To an uninformed person like myself, the only sign of anything physically wrong with TEGA was the cast around his right leg.

“I started getting ulcers in my ankles,” he explained. Maybe the byproduct of living with a chronic disease is the ability to talk about it candidly with strangers. Even sitting down, he towered over me, his broad shoulders accentuated by a letterman jacket. His first name, Joseph, was embroidered over his heart. His wide, bright eyes rarely broke contact with mine, and he has a seemingly permanent, genuine smile. This relaxed poise never wavered.

Joseph Colby Oghenetega Ewatuya, also known as TEGA, is a soul singer from Dallas, Texas. He studies songwriting at Berklee College of Music and lives with sickle cell anemia. His Nigerian-immigrant father and American-born mother realized he had an ear for music when he was four years old; Ewatuya would sing along to the harmonies while listening to songs by Destiny’s Child.

When I moved to Dallas, my mom was more excited about the opportunities for a wider African American community,as well as the artistic opportunities that she was seeing for me that I hadn’t even realized yet,” Ewatuya said. He enrolled in the performing and visual arts magnet high school, Booker T. Washington, where he participated in jazz choir and learned jazz piano in an environment inundated by incredible musicians. “It was always just like, the best part of school for me,” he said. Ewatuya’s music calls back to his jazzy roots, evidenced by an extensive use of syncopated beats, blues scales, and scat-like vocal runs.

His music education didn’t stop in the classroom. Both of his parents listened to old school and pop radio and introduced him to artists like Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and TLC. “The list is endless,” Ewatuya said. “80s and 90s music is just incredible. I feel like it’s an era that will never get old,” he insisted.  His mother and father were major influences on Ewatuya mixing the older, jazzier elements with newer, electronic, R&B ones – the result is a timeless sound akin to his musical idols. Ewatuya shares many things with his father: a first name, a great taste in music, and a blood disease.

He lost his father almost eight years ago. This was the only point in the interview where he broke his eye contact, looking down at his hands on the table. “I remembered being in a school play at the time, and it was the first time I had ever gotten a role. I was Aladdin. He didn’t get to actually make it to the show.”

To pay homage to his father, Ewatuya chose TEGA as his artist moniker—a nickname his late father used and a reminder of his Nigerian heritage. The name inspires Ewatuya to continue making music.

Ewatuya’s musical journey eventually led him to the songwriting program at Berklee. He stuck close to his jazz roots while engaging with the variety of genres around him. There, he found soul: “Something just clicked for me, and I realized that I wanted something that people can really connect to. It was never about writing soul music specifically, it just happened.”

The effect sickle cell anemia has had on his mother, a woman who’s loved and guided two people through this disease, pushes Ewatuya to persistently pursue a lucrative music career. “I wanna be able to buy her a house one day, or pay off all her bills,” he asserted. Ewatuya’s self-driven nature pushes him above and beyond. He self-directed and produced a music video for one of his newest singles, “Flesh.”

“What drives me the most is knowing that my time might be more temporary than others,” Ewatuya said. “I just wanna leave as many clues as to who I was whenever I’m gone.”

Throughout his life, Ewatuya’s body has gotten in his way when creating music. He suffers sickle cell crises where oxygen levels in his blood sink dangerously low. Exposure to cold weather, fatigue, and stress can trigger a crisis. Avoiding these factors as a student in Boston is nearly impossible.

Last year, a particularly bad episode left Ewatuya in the hospital for a week. That same week, he was supposed to be performing in a show. “My levels were just too low. My body had literally used up all its resources, and a part of that was me not really taking care of myself.”

Ignoring his feelings and emotions, pushing away the necessity to deal with his hardships, led him to a breaking point. “You always have to deal with things in some way, shape, or form.” Ewatuya had to stop fighting against himself and learn to listen to and accept himself.

Ewatuya turned to music during this arduous process of healing. “If I didn’t have music, I wouldn’t know how to survive.” he said. He discovered a fruitful middle ground in between the acceptance and critique of his condition, which he highlights in his upcoming LP, Body. The body that turns against him is also the very instrument that provides him with smoky, smooth vocals, and the brain to write lyrics and drive projects to fruition. It allows him to pursue his passions, to stand on stage and present his message. It’s the vessel for the pure human connection he craves. Why shouldn’t he learn to find peace with this dichotomy?

As Ewatuya recalled the production process behind one of the tracks, “Melanin,” and talked about how he added a sample from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” to give the song a new dimension, I couldn’t help but draw a connection between these two artists. Billie Holiday lived with pain from drugs, alcoholism, and abusive relationships, but used it to create music people could relate to. Ewatuya, too, experiences emotional and physical pain on a daily basis and channels it into his songs. Ewatuya hopes Body can act as a guide for anyone looking for a truce with any hardship they may face. He wants his songs to affect people in multifaceted ways—whether mentally, physically, spiritually, or politically.

In a sense, TEGA is the manifestation of his desire to create something bigger than himself. “TEGA is separate from Joseph,” he said. “I’m still peeling away at versions of myself that I wish I could show more. There was a huge lesson that I needed to learn. I needed to connect more with myself and outside of myself, and realize that I’m not the only one going through something. I think people just wanna know that they’re not alone,”

For now, Ewatuya is still learning how to care for himself. That’s an important concept to him: while overcoming hardships, don’t forget about self-care. “My music is an exploration of myself and I wanted to make something that people could cry to or jam to,” he said. “Just letting them know that they can love themselves.”

Ewatuya hopes to open a dialogue within the Boston community between those suffering from chronic illnesses and those lucky enough to be a stranger to those experiences. Hopefully, his music can connect people who would never have these tough conversations.

“I try to raise awareness in any way that I can,” Ewatuya said. “Every time someone asks me about my boot it’s not just a broken foot—there’s a deeper story and understanding that we all need to reach.”

There’s something we all can take away from Ewatuya’s philosophy, especially in these polarizing times: Ask people about small details in their life. It might open up a discussion to something deeper, something bigger than yourself.

While you’re at it, pair that discussion with some of TEGA’s music.

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