Grand Rapids native Sarena Rae fell in love with music when she was little. She would go to church choir practice with her mother and when she was five, she sang “The First Noel” to the congregation. She enjoyed the experience so much that she knew singing would be a part of her future. Then, at 16 years old, she wrote and performed a song called “You’re Beautiful,” a song about growing up biracial, and to her surprise it found strong success. The music video had garnered over 200,000 views on YouTube.
Suddenly, in her teens, doors started to open and she had the facility to share her message. “I was in high school and all these opportunities started coming to me where I was singing at schools and churches and people wanted me to tell my story about growing up interracial and the adversities that come along with it,” says Rae. “At a young age I had a platform all of a sudden to talk about the obstacles of being a biracial woman. I can’t say I was necessarily ready for it, but it was really cool and I learned a lot about myself and learned how to embrace the white and Black side within me.”
But with the success, came the pressure to replicate it after the buzz of “You’re Beautiful” was over. “There was a little bit of pressure. I wanted to release more music but I was nervous about it not being as successful or not as liked. I had released a few other songs in high school and college and those went okay.”
Not to be discouraged, she continued to work, write and sing, and in her early 20s she immersed herself into the songwriting process and looked deeply into who she was as a person. From that came her first EP released in 2020 entitled “Heaven” produced at Third Coast Recording Studios in Grand Haven. “I ended up writing a song called ‘Caught in Between,’ [about] growing up white and Black – feeling not white enough and not Black enough and learning how to find that space in between and that is about belonging and embracing yourself.”
A leader in the Grand Rapids music community
Rae’s early success allowed her access into the Grand Rapids music community, where now, at the young age of 27, she has become a leader. For example, in Bluewater Kings — a high quality performing band that plays weddings, corporate events and other venues — Rae produces and books musicians for the Grand Rapids chapter. She is on the board of directors for the Grand Rapids Community Media Center
, allowing her to help make behind-the-scenes decisions for the Wealthy Street Theatre
, Grand Rapids Rapidian
. Rae is also a member of Brena, an all-cover band that performs throughout the state of Michigan. “It’s a blessing and I don’t take it lightly,” says Rae. “I pray every morning. I want to make sure that I am always being the person I was created to be and making a difference that I know I can make. I don’t take it lightly at all that I’m this young and have such great opportunity.”
Out of all the programs she is a part of, there is one that is especially close to her heart — The Music That Raised Us. This project stemmed from an idea she had in January of 2022. She wanted to honor some of the local Grand Rapids women Black performers who have been an inspiration to her for so many years — singers like Serita Crowley, Karisa Wilson, Dr. Charsie Sawyer, Debra Perry, Kathy Lamar, Avalon Cutts-Jones and other great artists. Then the idea turned into something more developed and profound than just having the artists perform. “How cool would it be to put together these women who made a difference in my life but also tribute the women who went before us in the Black community,” says Rae. “I wanted to put together a show where the audience hears some of the most prolific and iconic music throughout music history and we are also tributing these Black female artists throughout the ages. It’s not just a musical show from one song to the next. You’re actually hearing stories about these artists and their adversities and their trials and their victories, and how they got from the beginning of their life to where they are now and what they learned along the way. The true story within all of it that the audience gets to know is the adversities that Black female artists face in the entertainment industry. The stories are vast and it brings to light those obstacles and racial barriers, a lot of the things we have to go through as creatives that our white peers don’t have to go through. It’s us bringing to light those stories.”
The show starts with an oral history of spirituals which is then followed by the performers singing spirituals. From there the show follows the same pattern with other genres like blues, jazz, opera, Motown and disco. The performers will discuss what was happening politically during each time period and what the musicians at the time had to endure. The Music That Raised Us will be performed on March 15 at Midtown
, formerly known as The Listening Room at Studio Park.
It’s about the music
Even with all the community programs she is a part of, in the end, it is always about the music for Rae. She continues to write, perform and also be recognized for her talents. Recently, she was nominated in five categories for her EPs “Heaven” and “River” for the WYCE Jammie Awards — Artist of the year, Album of the Year, Traditions, Best Soul Album and Best R&B Album.
Her passion for performing music is just as strong as when she first performed “The First Noel” when she was a child. Rae feels a deep connection to music and is honored to be able to share that with others. Her goal in the future is to perform outside of Michigan and even outside the United States. “Music is healing; it’s universal,” says Rae. “It’s something that connects us all together and reminds us that we are all human and yes, we have differences but at the core we’re all souls having this human experience. What I want to do with my music is reach people. I want to tell stories that bring healing and wondering. What I really want to do, my biggest dream in the whole world is to be able to go on tour and travel and go to different countries and sing and bring joy to people.”
To find out more about Sarena Rae, you can visit her website
Bill Lee is a journalist and freelance writer who lives in Lowell, Michigan. He enjoys sharing his fiction, family humor columns, and stories about real people. You can contact him at [email protected] or find more of his writing at https://medium.com/@bisbeelee
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