explores the intricacies of his nonexistent relationship with his father, pioneering jazz composer and vibraphonist Roy Ayers. The title of the book is a riff off opening lyrics from the older Ayers’ timeless 1976 hit “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.”
“I have a much bigger family and a much bigger chosen family than I realized. ... Sometimes when I go places (for the book), someone shows up and says ‘Hey, I was in your father’s band in the 70′s and have some stories for you’ or ‘I was his tour manager, and I have some stories for you,’ or I am your cousin, and I have some stories for you,’” said Nabil, 51.
The Seattle-bred, Brooklyn-based writer will bring those conversations from the memoir and much more to a book talk held at Criminal Records on Sunday, Feb. 19. The Atlanta stop is the part of Southern pilgrimage to learning more about his family history, which was inspired by results from a 23andMe ancestry kit he conducted for himself roughly five years ago.
“I got this family tree that leads back to my enslaved ancestors on my father’s side that I never knew about,” Ayers said. “Of course, that all goes to the South — a lot of stuff in Mississippi and some stuff in Georgia as well. A lot of the idea of this overall trip, which includes Atlanta, Athens, Nashville, Tuscaloosa and Memphis, is to kind of drive through these places and see some of the spots to meet people and learn things (about my father’s side).”
Credit: Nabil Ayers
Credit: Nabil Ayers
But he wants to be clear in noting everywhere he goes that having an absent dad was not a negative experience for him. His mom, a Jewish former ballerina chose to have a child with Roy Ayers and completely agreed to raise the child on her own.
“I’ve never not known it, and it was always a positive thing,” Ayers said. It was never like, ‘Oh, your father didn’t want to be in your life.’ It was nothing like that ... what happened is was supposed to happen. Even when I still talk about it at book events, people have a really hard time with it, which is fine because everyone is bringing their own experiences and it’s a unique situation, but I think a lot of people are surprised and even frustrated that I’m not angry with him over that.”
Although Ayers’ memoir deals with the aftermath of his mom’s decision, it also explores his Black and Jewish background and how he was able forge a successful career in spite of the circumstances of his upbringing. Ayers is the U.S. president of the London-based label Beggars Group. He’s a musician and former record store owner who launched his own indie label The Control Group in 2002.
Sunday’s conversation will be hosted by TaRessa Stovall, an Marietta-based writer who reports on the narratives of Jews of color. Stovall previously interviewed Ayers about his book for The Forward.
“Also what stuck out for me is that because of where he grew up, his identity wasn’t really an issue because of the environment he grew up in and it seemed like his mother, who is not Black, was very cognizant of putting him in spaces where he was going to be reflected and represented,” Stovall, who’s also Black and Jewish, said. “Not a lot of mixed people get that, and it makes a tremendous difference, so I think it’s one reason why he has a very strong and solid identity.”
Stovall said she’s most looking forward to talking to Ayers about how his Black and Jewish identity shaped his experiences.
“What I’m hoping is to help people, who aren’t mixed and those who are, understand that it is the specifics of our various experiences, the need to be understand, like any group who hasn’t been in the mainstream and whose stories haven’t been told,” Stovall said. “Nabil has an irresistible story, and he’s a delightful guy. He’s very insightful, so I’m looking forward to him saying some things that help my brain expand.”
While Ayers doesn’t have solidified talking points for Sunday’s event, he mainly wants people to know that his father has played an influential role in his life, though he wasn’t physically present. He remembers seeing his father’s records in his childhood home. When he was 7, he watched his father perform for the first time during a concert and recalls being instantly fascinated with his artistry. Ayers assumes that his career in the music industry, including his drumming skills, derive from his father. He’s probably right.
“I had an amazing childhood, and an amazing life, and, in the weirdest way my father has been a part of that, and it’s a positive thing.”
IF YOU GO
5 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 19, at Criminal Records,1154 Euclid Ave NE A, Atlanta. The event is free. Books will be available for purchase.
About the Author
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com