Drawing Upon the Power of Community

Drawing Upon the Power of Community
Mar 08, 2024

Roberta Lea Discusses the Intersection Between Music and Education Ahead of Her Performance at The Barns at Wolf Trap on March 29

There is an African proverb that neo-pop-country singer/songwriter Roberta Lea lives by: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Lea, who was named one of Country Music Television’s Next Women in Country in 2023, chooses to surround herself with people who nurture her creativity and give her a strong sense of belonging. She believes that the support she has experienced from her community has helped shape her life’s work. Community, she says, is “the key to success.”

Like most artists, Lea, who grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, fell in love with music early on, but she also felt a calling to work with young people. After spending several years as a high school Spanish teacher, she recorded her first country-pop project in 2021 and committed to a full-time country music career. But she never forgot her love of teaching. It’s what led her to sign on as a teaching artist with Coastal Virginia Wolf Trap, a program of Arts for Learning Virginia, and today, she shares her love of music both on stage and in Norfolk-area classrooms.

Lea will perform with Black Opry Revue at The Barns at Wolf Trap on Fri., March 29. Below, Lea discusses why the connection between an artist and their community is vital, and how she combines her love of music with her talent for working with children and teachers in the classroom.

Wolf Trap (WT): Share a little about your background. Who are your artistic inspirations? 

Roberta Lea (RL): I grew up with a very diverse musical palate. My parents were heavy on smooth jazz and R&B and my mom [loved] to play Gospel music on Sunday mornings. My sisters’ music tastes were on two completely different ends of the spectrum with one leaning heavily into the likes of Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morrissette, and Jewel, while the other was a big fan of ’90s Hip Hop like Tupac and Foxy Brown. I found myself drowning in the soup of all that influence. 

My biggest inspirations are Bill Withers, Tina Turner, Shania Twain, and Tracy Chapman. They all represent the idea of pursuing music on one’s own terms and defining success for themselves. As songwriters, their catalogs are completely timeless. That’s the kind of legacy I want to leave behind: good, timeless music.

WT: What made you want to return to education as a teaching artist with Coastal Virginia Wolf Trap, after transitioning full-time to music during the pandemic?  

RL: I enjoy being able to inspire the younger generation because creativity is just as important as core curriculum like math and sciences. When the opportunity to teach my passion in a classroom setting was presented, it was a no-brainer.

I also feel this need to stay connected to my local community as much as possible. Traveling the world and walking red carpets can create a disconnect between artists and the communities they’re serving with their music. I’m very intentional about keeping my feet on the local ground.

Roberta Lea

WT: Why is it important to you to be a member of Black Opry?

RL: The Black Opry represents a movement in the arts for [marginalized] communities to reclaim their space, wherever it may be. To be a member is to be a part of that conversation and a positive change in that narrative.

The synergy and encouragement that Black Opry has provided for me have been pivotal to my growth and success. Being a part of this collective gave me some much-needed confidence to step forward with my gift, grow at my own pace, and gain experience without pressure, debt, or signing my life away. The Black Opry simply said I was enough. 

WT: Part of Black Opry’s mission is to bring visibility to Black country musicians, professionals, and fans. Do you think themes like identity are important to bring into classrooms?

RL: The role of the classroom—as well as parents—is to equip each child with the education, principles, and tools they need to become productive citizens of any given community. In general, most of those elements are extremely uniform. All children are going to learn the same basic lessons and be expected to follow the same rules. Their identity is the only unique aspect they get to bring to the table, and each child should be equipped with the confidence that their unique perspective plays a critical role in the functioning of society.  

WT: How do you honor the local community in your work?

RL: My identity as a Black artist, a Virginian, a wife, a mother, and a sister color my songwriting. If there was one aspect of my life that was different, the songs I write would probably sing a different tune. I’ve learned to take pride in those aspects of my identity and honor those in my work. The first track on my new album is called “Somewhere in the Tide.” It is an ode to Virginia’s geographic, historic, political, and social diversity. History and humanity can be complicated but I’ll always be proud of who I am and where I’m from, and it will always show up in a song. 

Get your tickets now to watch Lea perform alongside Black Opry artists Sug Daniels, Tylar Bryant, Rachel Maxann, and Grace Givertz on Friday, March 29 at The Barns at Wolf Trap. Tickets are available online at wolftrap.org/calendar.  To learn more about Roberta Lea, visit iamrobertalea.com/.