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“All Dreams Are Possible and Timing is Everything!”- Karen L. Smith

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Karen L. Smith often says, “Timing is everything and that, all dreams are possible.”
So, it’s no surprise, she realized her dream and became a full-time professional musician.
Her instrument is the drum and you may hear her making beats on Philly sidewalks
or performing on the concert stage, across the US.

But there’s more to Karen than meets the eye. Karen uses her instrument as a healing and transformative medium, creating drums circles at schools, senior centers and community outreach functions. Brightening eyes and souls of many. She organized and is the artistic director and lead percussionist for two jazz ensembles — Sistahs Laying Down Hands and Weez the Peebles. She coordinated the first John Coltrane Jazz Festival. She has written several plays including Legacy the Play and Legacy II, Where are the Tubmans? And the list goes on.

Percussionist Karen L. Smith

Source: Karen L Smith

Nadine O, caught up with Karen L. Smith, right before her busy season, to talk about her passion for music and what she asked the universe to deliver to her. Take a listen. 




Nadine O.: Do you feel like you’re just going through the motions in life? This podcast is for

you. A while back, I felt just like you. It wasn’t until I heard that whisper in the

wind, “Nadine, learn to podcast.” Now I’m on a journey of discovery,

interviewing others who have also leaped into the unknown. I’m Nadine O.,

creator of the “Over 50? You Are Not Done Yet” show, a podcast about personal

awakenings, spiritual connections, and stories of joy. Shall we begin?

Karen L. Smith: I love life. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I don’t know who’s going to

come around. I don’t know what people are going to say, and that’s wonderful.

That gets me more excited.

Nadine O.: That’s percussionist Karen L. Smith. I met up with her in her home in Philly. We

decided to set up a few chairs for our interview in the lower level of her home. I

couldn’t wait to hear about her journey to where she is today. Deep down

inside, seeing a black female drummer making it totally rocks.

Nadine O.: If you were on an elevator, your elevator pitch, who is Karen Smith?

Karen L. Smith: The elevator isn’t going to take that long, so we don’t have that much time. I

feel like I embrace percussion, so that’s kind of like in my blood. So I would say,

I’m Karen Smith, I’m a percussionist who also writes plays and directs and

produces a number of opportunities for other artists to have their work shown.

And I’m a humanitarian and spiritually centered. And then the elevator’s at the

next one. Time to get off.

Nadine O.: Have you been a musician, creator, spirit teacher all your life?

Karen L. Smith: I think so. I think that life gives you a chance to find all the things that you’re

about, like you were gifted with. And I think at this point in my life, I think all

those things were definitely there from the beginning. It’s kind of like a room

full of blocks and you don’t know what to do with them until you start touching

them and then seeing how it can work, and all of a sudden you build this great

whatever. So I think that yes, all that is me, and I’m that room full of blocks and

that has been there from the beginning.

Nadine O.: What’s your favorite part about performing?

Karen L. Smith: My favorite part about performing? I do so many different kinds of

performances. I play just about all styles of music. So I think it’s always

something different, not just playing all blues every time. But the way I play all

blues with this group and the way this person might sing it this time, because

you have a vocalist or we might take it, make it reggae or just, I think it’s just the

unpredictability of what can happen doing live. [inaudible 00:03:45] sometimes

[inaudible 00:03:46] recordings, but live I think it’s just, to me, unpredictable,

like what could happen. For me, it’s live, it’s live. It’s just being live to be on the

street. I love performing on the street. That’s one of my favorite things to do.

Karen L. Smith: A lot of jobs that I do right now, because I performed on the street, that

visibility, people have hired me for different events and they still hire me. So I

think that live, I love live. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I don’t know

who’s going to come around. I don’t know what people are going to say, and

that’s wonderful. That gets me more excited to do what I do. I don’t pay

attention to it either. That’s not my focus. I just love performing live.

Nadine O.: There are a number of things you do for the community. The one that stands

out for me, and I often see it on Instagram, it’s you working with kids and it’s

almost like they’re at the playground or something. They’re playing the drums

and it’s boys, it’s girls, it’s just so beautiful.

