Artist and advocate Dr. E, the Inspirational Soul Queen, has a voice that resonates before she even sings a note from her forthcoming album “Songs for the Struggle.” That voice is her story: the improbable but true life of a sex trafficked teenager who recovered, earned a doctorate, and became a university professor.
The telling of that journey from seemingly insurmountable circumstances to the aspirational strata of academia and creative accomplishment is what the raw, personal song lyrics and interludes on “Songs for the Struggle” convey.
While the subject matter is serious, it’s injected with joy, humor and an unwavering positivity that conveys hope no matter how trying the times.
“There’s a grown woman sass to Dr. E’s voice that draws you in,” says renowned Duke University professor of popular culture and critic Mark Anthony Neal. “The emotions she conjures are paid for by an innocence long lost…but the telling of that loss allows her to find freedom, recovery and a spirit of defiance.”
When she commands “Don’t say I don’t work” on the album’s opening track, a stanky funk banger called “Mutha Werk,” Dr. E is not only defending those who share her former street life but Black women and the poor who are simultaneously exploited for their labor and discriminated against.
“When you know who you are, nobody can control you,” proclaims Dr. E.
That motto is the backbone of Dr. E’s philosophy of empowerment as well as the guiding force that drives the narrative on “Songs for the Struggle,” a concept album inspired by her 2013 memoir “PHD (Po H# on Dope) to Ph.D.: How Education Saved My Life.” Interspersed with interludes taken from her one-woman stage show based on “PHD,” the tracks on “Struggle” begin with lyrical and musical grit, sweat and soulful anguish then travel the path to a confident and grateful introspection…reflecting the metamorphosis of a scarred and insecure teen traumatized by a rape and an abortion into a healing and centered woman who has overcome enormous odds.
As a vocalist, Dr. E evokes the tone and feel of Betty Wright and a Bluebelles-era Patti LaBelle. As a songwriter, she poetically delivers her own experiences in a genre-melding set of funk, soul and r&b tracks.
While the organic sound of “Struggle” summons the textures of black music’s history with its trek from retro groove to modern smooth, the power and timbre of Dr. E’s voice—both physically and metaphorically–give the set its authenticity and magnetism.
That voice—born of a musician father and Jamaican immigrant mother as Elaine Richardson in inner city Cleveland, OH—tapped into its calling at a young age playing violin and singing in church, the school choir and all-girl vocal groups. Despite living some dark experiences, Dr. E never let her passion for singing extinguish. And as she climbed out of that deep hole her world had become, she began performing again as the front woman for working cover bands to make money as she pursued her college and graduate degrees.
“As bad as things got, in my heart, I always knew I was supposed to keep singing,” recalls Dr. E. “When I started my recovery, I was desperate for inspiration. Performing—particularly the songs of iconic Black female artists—really filled that need.”
When the demands of graduate school necessitated a break from professional singing, Dr. E channeled her musical urges into songwriting, eventually getting good enough to place her original songs in various TV shows. This success encouraged her to record her first album in 2010 entitled “Elevated,” for which she received a Best New Artist nomination from the influential soul music site Soultracks.
“My songs are about me finally accepting who I am, and I want that message of accepting yourself to reach everyone—especially the downtrodden,” states Dr. E. “No matter your struggles, what you’ve experienced and what you know is worth something. Only when you realize that can you empower yourself and your community.”
On “Songs for the Struggle” that message takes form in the diverse subject matter of the album’s tracks. The mid-tempo soul-rock of “The Whole 9” describes education hard-won from adventures with womanizers and from living “the life,” while the slow jammin’ “Now I Know” sets a transcendent mood of self-awareness, self-love, and acceptance of the grown woman who celebrates life and love. These sentiments along with the many confessions, revelations and affirmations expressed throughout the album illuminate a tapestry of stories—both actual and internal—that define artistic authenticity.
“God gave me the strength to be out on Front Street telling my story,” says Dr. E. “I don’t want to be a slave to norms or forget what I’ve been through. I think my music reflects that there is beauty and value even in the things we think we have to throw away.”