Singer finds redemption from 'Struggle' on new album
“I'm 13 and [I'm] working these mean streets,” Elaine Richardson, aka Dr. E., sings in a passionate voice reminiscent of Chaka Khan. “I want love. I want affection but … I'm looking in the wrong direction.”
The song, “13,” is one of 13 tracks on Richardson's new album, Songs for the Struggle. In celebration of its release on Friday, May 5, the singer and OSU professor will perform a show at Long Street Studio with special guest singer Caroline Bennett and host Speak Williams.
Like many of the songs on the album, “13” is blistering funk with a rock edge, but the upbeat music is accompanied by the sobering story of Richardson's early life of sexual abuse and exploitation, which began when she was raped at 13 years old.
The Cleveland native said she was hanging with the wrong crowd, trying to fit in and fill a void she felt early in life. “I didn't value who I was,” she said, citing low self-esteem brought on by living in a low-income neighborhood, witnessing her parents' troubled marriage and being teased because her mother was the only Jamaican immigrant in the neighborhood. “[There] were a lot of different things that made me feel like I didn't have love in my life.”
Richardson's first boyfriend was a pimp, but she had a brief respite from the dangerous lifestyle when he went to jail. She went on to pursue music in high school by performing with friends in a girl group called the Shades of Love. However, when she attended Cleveland State University, she fell in with another unsavory group.
“I felt comfortable around people who were outcasts because I felt like I was an outcast,” she said. “So I got back in the street life … and that just started me on a real downward spiral over the years.”
Richardson became addicted to drugs and went to jail multiple times. The turning point came when she had her second daughter. Convinced the baby would be stillborn or suffer complications, Richardson was floored when she learned her child was completely healthy.
“This time it seemed like I just surrendered,” Richardson said of her subsequent recovery. “I just did one day at a time like they told me to do.”
What followed is a remarkable tale of perseverance. Richardson not only returned to Cleveland State and graduated, but went on to earn a doctorate in English and Applied Linguistics from Michigan State. As a professor, she specializes in the language, literacy and discourse practices of the African diaspora.
Richardson also kept up with her music, performing in wedding bands and at clubs, as well as writing songs with the late Larry Marcus, who, as part of the Rude Boys, had a top-20 Billboard hit with “Written All Over Your Face.” Richardson and Marcus landed songs in soap operas and, most recently, the Fox TV Show “Star.” Additionally, Richardson released her first full-length solo album, Elevated, in 2010.
Songs for the Struggle addresses Richardson's life story, including recent turmoil, such as the deaths of Marcus and Richardson's brother. Richardson also wrote with current events, like police-involved killings, in mind.
“The way the world is now, the struggle is definitely a lot more than what I was writing about when I started writing the songs,” she said. “I think about the way that I was vulnerable to sexual exploitation at 13 [and] the ways that people think about poor black girls — that your life is disposable. … I'm so glad that now, though, a lot of people are speaking out on these issues.”
And, now, Richardson has finally found the self-worth she was searching for all those years ago.
“Now I know what love is,” she sings on the ballad “Now I Know.”
“It's my redemption song,” she said.