Karen L. Smith: Yeah, it’s supposed to be fun. I like what you said, playground, because that’s

my presentation on it. It’s free. I’ll put the instruments in the middle of the floor.

“Okay, grab what you want.” And then they’ll gravitate to what they think they

want and then they’ll change it again and then they’ll find they have their

favorite instrument. But it is like a playground. It’s free. I want you to find a

rhythm within yourself. I’m not trying to make you play like this. I want you to

play with what you hear, what you feel inside, and see how we can all come

together with it.

Nadine O.: More information on Karen L. Smith can be found in our show notes and on our

website at Now, don’t you go anywhere. My

interview with Karen L. Smith continues.

Nadine O.: When did your passion for music and expression begin? Because I think it goes

beyond the music.

Karen L. Smith: I think that when I realized the ability of finding beats probably started real

early, like at seven or eight, because we listened to a lot of music at home. My

mother played a lot of music, especially gospel music, or she loved all kinds of

music and grew up listening to Motown, the Motown sound. So I always kind of

found that those beats on a drummer, I was always attracted to the drumming

and would play on top of the countertops or paint cans or whatever, just

tapping out. So I think that early, but I think by 10 I kind of realized this is

something that’s more than just a countertop kind of thing. “I think I can do

this.” Even in school, I would try to play. I didn’t play the band, but I would play


Karen L. Smith: My mother saw that I did love the drums and I wanted to drum because my

cousin, her mom bought her a drum set that she never really played. But she

expressed I guess one Christmas she wanted it and she got it. So I asked the

same thing. I said, “I wanted drums.” And she said, “No, drums are a boy’s

instrument. You’ll learn to play the piano.” And she got my father to buy a

piano, and so I took piano lessons that I really didn’t like. But I learned music

theory from that, and I did that for like three years before she dropped it

because I just wasn’t showing an interest and it was costing money. So I would

say drums still stayed there. I would bang on the piano. I’d bang on cars. Oh, we

had these cars that they just had this great sound. They were really solid, and

we’re outside of a friend and we would make up songs and one of them would

dance, and that’s how we entertained ourselves in the summertime. So I said I

never gave up the idea that a woman plays drums one day. It took till I was 19 to

get my first drum.

Nadine O.: And what kind of drum was that?

Karen L. Smith: It was a conga.

Nadine O.: Looking at your array of drums right now [crosstalk 00:08:10]–

Karen L. Smith: Yeah, look at them hanging out.

Nadine O.: I guess it’s not fair to say which is your favorite. What is your go-to drum?

Karen L. Smith: I think my go-to drum, though the conga was the first drum in my life, djembe is

one of my favorite drums to play. No, the African drum. I think it really touches,

besides the other people, it touches my soul and I think it takes me to this kind

of, I would say trance almost, like I’m channeling the ancestors. Someone else is,

if there’s such a word, playing within me, because I hear the rhythm in the

beginning when I first start it, but the fire comes in and that village takes over.

But the djembe is my favorite.

Nadine O.: How’d you break the stereotype of female drummers and is that itself a

continuous challenge?

Karen L. Smith: I think I’m always breaking, we’re always doing it. I don’t think it’s really been

broken, like, “Oh yeah, now we’re–.” I get a lot of work because of people

seeing me. I think if they didn’t see me do what I do, I don’t think I would get

work by just somebody telling me, “Oh, there’s an African drummer over here.”

But the visual part [inaudible 00:09:28], male or female, they know that you do

it, but once they see you, that’s when they want you. That’s what Sonia Sanchez

had told me. She said, “Visibility then revenue.” The more visible I was with

what I do, it started changing. So my visibility, when they see me play, it does

make it different than just for me, to all my drummers, I’ve gotten more work

from people seeing me than just giving out my card. So I say that stereotype or

that barrier is still and will still exist per se, but it’s coming down more and more

because there are more women out there drumming, in all shapes and sizes,

and all the different types of drums that we have.

Nadine O.: What percussionist will have drums and travel immediately to your events? Karen L. Smith will. Make your request at Shall we continue?

