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A Recovery in Harmony: Ronald Troy Collins, One Year Later

Collins performing at Youbloom Festival in October 2016. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Collins performing at Youbloom Festival in October 2016. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In March 2016 in our third printed issue, Skid Row Art, we published a piece by Ronald Troy Collins, a homeless musician who had been living on the streets of Skid Row due to his drug addiction. Collins chronicled his life, detailed his musical aspirations, and explained the relationships he has made with people in Downtown LA.

Now, almost a year later, Collins has flipped his life around. He lives in a drug rehabilitation community in Long Beach, has been spending long hours both in the studio and at his job, and is the subject of a soon-to-be-released documentary.  We caught up with Ronald shortly before his 50th birthday to talk about his transformation over the past year and what lies ahead: 

GDT: A year ago when we first interviewed you, you were singing on the street for money but had the desire to make music into a career. What is the current status of your songwriting and your album?

RTC: The album is taking off. We’re in the beginning stages of doing the first three songs on the album, and by the end of March the album should be completely done. We have made some awesome contacts with Urban Renewal Project, a band that we’re truly blessed to be working with. We’ve done a whole lot of rewriting and reworking of songs. I met the incredible Glasses Malone, who is a rapper, and he agreed to do a part on "Africa" and on "In My Life." Glasses Malone and his manager Lisa are mentors and help inner city youth and the disadvantaged. It’s an honor and a privilege to be associated with such a great talent and I look forward to working with him in the future. We have an incredible team behind us and it’s gonna be awesome. The music is freakin’ incredible.

GDT: When we first met you, you had been recording music at your friend Brendan’s house. Where are you recording now?

RTC: I’ve recorded in a couple of different studios, we were at Bedrock last night, and we’re gonna be at a different studio to do the actual album. Brendan’s studio was just a house studio. It was very rough, you couldn’t produce a piece of work that was suitable for commercial use, for the public. Brendan was basically laying the foundation and groundwork. However, now that we’re in professional studios, the work that we’re doing is gonna be radio grade. Everything has been kicked up to the umteenth degree. Before, I was playing around and now I’m in a position where I’m a professional recording artist. That’s the big difference.

GDT: What about live gigs? You played at Youbloom Festival, the Festival for All Skid Row Artists, and more in the last year.

RTC: Youbloom was incredible. But when I think of live gigs, I think of stuff I’m getting paid for. So I haven’t been paid for live performances yet because everything I’ve been doing as a new artist has been either for charity work or to help me get my feet wet. Even though those were festivals, those were not-paid gigs. Those were to get me some experience in performing in front of an audience, so I can start training and preparing myself. I’m getting critiqued by my managers, William Dane and Aimee Schoof, on what to do and what not to do, and starting to connect with the audience as a whole. So I would consider those gigs as experience more than anything.

GDT: In order to kickstart your recovery, you left Downtown for a long time. How long?

RTC: I left Downtown in May [2016] and I didn’t come back here until around October, when I had some sobriety time under my belt, when I had some tools to cope with my addiction.

GDT: What do you mean by tools?

RTC: Well right now I’m at Safe Refuge Rehabilitation Center [in Long Beach]. They teach us that all a craving is is a thought. It’s not a physical thing, it’s a thought, because my body is used to feeling a certain kind of way. When the thought comes, usually I’ll just let the thought run through my head. There’s a saying in the Bible that says “so a man thinketh, so is he” and I believe that when you have a thought, it begins to start shaping and forming you. Those thoughts and cravings formed me as an addict for a long time. Now, when my addiction hits me, I talk to my addiction like it talks to me. “You know you want a hit.” “No I DON’T want a hit. What’s the purpose of me getting high right now?” “Well you’re gonna feel good.” “I already feel good, you got something else you wanna come up with?” I have to start questioning these things now. It’s like I’m fighting an entity, like I’m having a battle inside myself. And that’s almost a daily thing.

Some days it hits stronger than others, and those are the days when it will immobilize me, to where I’m just stuck because I don’t have any words to come back with. When that happens, they teach us to just play the whole tape out. If I want to get high, I have to think about what will happen if I get high. I lose all the respectability I’ve regained, I lose the friendships that I’ve gained, I lose the trust that I’ve gained, I lose my own sanity, I lose everything that I’m trying to fight for and achieve. Now getting high is no longer about me, it’s about the people I’m associated with, that I’ve come to love. It would be really selfish for me to go out and get high right now with all of the lives that it would affect.

GDT: When we met, we found it kind of remarkable that you belonged to no one and you didn’t have to answer to anyone. You came and went places as you pleased, you weren’t bound by anyone or anything. Do you feel like that is a correct assessment of what your life was like and now is it different?

