“I wanted to be jumping on a stage when I was jumping in the crowd.” – Steve Aoki
“I am grateful for the gift of music that God has given me. It’s not for me. Music is to share throughout the world.” – Sheila E.
While the inheritance of her distinguished father’s talent is her birthright, the Queen of Percussion‘s legacy is forged by her ability to stand on and play with her own two. Though the music industry is widely known to be a boys-club, few men own the work ethic to be spotlighted adjacent to her lengthy five-decade resume. The Emmy and Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter-
During my time with Miss E., she chats about the legends I grew up looping on my mother’s record player as regularly as my acknowledgment of New York’s weather. Each of her responses is warm yet modest. The idol graciously recognizes the tragedy that lit her path toward the achievements fans praise today.
Ahead of cracking the top 10 as a solo artist, Sheila’s list of drummer receipts inked names such as Marvin Gaye, Lionel Richie, and Diana Ross by the brink of the ’80s. Assuredly, when she speaks life over her ambitions — and of her gratitude to her father, Pete Escovedo — every other sentence concludes with the tone of an exclamation point. With this, her passion and drums have beat around the globe.
The multi-hyphenate continues as a trusted advisor among the greatest of all time, with enough otherwordly directorial credits (Enter: Beyoncé and Prince) to pride oneself on, musically. Even so, the most striking takeaway from our interaction is her eloquent expression of humility. The genius, Love Symbol, and Artist Formerly Known As Prince was not only an icon but a loving partner. Tito Puente is not The Musical Pope or El Rey de Los Timbales — he is her family. And the chart-topping duo, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, are simply “good guys.” Yes, it is all quite common.
Between youthful chuckles and an Oakland-based accent, Sheila E. maintains, “I keep forgetting it has been that long ago because I do not feel that old. For me, it feels like [there is] no separation.” Perhaps those sentiments ring true because the drummer seldom sleeps. In the face of this year’s civil unrest, Sheila E. organized alongside Angela Davis in her Bay Area neighborhood. She peacefully protested following the police killing of George Floyd, noting the need for “Black and Brown people in solidarity.”
Her concern for marginalized populations existed ahead of hashtag heroism. Throughout her career, the activist postured herself in support of a multitude of movements, including those of the LGBTQIA community. “There’s no other way around it. You are beautiful and loved as you are,” Shelia E. expressed on this year’s National Coming Out Day. With love and caution extended toward the nuanced experiences of those representing historically suppressed identities, supporters find her on the right side of history.
“I am someone who cares about the community,” Sheila E. affirmed. Keynotes concerning her power source, new awards, and time with Prince were emphasized earlier this week on The Kelly Clarkson Show. The pair was televised a few weeks prior, performing a cover of Steve Winwood’s hit, “Higher Love,” at the 2020 BBMAs with Pentatonix amid much fanfare.
Through climatic crescendos and a sequenced ensemble, the maestro stole the show — echoing the lesson plan of her 15-step polyrhythmic MasterClass. “Sheila E. is a musical pioneer,” authenticated David Rogier, co-founder and CEO of MasterClass, to The Knockturnal. “[She] is nothing short of magical.”
That in-demand magic extends by way of an upbeat personality, and over her insisted interview points. Unity is top of mind, and Sheila E. urges refreshed needs, accentuating the value of sisterhood. “I think we will always be up against an obstacle,” she explains. “Something will have us up against the wall. I really believe if a woman feels there is something in her life she should fight for — well, then she has to do it.”
The Knockturnal caught up with Sheila E. in the thick of her headlining maneuvers to gather the songstress’ thoughts on what establishes a pristine catalog. The luminary illustrated the teen moment she discovered unleashing records felt better than breaking them in track and field, and her hope for how her legacy will read. Check out how Sheila E. knew music was what she was always “supposed to do.”
The Knockturnal: You said your first time playing the drums was at the age of 5. Today, you are widely known as the Queen of Percussion. Was there anyone you looked to for inspiration growing up?
Sheila E.: Well, immediately, it would be my dad. He played percussion. I learned from him. I absorbed everything that he was doing as I watched him play each day. I was inspired by the music that he brought in the household. There was Latin jazz music.
Also, we listened to Motown, R&B, funk, and all the local bands and artists. A lot of them would come into our home and process in the living room. We would have jam sessions, so my dad really inspired me. My mom was musical as well. Plus, my mother was an athlete. I would say my parents were my inspiration!
The Knockturnal: Were there any artists from your introductory period that inspired you creatively?
Sheila E.: Yes, it would be James Brown. I remember hearing one of his records. He may have been the first 45 [RPM] I purchased. The year was 1967. I bought whatever songs were out at the time. Everyone I was around growing up was listening to Motown.
