Ayers talks music, identity

Jan. 28—It was 1993 in Seattle when Nabil Ayers had to decide between two crucial life paths after graduating college: getting a real job or working at a record store.

In most situations, the ideal path would be to get a "real job" and get an apartment. But for Ayers, picking the record store is what led to his success — and understanding his identity.

Ayers, musician, writer and record company executive, spoke Friday afternoon at Forge Theater in Moscow, with his talk billed under the theme of "the intersection between music, race and family." About 30 people attended the Lionel Hampton School of Music event.

From a young age, Ayers had a long love of rock bands and dreamed of being a drummer. Oddly enough, his father, Roy Ayers, was a touring musician, composing American funk, soul and jazz. Even though his father wasn't present in his childhood, it was clear music ran through their veins. Yet, it was years until he felt like he could make it in the music industry.

"This was more than just me wanting to be in KISS," said Ayers, showing the audience a picture of him at age 7 with white face paint and a drum set, aspiring to be the next drummer for the classic rock band. "I was having trouble identifying with the people I saw on the record covers, but there was something about the makeup and making yourself look different that I took to heart."

Ayers listened to a lot of white rock bands, and it wasn't until he heard the rock band Living Colour, which was made up of four Black men, that his perspective changed.

"It wasn't really that I identified with them but it was this idea that you didn't have to be white to be in a rock band," Ayers said. "This was an important time — I was graduating high school and thinking about college."

He went through the idea of going to college at the University of Puget Sound and would spend weekends going to concerts in Seattle, including an $8 concert ticket to see Nirvana. This was the first time Nirvana had premiered their hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

"I remember leaving this show and feeling ill," Ayers said. "I remember thinking nothing was ever going to be that good again."

But it was just around that time that everything fell into place. Ayers took a job at Easy Street Records and fell into his first real band after a drummer broke his arm.

Within the next 10 years, Ayers had toured, switched bands and started a record store, so by the age of 35 he thought it was finally time to get in contact with his father.

"He had played around but I didn't think it was worth meeting him until then," Ayers said.

Ayers mentioned that after that first meeting, he tried to get in contact with his father again but was either "blown off" or never got a call back. This was the first time, in his 30s, that he felt angry with his father.

Since then and after some time working on his own record labels in the industry, writing became an outlet for Ayers. He also started to connect with family members on his father's side after using the 23andMe DNA testing service and publishing an article through NPR titled "A family tree with deep roots of slavery." Members of his father's side started to reach out, one of whom was his aunt.

Through her help and through his research, Ayers released a memoir in June 2022 about trying to find a connection with his musician father and defining family and race.

"The search was more about me than it was about my father," Ayers said, who hasn't developed a close relationship with his father.

Carrillo-Casas can be contacted at mcarrillo@dnews.com.