RTC: It was exactly how you described it, but now I feel like I’m bound and I think that’s what’s keeping me grounded. Because you can’t go through life without being committed to anything or anybody. That’s like a ship sailing in the ocean with no direction whatsoever. I am bound to Poppa who has been instrumental in my life, one of the most influential people in my life, because he’s teaching me how to run a business. He hired me. I first started off sweeping the floor then I moved up. Now I’m basically running his three stores more efficiently than the people who came before me.

I’m bound to Safe Refuge. I have to answer to people there about my whereabouts, what I’m doing. It’s accountability. And that’s a beautiful thing I’m learning. I’m bound and committed to my music, I’m bound and committed to my job, I’m bound and committed to the people that I have in my life because I value them from all of my heart. So yeah it’s a good thing.

GDT: We want to hear about your relationship to Skid Row. You came back here for your job at Poppa’s store, but does it feel different being around the people now that you’re not on drugs and now that you have a place to go that’s not the street?

RTC: Strangely enough it helps strengthen me. Because when I wanna take that hit I look at what’s around me and say “this is what you wanna go back to?” I have a car now, I have a bank account, I’m able to do things to help other people, and I think that’s the whole purpose for living. I’ve said that since the beginning – if you can’t help other people then there’s no reason to be existing and living. Now I’m able to help other people and hire people. If people down here can see that my life has changed, then maybe I can be a beacon of hope for someone.

GDT: What about singing for people? Do you miss it?

RTC: Singing for people on the streets? I miss singing for them, but I don’t miss why I was singing for them. The drugs were the motivation.

GDT: Singing for people on the street  was something that led you not only to get money, but led you to meet a lot of people. But it seems like you are still meeting people unexpectedly. Is that a testament to your personality?

RTC: Well to me, it tells me a lot. It tells me the journey that I’m on right now is my destiny, I’m just fulfilling what I’ve been meant to do my entire life and the people that I’m meeting right now are the people I’m supposed to meet. Meeting Glasses Malone for example was just another step. I’m gonna meet even more people. I mean, what are the chances of all of this happening? It’s not by chance. All those things were divinely orchestrated to get me to where I’m going. It’s happening faster than a lot of people thought it would, that’s for sure.

GDT: One of the things that is so powerful about your song "Africa" is that it deals with police brutality. Do you plan to continue to be political with your music? Is police brutality still an important issue for you?

RTC: When "Africa" first began, I was in a drug addiction, and there was very little that I felt I could do other than write a song about it because who’s gonna listen to a crackhead when he’s on crack? However, now that I’m clean and sober and after everything I’ve been through, my voice can have a greater impact. The system we have in place with the police is so one sided and it needs to be drastically changed. And how that’s gonna be done and where that’s gonna be done and the vehicle they’re gonna use to do it, I don’t know. But I will be standing up as a voice against the system itself, because it’s truly fucked up.

Collins and dancers (Shantel, Xavier and Dominique) on the set of his music video for "Africa." Photo courtesy of the artist.

Collins and dancers (Shantel, Xavier and Dominique) on the set of his music video for "Africa." Photo courtesy of the artist.

GDT: Do you think your relationship with incarceration and the police was unfair and had to do with your race?

RTC: A lot of it was unfair, but a lot of it was in response to my behavior as well. Because the police are trained to respond to force with greater force. So things escalate. They go from the police asking you to sit down and you saying “no,” to you getting your ass whooped. So the system, yeah it’s fucked up. You’ve seen the video of the girl getting raped by the police officer, you’ve seen the video of Africa getting killed by the cops. Where in the world do they get the right to murder somebody in cold blood and get off just because they have a badge? No, the police should not be above or exempt from the law and I think that’s what’s happening now. And I actually think more officers are upset about what’s happening than we think but they can’t speak because they have their whole career and life wrapped up in this one job, and if they get fired they lose everything and their whole family is depending on that paycheck. A lot of them have a good desire to want to protect and serve, they truly want to help the community, but when they see brutality they can’t speak out because you have the “code” amongst police officers.

GDT: There’s a quote: “the role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” So your music, or people’s art, inspires people to feel empowered and to change things. So if you have the gift to make compelling music or art, that’s where you fit into the revolution. And if people look up to you as an artist or as a role model in your community, there is power in that.

RTC: I wanna be a Marvin Gaye, a James Brown, that type of person. They were legendary and what made them legendary was the time that they were in. Their music dealt with and spoke to the issues that were going on in that time. That’s what I want my music to do. People can dance and party, sure. But I want to have some meaning behind what I’m doing.