Hitting steel with Shawn Thwaites
How the local jazz artist spreads love, acceptance through music
When Shawn Thwaites mentored kids in Gaza, he taught them more than just music. He provided mental freedom through steel drums, the traditional Trinidadian instrument.
Five years ago, the Sacramento resident’s Muslim hip-hop group Native Deen toured with the United States Embassy to give a creative outlet to the children who weren’t allowed to venture out of Gaza. In most cases, learning about music was their only form of escape.
“Those kids are probably not even alive anymore because of the constant warring in Gaza right now. They had to stay in that one community and could not leave,” he says. “You know, we have a lot of ’Gazas’ here in America. There are people locked up in their mind, so I just want to free people.”
Now, Twaites performs with his jazz group, Shawn Thwaites Rebel Quartet. His music is soulful and tactical, teeming with emotional resonance. Although he performs with confidence, it wasn’t always that way.
The Washington, D.C., native and Trinidadian-American loved his culture’s instrument at home but hid and rejected it in public. Kids teased him about his heritage and steel drum, which only made him push it away. Despite making huge strides as a musician in his teens—like performing at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration—he still felt conflicted about the instrument.
“[The steel drum] is the only thing that has never cheated on me, even when I wasn’t good to her,” Thwaites says. “I used to treat her bad and abuse her, but she’s always been there and showed me love.”
Even in the face of prejudice and bullying, he held onto his fire for success. After graduating from Berklee College of Music, he founded the Pan United Youth Movement, a nonprofit that teaches at-risk kids how to play the steel drum. That was 13 years ago, and through the Virgina-based program, Thwaites also created the Virginia All Steel Orchestra, which has since partnered with the Boys and Girls Club to bring steel drum education to underserved students in that area. Thwaites attributes some of the programs’ success to how he teaches the power of vision and the importance of manifestation in addition to music. He moved to Sacramento just over a year ago and already plans to bring the program here and open it up to the elderly.
“I just like to make people feel like they are worth something,” he says. “I feel like when you help people, that’s a gift right there.”
Thwaites is currently focused on completing his first full-length album New Life. Set to release in May of next year, it’ll speak to the plight of black lives as well as what a fresh start for the world’s citizens could look like.
“We need to start over. We need to unite as a people,” he says. “That is how you stop all this racism. Once we do that, we are untouchable. Any time we unite we become so strong, we’re unbreakable.”