“There’s no doubt about that,” Magness said in a telephone interview from her Los Angeles home. “It was not uncommon for me to refer to myself as a ‘force to be reckoned with.’ It was not a party.”
Magness, a Michigan native who attended Mount Clemens High School while living with her grandparents, had a traumatic childhood. Her mother committed suicide when Magness was only 13. Her father, who was a Detroit police officer for 15 years, committed suicide when she was 16.
Magness ran away from home, snuck into nightclubs and generally raised hell. The fourth of five children, Magness had 12 foster care placements in a two-year period. None of her siblings were placed with her.
“The truth is I have all the ‘Jerry Springer’ stories, but I’m not interested in talking about that, unless it inspires people to step forward and help kids at risk.”
With the help of several adults, Magness, who will perform Thursday at Callahan’s Music Hall in Auburn Hills, eventually came through her traumatic period to form a successful musical career.
“I got really, really lucky because I found a good fit. I stumbled and fell into a small handful of really good people who ultimately stood up for me when I couldn’t stand up for myself.”
The list of adults who assisted her on her way to adulthood includes foster parents, a social worker, a probation officer, and an English teacher. A foster mother in Minneapolis was a powerful influence.
“She was a strong and loving adult with boundaries, who was willing to stand up to me and stand up for me,” Magness said. “That was huge. There’s a lot that people can do to try to truly change the life of a foster child. There is a whole menu of things people can do to change a child’s lifetime.”
Magness is doing her part to help today’s troubled youth through her involvement with Foster Care Month and Foster Care Alumni of America. She is a spokesperson for Foster Care Month, which is May, and was named ambassador of foster care alumni by the FCAA.
“That was a really big deal for me,” Magness said. “There are a half a million of us (foster care alumni), and it turns out there is tremendous strength in numbers.
“What I do, primarily, is to talk about foster care in every interview I do, and I also do a fair amount of public speaking, from judiciaries and social workers and everything in between, to youths still in the system and alumni. There is a tremendous amount of resources available to alumni in our country.”
Magness has a meet-and-greet talk with school children planned in Kalamazoo on Friday.
Her ninth album, “The Devil is an Angel Too” (Alligator Records), is dedicated to all foster youth and alumni. It was named top blues album of 2010 by Living Blues magazine.
“This is a collection of stories that deals with the duality of the human condition. Darkness and Light,” Magness writes in the liner notes. “Turns out we all have some of each -- light and dark on the inside. I know I do.”
Magness recognizes that her lifelong love of music helped save her life.
“I was the little kid putting on every petticoat I had and putting on shows for the cat and dog. I really wanted to play piano, but I couldn’t get my parents to give me lessons. I knew every song on the radio and every TV theme song. I was a complete and total mynah bird.
“It was my respite. My escape hatch was listening to music and studying records and songs.”
She didn’t start performing in public until she was 19.
“I was much too afraid to try. I was a scared, scared puppy. I didn’t think I could sing, but I had one of those moments where I thought, ‘I’m probably going to die young, so I better damn well give it a try.’ Otherwise, I would have died and never gone for it. That (thought) really fucked with my head.”
The emotions she’s experienced through her difficult life have ended up being at least a partial positive for Magness, who was named B.B. King Entertainer of the Year by the Blues Foundation in 2009.
“I think it totally informs my craft. What a lucky thing. Lucky me … I get to do something with all that shit.”
Magness wants to encourage foster children at risk to make the journey from darkness to light.
“I like to quote Winston Churchill: ‘When, you’re going through hell, keep moving.’ That, unfortunately, is not an uncommon foster care experience.”
Janiva Magness performs Thursday at Callahan’s Music Hall, 2105 South Blvd, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $14-$17.50. For information, call (248) or click www.atcallahans.com.
For information on Magness, and links to the Foster Care Alumni of America and Foster Care Month websites, click www.janivamagness.com.
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