In Roland Kemokai's biography, he told a story that illustrated what music meant to him as a child growing up in Liberia.
Kemokai had been raised by adoptive parents after his birth parents abandoned him as an infant, and he often felt ostracized and worthless in his community, he said. However, the evenings when the villagers would assemble in the middle of town for drumming and dancing was always a time of joy for him.
Desperate to join them, he painstakingly crafted his own log drum and, with the help of adults in his neighborhood, and learned drumming styles and accents.
When he finally debuted his music in the town hall, his performance was received with enthusiastic cheers, he wrote.
"Playing the drum made me feel like I was in a completely different world with so much joy and absolutely no pain. ... In that moment I was a human being again, worthy of life and the pleasure of living it," Kemokai wrote.
A lot has happened in the decades since that night in Liberia. Kemokai has since moved to the United States, gone to college in North Carolina, married and had two children. He's also mastered several musical instruments and now makes a living in the Austin area as a professional musician who composes and performs reggae music.
However, his family's life in Austin has not been without hardship. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, work dried up for both Roland Kemokai, 42, and his wife, Christine Kemokai, 38, who runs her own business for children's parties called Christine's Balloons and Body Arts.
Luckily, people who are self-employed were eligible for unemployment benefits at the beginning of the pandemic. A year and a half later, just as Roland and Christine began booking regular gigs again, their Round Rock rent doubled.
"Every time we took a step forward, the cost of living would skyrocket," Christine Kemokai said.
They moved out in five days and temporarily relocated to a hotel, which kept them up in the middle of the night with constant ringing fire alarms. Then, one morning in October 2021, they realized that the building was actually on fire.
"We could smell smoke and said, 'This is not a fire drill. This is real,'" Roland Kemokai said. "People were running through the hotel, frantic, knocking and saying, 'You have to get out now.'"
"It was terrifying," Christine Kemokai said.
Their possessions were spared without damage, but the Kemokais were shaken. They got on the road that day as they continued to hunt for apartments. Then misfortune struck again.
While driving, the family was involved in a bad car wreck that injured both Christine and Roland, leading to months of doctor visits, physical therapy and medical bills.
"One day, I just pulled over to the side of the road and started praying out loud and said, 'I need help. My family depends on me,'" Roland Kemokai said.
Eventually, they bought a recreational vehicle that was in bad shape and moved out to an RV park in Granger.
They're hoping to one day save up enough to buy their own land and have a house again.
Roland and his two teenage sons, Clement, 17, and Ben, 15, sometimes play music together outside their RV, but Roland said he worries about bothering his neighbors.
"We weren't too loud today, were we?" he once nervously asked the man who lives in the RV adjacent to them.
"It was great," the neighbor replied. "I was hoping you would play it louder."
The Kemokai family's wishes:
A new or gently used car; the dream of owning a home on a piece of land or assistance with rent and utilities; assistance with medical bills; music mentorship for Roland; real estate investment mentorship; extended collapsible wagon for caring gig equipment; orthodontia; eyeglasses; Lasik for Christine; mixing bowls; glass cups; kitchen corner shelf; milk frother; microwave oven rack; coffee maker for pods; mixer; cutting boards; bread box; butter dish; lounge chairs; mini pocket projector; seat cushions; fireproof file box; spill cleaner vacuum; a RTX 3070 TI graphics card for computer software work; SD cards; camcorder; computers; monitors; desks and lap desks; standing desk chair and artists desk; Bluetooth speaker; camera equipment; director chair; music equipment including ear monitor; wireless guitar system; guitar loop pedal; guitar pedal board; keyboard; portable monitor; studio monitor headphones, microphone and microphone stand; iPad pencil; paint brush cleaner cup; Nintendo Switch and games: Rubix Cube; Play Station 5 and games; dog toys; dog bed; dog water bottle: a family trip; season passes to Six Flags; hand massager; gift cards for clothes and gift cards to H-E-B, Walmart Amazon, JC Penney, Guitar Center, Visa, Steam, and gas stations.
Wish list available on Amazon.
Nominated by: Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, HAAM, 3010 S. Lamar Blvd., No 200, Austin TX 78704. 512-541-4226; myhaam.org.
Its mission: Providing access to affordable healthcare for greater Austin’s low-income, working musicians, with a focus on prevention and wellness.
Use the form below or click here:https://statesmansfc.kimbia.com/statesmanseasonforcaring
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Season for Caring, Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, HAAM, Roland Kemokai