Nadine O.: What is it about creating a drum circle and bringing other people in?

Karen L. Smith: I think it does it by itself. The rhythms I’ve played by myself in fact. I’ve tested it.

I played by myself in the park and one by one somebody joined in, whether they

came with a drum or a guitar or they just wanted to stand around and dance or

clap or have a tambourine, whatever. But I’ve seen the community come out.

The drum really kind of brings a village in. It is the communicator. It is that, “Oh,

something’s going on. We need to be there.” Always a gathering happening. I hit

a drum, it’s like an instinct. Some of you might be afraid of it, but most people

kind of gather for it.

Karen L. Smith: I think that’s the powerful part about a drum circle, it does it by itself. It doesn’t

need any help. Whether there’s one drummer, several drummers, it doesn’t

need any help with that. That heartbeat comes through, you just gravitate

towards it, especially children. Children are so innocent. They drag their parents

over immediately. They’re looking for the carriage, they run over, they want to

dance or rock or play. They just want to be a part of it. But I try to do my part in

going out to different schools, even sending out proposals. And so my job has

become to come and form or share, doing a workshop, or doing an assembly so

they can see and become a part of it. Always, audience participation is a must,

even for adults too, audience participation.

Karen L. Smith: The playwriting came very early because I loved plays. I love all kinds of plays.

My sister was instrumental in that. She took me to a lot of stuff at an early age. I

love plays. I love live theater. I still love live theater to this day. And I was a very

shy child. I’m the youngest of eight and that was another form of expression. I

would create these characters. I would go by myself, I played by myself, and I

would create these characters, visual short stories at first. And then I would

write more and I would get some of my friends to come over and we would act

out these characters. Everybody would create something, like “This is the

storyline.” And we’d record whatever we were doing, when the reel, the reel

was out at that time, at least the audio. And just play. That was part of playing.

Playwriting was part of playing.

Nadine O.: More information on Karen L. Smith can be found in our show notes and on our

website at Now, don’t you go anywhere. My

interview with Karen L. Smith continues.

Karen L. Smith: So I’ll just play with the idea of the two founders, which is Steven and Collie.

They get the idea and I build from the idea. That’s where Legacy originally came

from. It’s about if these four great leaders came back to this world to this day

and help this young male that was going straight, he wouldn’t listen to his

parents, he’s ready to drop out of school, he knows what he wants to do. He’s

16 or 17, he knows it all, and here they visit, almost like Christmas Carol, they

come to visit at night to this kid in his bedroom. And he doesn’t believe it and

then they give him all the history within that time. So by the time he wakes up,

he’s filled with all this knowledge, so he has to, because each one [inaudible

00:14:23] he has to go spread it. That’s his job. So it was Frederick Douglass,

Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X that came to visit him and

they’re all played by young children.

Nadine O.: Ever have a moment where you said to yourself, “It’s too late to change

careers? I’ve worked so hard to get to where I am.” Don’t go anywhere. Karen’s

story just might have you beating a different drum.

Karen L. Smith: When I first quit my 9:00 to 5:00, I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to do this

full time, but I didn’t have a plan. I just wanted to do it. I didn’t know what that

was going to entail. I said, “Well, I need to move.” We moved the 9:00 to 5:00 so

I have room to do what I need to do and then it was nothing and there was

nothing going on though. There was no money coming in. My savings was

dwindling and I couldn’t get a part-time job because I had already asked the

universe to make this opportunity happen. So it cleared the space and things

that I was qualified for or even dumbing down my resume to take anything, they

wouldn’t allow it to happen because I asked to be a full-time artist. And so that’s

really what I had to focus on. I had to start using my writing skills to create

proposals for myself. Don’t look in the papers or online for my job, create that

job, create it. And so that’s what I did. I started sending out to schools, libraries,

museums, networking, networking, networking and networking. And that’s how

it eventually started changing. Not right away, but it eventually started

changing. Patience, you have to have patience, and now I do it full time.

