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'Our white neighbours placed a burning cross in the front yard' - Gregory Porter tells his incredible life story

Multi-Grammy-winning jazz singer Gregory Porter suffered a childhood blighted by racism and the absence of a father. His mother raised him and seven other kids in poverty. Barry Egan flew to Paris to hear the Californian's inspirational story

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Life for jazz star Gregory Porter was harsh from the beginning and one of his earliest memories is being beaten up by neighbourhood bullies when he was just four years old on his way to kindergarten

Life for jazz star Gregory Porter was harsh from the beginning and one of his earliest memories is being beaten up by neighbourhood bullies when he was just four years old on his way to kindergarten

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Pictured in Paris with Barry Egan

Pictured in Paris with Barry Egan

Gregory at the Grammys with wife Victoria

Gregory at the Grammys with wife Victoria

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Life for jazz star Gregory Porter was harsh from the beginning and one of his earliest memories is being beaten up by neighbourhood bullies when he was just four years old on his way to kindergarten

It is the most beautiful spring day in the City of Light, a week before the city went into lock-down. The sun is streaming in through the windows of the room in which multi-Grammy-winning singer Gregory Porter is sitting, looking out on the Pantheon in Paris's 5th arrondissement. "Isn't this the most wonderful day in France?" the 6ft 4in jazz giant - literally - smiles, beneath his trademark cap and black balaclava (which Porter has worn for a decade because of facial scarring; he wore it on the cover of GQ last year.)

What Porter then recounts from his youth in California is in stark contrast to the beauty of that day in Paris. He remembers being beaten up walking to kindergarten in Los Angeles when he was four years of age. Porter, whose father Rufus was absent for the entirety of his life, says that was "the cruelty of the neighbourhood we lived in, 36 & Normandie".

"There were sweet grandmothers around," he says, "but it was a thing to be a neighbourhood bully. We had one who terrorised us. We would leave our gate and look up and down the street, and if he was this way, you would go that way. The bully always travelled with three or four buddies. They were looking for trouble," he says, meaning somebody who was "weak or somebody who had candy or a soda or somebody who had shoes that they wanted".

Gregory and his older brother Cornelius and their big sister Luanda got in a big fight with the bully one day while walking to school. "I was still in kindergarten. The bully was kicking us all in the butt as we walked down the street.

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Pictured in Paris with Barry Egan

Pictured in Paris with Barry Egan

Pictured in Paris with Barry Egan

"My sister, who was the oldest, got fed up with this and turned around and punched him. Then he beat us all up. He punched me in the stomach. I was four years old. He punched my brother in the face. Then he picked up my sister, swung her around, and threw her against a car. She had a bump on her head."

Luanda had a friend whose brother was a boxer. He came and knocked the stuffing out of the bully.

"The boxer avenged all of us. This all happened in the matter of 30 minutes."

For Porter, 48, who has a young son, Demyan, with his Russian wife Victoria, an artist, the memory of the bullying underlines the hardship of life without a father.

"The idea of protection, or even respect - respecting a child - was a thing for me," Porter says. "Who's got my back?' Nobody had my back."

His mother Ruth, was a minister in a store-front church in LA who also did private nursing in a not-always-successful attempt to make ends meet. She "worked real hard" to raise her five boys and three girls. "She did the best she could. She always seemed so strong to us," says Porter, the seventh of those eight. "When I think about it now, there were moments of vulnerability when she was crying in her room. Economics were always up and down."

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Gregory at the Grammys with wife Victoria

Gregory at the Grammys with wife Victoria

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Gregory at the Grammys with wife Victoria

The racism he encountered as a seven-year-old when they moved to Bakersfield, a small city just over 100 miles north of LA, was unspeakable yet typical of the era.

"Our white neighbours tried to run us out," he says. "They burned a cross on the front yard. They would urinate in beer bottles and throw them through our windows."

How did it make him feel to be discriminated against and physically and verbally abused because of the colour of his skin? How did he deal with that feeling of hatred at such a young age?

"Let me tell you…" he begins. "Think about the strength of your voice and your ability to look somebody down when you have a conviction about something. And the power of that. When you feel strongly about something, you can stand strong and you can point your finger and say, 'This is what this is'.

"Now, imagine that conviction about a belief is that somebody is less than you, that a black person is less than you. And imagine that the person that you are being powerful against is an eight-year-old. And that's what I was dealing with. These older people who flexed their bigotry on a child. And when I think about it, it is so insane."

Did Porter as a child ask his mother why these adults are being that way to him?

"She would literally get in our faces and tell us exactly what it was. 'They're racist and they're wrong. You are worthy of respect, just as everyone is worthy of respect.' She had to get in our faces like that - to build us up and strengthen us. But we were dealing with that."

Porter says that when he looks back at some of the incidents, "it's psychotic almost. We were walking down the alley in an all-white neighbourhood, myself and my brother [and a 10-year-old friend, Freddy]. There were these little girls playing jump-rope. We didn't say a word to them, three little white girls. I was seven, my brother was eight.

"Out of nowhere, this man came with a police stick and said, 'What did you say to my daughters?'"

Porter replied, "We didn't say anything."

The man then got closer with the baton ("like he was going to hit Freddy across the head") and asked, 'I said, what did you fucking say to my daughters'.

"We didn't say anything to your daughters," Porter said again.

"Now, the girls are right here, traumatised, and their daddy is about to hit these boys on the side of the head. Basically what he was saying to us was, 'If you even think about looking at, talking or saying anything to my kids, I am going to try to kill you', and we were 10, eight and seven-year-old boys. And this was a grown man threatening our lives with a weapon. That's what we were dealing with. We were always out-sized, out-numbered, out-aged.

