Persistence pays. It’s a simple two-word lesson that we’ve all been taught at some point and it’s one that anyone who is going to make a go of it will need to keep in the back of their mind.
Playing for money on the street isn’t easy, and that goes double if you’re trying to grab the attention of New Yorkers, people who have probably seen five buskers before they ever reach you and who boast of not-giving-a-good-g*ddamn baked into their very being. After four years of performing during rush hour, 32-year-old subway songbird Damiyr Shuford has learned how to persevere through thousands of people willfully ignoring his performances.
“I’ve seen a lot of buskers who get pissed when they end a song and notice no one is paying attention to them,” he said. “They don’t last long. But, for me, it doesn’t bother me as much because I’m doing this for me first.”
Shuford goes even further, putting on a bit of the anti-busker attitude that so many affect on their daily commute.
“I’m doing it for the ones who will listen,” he said. “I don’t expect everyone to be into it. I mean, who am I to demand someone’s attention?”
Perhaps Damiyr’s ability to keep plugging away comes from his life before he started singing for strangers. Shuford had to overcome massive hurdles both personal and technical to get to the point where he could make singing in the subway his full-time hustle.
When Shuford was very young, his mother developed a substance abuse problem and his father went to prison. This left him to be raised by his grandmother, who regularly abused young Damiyr.
“One day we were outside and [my grandmother] came at me with something in her hand,” he said. “And I picked up something… it was almost like we had this standoff. 11 years old, had to fight my grandmother. And eventually, she put whatever she had down and walked away.”
Within the week, Shuford was in a group home.
“I jumped out of the pot and into the fire,” he said.
As he grew older, Damiyr began to hang around his cousin, Darrell Payne, who works as a vocal coach. He picked up an interest in singing from Payne who isn’t shy about admitting that Damiyr “sucked” at singing at the time. Because of that, Shuford let making music fall by the wayside until he suffered another misfortune many years later.
In 2011, Shuford broke his foot while performing in an opera in called From The House Of The Dead in Berlin. (Still, no singing for Shuford. The opera contains a play-within-the-play in the second act that was performed by actors and not singers). Laid up while the bone healed, Shuford locked himself away with a guitar and taught himself how to play. Eventually, he started singing again and attending jam sessions throughout the German capital. But when he finally returned to New York, he almost stopped singing entirely.
“Being from New York, and especially having musical people in my family, you just know there’s so much competition out there,” he said. “I wasn’t going to sing. I was worried that people would look at me funny. Especially when there’s so many real singers out there.”
But Shuford found pretty quickly that there was no closing that particular box.
“I couldn’t be quiet,” he said. “I had to go out and sing for people. When I wasn’t singing, it just felt wrong. I’m not happy if I’m not singing.”
And no, the city didn’t welcome him with open arms. It’s still New York. But Shuford found that he was able to work through the anger and hurt that he suffered through in his rough childhood by writing his own songs and performing them for subway patrons. When very few people gave him the time of day, it just made the connections he was able to forge all the more special.
Some of those connections went so far as to be life-changing.
“I was performing at [a station] on the A Line one day. I was singing ‘Stay’ by Rihanna,” Damiyr recalled. “I was closing out the song and I had my eyes closed. I was gone. I opened my eyes and there’s this man standing right in front of me and he’s crying. There’s tears falling down his face.”
Shuford says he reached out and hugged him “on impulse.”
“I felt his tears on my shoulder and I realized ‘Oh god, I’m hugging a stranger,’” he said. ”He says ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. My friend committed suicide last night… And he says ‘Can you sing it again?’”
“So, he sat down in front of me, the train left and I played the song,” Shuford said. “And he just put his head in his hands. When I was done, he got up, thanked me and walked away.”
That moment would have been intense enough on its own, but the man actually tracked Shuford down through Facebook years later and told him that he “wouldn’t have made it to work that day” if it weren’t for the song.
“Then his mom contacted me through Facebook, as well,” Damiyr said. “She said, ‘We couldn’t reach him. But you got to him in time.’ That’s what can happen. You can save someone’s life. You can change someone’s whole world.”
“That’s when I realized that this is my thing,” he said. “This is what I’m going to do.”
Those little everyday connections that Shuford makes with commuters may soon turn into a full-fledged music career. Thanks to the friends he’s made from playing for people on their way to work, Shuford is steadily crowdfunding an album.
“Some artists have managers. I have the community around me,” he said. I’m doing this because it heals me and I think it heals other people.”