Nadine O.: What was it that pulled you towards saying, “I’m going to take that leap?” Was it

something that happened, or did you just wake up and say, “Today I’m quitting

my job and I’m going to do this full time.” And how old were you when it


Karen L. Smith: It wasn’t that long ago. The year before, we just started doing Three Divas

Three, getting it out and around, and by that spring of 2013, it was going to go

and do a little run here in Philadelphia. Something about that spring, that

March, came in and I was like, “Wow, I really can’t go back to this job anymore.

I’m depressed. I don’t like it. I’m 53 years old coming up and I don’t want to

keep doing something I don’t want to do and this is what I love to do.” I tried it

before and stepped out on faith and I ran when it didn’t work out at the time, I

just ran. I went and got a job and I kept running. This time, I’m not going to run,

no matter what. I’m not going to run. I’m not going to run. I’m going to have to

go down, if it has to go down a little bit or whatever. I’ve just got to keep my

mental state up because it wasn’t doing any better than my 9:00 to 5:00. My

mental state was completely off. I wasn’t happy. I was going through the

motions because I was getting a regular check. And I stepped out on faith as I

gave them a month notice, and by March 7, I said goodbye of 2013.

Karen L. Smith: It was rough and I mean really rough where I could’ve gotten evicted from my

apartment. There was no food in the cupboards and I used the Share program

that was nearby and whatever anyone helped me with as far as financially.

Maybe I need to give up my apartment and get roommates. That way you can

take some of my pressure off my living situation and I did that. In 2014, late

2015, somewhere in there, I got the rhythm, I found the rhythm. Things started

clicking. Other programs were calling me, asking me to do stuff. The visibility on

the street, playing with the group that I put together, all this stuff that I was

doing just started clicking.

Karen L. Smith: By 2016, it just kept going up. Sonia Sanchez said, “Visibility then revenue.” I

worked with her throughout that time and she had said that to me. In the

beginning, I was like, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” But I told her

recently in fact, I was like, “You know, I say that every day, visibility then

revenue.” Because she said in the beginning, she said, “I was writing poetry but I

wasn’t getting paid for anything. It was a teaching job.” She said that made

things change for her, when she came to Temple.

Karen L. Smith: All dreams are possible, and timing, is everything for it. This is my time. When I

thought it was my time, it wasn’t my time, but I needed to do everything I

needed to do to get to my time. One thing I didn’t need to do was give up. And

there were times, especially in 2013, I was ready to call it quits but not call it

quits as far as go back to another job, say goodbye to life, because I wasn’t

doing what I wanted to do and I felt punished by that. It’s like, “Is it because I’m

a female? Is it because I’m black? What is it?” It was like, “Because I’m gay?

What is it that I’m not getting it? Because I’m poor? I deserve it.” And I had all

this self doubt pushing against me and it made the year darker and darker until I

was asked to play for a Kwanzaa event, this minister that was here who gave his

view on his principle. And I don’t know what he said verbatim, but that woke me

up and I ran with it. I grabbed it and I ran. But I grabbed him and I ran with it. I

needed that energy. It wasn’t my drum, nothing was working. But whatever he

said that day, Clarence, hey, I still thank him because I’m still here and I’m doing

what I needed to do. But timing is everything. Keep dreaming. But timing.

Nadine O.: How young are you? Do you think about that?

Karen L. Smith: I only think about that when it’s time for my birthday. Oh, 2019, I’ll be 59. I’m

getting ready to leave my fifties. But until that happens, I just think about this

today. This is what I need to do and this is my goal for today. I feel like Alberta

Hunter. It’s never too late to start whatever. It’s never too late to have a

mission, to find your dream and your purpose. I really would like to be able to

internationally be recognized and do more, whether it’s playing a gig or doing a

workshop. That’s my goal. That’s my ultimate goal.

Nadine O.: Tell me something. What’s your story? What’s your song? That’s what all this is

about, finding it and singing it. I hope this episode inspires you to leap into the

unknown and never give up on your dreams. My name is Nadine O., and you’ve

been listening to the “Over 50? You Are Not Done Yet” show.

Until the next time.


Musical performance on Djembe Drum – Karen L. Smith

Karen L. Smith can be reached @

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