"You have to have your wits about you. How do you respond? A lot of our response was to run, in which case, 'Why are you running? You are only running because you did something wrong, right?' So, it is this weird, weird thing. I could talk about it for hours."

Porter told The New York Times in 2016 more about the harrowing racism he experienced as a child. "My brother got shot because he was walking in an all-white neighbourhood," he said. "They threw pumpkins and watermelons through the windows."

The broken window image returns on Porter's 2016 album Take Me to the Alley, but it is a positive image of non-violence. "Break a window and let the sun in," he sang on Fan the Flames, which was inspired by watching protests in Ferguson, Missouri on TV in 2014, after an 18-year-old African American man was shot dead by a white police officer. "Stand up on your seat with your dirty feet/Raise your fist in the air," sang Porter, "and be sweet."

Porter was born on November 4, 1971 in Sacramento, California, moving to LA when he was six months old. His first childhood memory was of being three years of age and hiding in a hole in the wall of the house in LA. "It was a comforting space. It felt safe, this little cylinder I could get into to," he says.

Was Porter looking for something safe, emotionally, because even at that stage he would have been old enough to realise his father was not around at all?

"That's the interesting thing. I was always conscious of my father not being around," he says.

Porter's father, originally from Memphis, was a singer, too. Porter only learned this at his funeral, when he himself was 20. He said to himself, "He gave me nothing, he left me nothing physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. He had no connection to me."

"Yet the very thing that has ascended me to higher heights and is allowing me to travel all over the world is the singing voice - that he gave me," he says now.

Did music give him something to hold on to? "As I look at how I am now, I feel like I'm trying to right wrongs and correct things and apologise for certain people's behaviour with music."

Did Porter's father ever apologise to him for never being there for him?

"It is funny that you ask me that. He was in the hospital. He called my brother Cornelius and he said to him, 'We're okay, right?' And my brother was like, 'I don't need you any more. So, we're okay.' Then he called my sister and apologised. He never called me. He got everyone's numbers but he didn't call me. Then he died."

Why does Porter feel his father didn't call him to apologise?

"I don't know. There was never any face-to-face reconciliation, even though I kept giving him opportunities. I saw him in the hospital before he died."

Although Porter was left unreconciled, he says: "I created some reconciliation with my music."

Porter's mother died of cancer a year later. "She didn't go to his funeral," he says. "I remember I told her and surprisingly she cried. She never showed any emotion about him, other than frustration. But she cried when she heard about his funeral."

I ask Porter did he cry at his father's funeral.

"Yes, because there was so many unanswered questions and I was sitting there angry as person after person was getting up to say, 'Oh, he was so charismatic. He was such a great singer. He was such a great preacher [he had a church in LA]. He took the young boys in the church out and he taught them how to paint.'"

How did hearing that make Porter feel? "I was like, 'He didn't do that for me.' But, the church was his place to show off."

For a religious man like his father, it is surely his life's major dichotomy that he turned his back on his children?

"It is a dichotomy for me as well. It doesn't make sense. When I mentioned to him in the hospital on his death bed that I wanted to try to sing a little bit, he said: 'There are a lot of good singers out there.' This was me trying to make him say, 'Yeah, you can do it!' I was trying to give him a softball.'"

Maybe he was trying to protect his son finally by hinting that singing was a tough road to go down?

"That was what I thought. That it was him trying to protect me."

By contrast, Porter's mother, on her death bed, told him the exact opposite: "Go for it."

"Her oxygen tank was already turned up to ten. She was getting all the oxygen she could possibly get and she turned to me and said, 'Can you turn the oxygen up? I think it is on 2.' I saw that it was on 10 but I turned my hand like I was turning the knob. 'Oh, that's better,' she said. Then she said - ten seconds at a time because she had to stop and breathe - 'Don't forget about your music. It is the best thing you do.' She died a couple of days later.

"After I got out of the depression of her death, which took a solid year… I was properly depressed... but my escape was the music. It was just the release of the singing."

Discerning music fans are, of course, delighted that the cat in the hat followed his mother's advice, although it took a while. He released his debut album Water in 2010. Liquid Spirit and Take Me to the Alley, his third and fourth albums, both won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album. His new album All Rise is his best yet (you will, alas, have to wait to hear its soulful splendour as its release has been delayed until August).

Of his 2017 album Nat King Cole & Me, Porter says that as a five-year-old he imagined Nat 'King' Cole was his father. "It was about the absence of my father."

I'm sure both Gregory Porter's parents would have been proud of how far the bullied kid from Bakersfield has gone with that baritone singing voice of his. He conquered the pain, and the music world, with it.

Gregory Porter's new single Thank You is out now. He will be streaming a full show for free during the first week in May.


Your daughter’s hand: asking permission, in song

On 2012’s Real Good Hands, Gregory Porter sang about asking a man for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The song is autobiographical: “Maybe you know why I’m here/Your daughter and I have been datin’ for some time now/And you’ve always been, real, real nice to me/I look at your family pictures and realise that I want the same thing too.”

“He called me with the ‘What are your intentions with my daughter?’ thing. He rattled me,” Porter explains. “So I thought about it for about three days then came with this song as a response to his very strong alpha male conversation about me and his daughter.”

The woman was Victoria, an artist whom he met at his first show in Moscow in 2005. “She spoke ten words… of English,” he remembers. “That’s all she knew.”

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