I listened to Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Diana Ross, and Marvin Gaye, too. There were so many. I was also inspired by local artists such as Grateful Dead, Santana, and The Pointer Sisters.
The Knockturnal: In your recent MasterClass trailer, you taught people how to find their rhythm. How long did it take you to find yours?
Sheila E.: I am still trying to find it. [Laughs] Literally! I say that because I will never know everything, and I want to learn more. That is the exciting part of music and the arts. You have to be very creative. Yes, I get to create with things I already know. Yet, it is important to be inspired by that and create what I don’t know.
I consider music and rhythms. I can come to the kitchen or even the garage and hear something. The first thing I think is, “What would this sound like if I recorded it?” So, I am always inspired to do more! I am finding my rhythm through everyday life.
The Knockturnal: You have collaborated with innumerable legends like Whitney Houston, Marvin Gaye, Prince, and Beyoncé. Can you share a unique behind the scenes moment alongside an artist that you found to be empowering?
Sheila E.: One of the first experiences would have to be rehearsals with Marvin Gaye. At that moment, it would be me thinking about how — I was a little girl growing up, listening to his music — and just how much I loved him as an artist. You then realize, “Oh, my God! I am in this room with the same man I listened to growing up on the radio.”
When I was watching him on the television, it was like, “Wow!” And then [the emotion became] just not believing it. Dreams do come true. Soon, we got to go out on the first tour. Again, I was just in awe. Like, I can’t believe that I am here playing with Marvin Gaye.
One of the first songs I learned was, “What’s Going On.” To play that beat with him and the band, then watch him [felt surreal]. I forgot to begin because I was such a fan. There were a few times that my brother nudged me. He said, “Hey! You’re going to miss your cue.” I was sitting there in wonder, watching him. I forgot I was in the band. Yes, those were those inspiring moments. It was like, “Wow! I can’t believe it.”
The Knockturnal: Your memoir The Beat Of My Own Drum says you went “from pain to purpose.” In what ways do you find this to resonate true?
Sheila E.: The things I went through painful growing up were being raped and molested when I was very young. This occurred at five years old. That brought me to a place of being afraid. It changed my life.
Basically, your childhood is taken away from you, through that pain [my healing continued while] finding my way with music. Later on, I learned God had given me the gift. That is when you find your purpose. You simply know it. That is your passion! I lived through that pain, and I would never change anything. I realized how amazing God is.
The things that I went through let me know that if I spoke about him — if God would get me thought it — I would never stop talking about him. So, I am grateful for the gift of music that he has given me. And it is not for me. Music is to share throughout the world.
The Knockturnal: Thank you for your vulnerability. We appreciate your transparency for other women and readers.
Sheila E.: Yes.
The Knockturnal: You celebrated the anniversary of your ’84 debut solo album, The Glamorous Life. The title-track had a two-week run in the top spot on the Dance Club Songs chart. How dreamlike was that?
Sheila E.: I keep forgetting it has been that long. I do not feel that old. [Laughs] It is so interesting to think, “Wow, 1984! That was a long time ago.” I really can’t explain it.
For me, it feels like no separation. I think it is a good thing. Again, I am grateful to be able to celebrate that. I am in the business that I love so much, regardless of the changes going through the music industry itself.
Yes, things have developed musically and businesswise. It is a blessing to do what I love to do and still play that song like it was yesterday. I love that [track] as much as I did when I first recorded it. It is still pretty awesome.
The Knockturnal: Following that success, what was your experience like filming Krush Groove near Def Jam Recordings in ’85? It is the film’s 35th anniversary. Describe that transition.
Sheila E.: I felt that if I was lip-synching [my transition would be smooth]. When you are doing a music video, you are basically filming your lyrics and what you perform on a song. You try to bring that to life. I thought, “Okay. We wrote a few songs for the movie.” We wanted to film the song “Holly Rock,” but “A Love Bizarre” was asked to be put in the movie.
I thought, “Oh, it is not a big deal to sing the song, ‘A Love Bizarre.’ We can reenact that song. That would be easy. Yeah, doing the song, ‘Holly Rock,’ would be straightforward as well.” They told me, “We want you to be one of the actresses in the movie. So, we do not want you just to come and perform songs. We would like you to act in Krush Groove.”
The team brought Blair Underwood and I together to see what our chemistry was like on-screen. The transition was interesting. I am trying to help the readers understand. When I write my own lyrics, I can remember most of them. [Laughs] It is easier to tell the story that way.
However, when you read something else that someone has written, you have to take that in. I had to say, “Wait! How do I remember this? How do I bring this person to life? This is not me.”
The Knockturnal: You are presenting a different character.
Sheila E.: Yeah. How does that work? I had never taken acting classes before. But I asked a few friends who were in the business to help me understand [through lessons]. I went in there, thinking, “No big deal.” I was stepping into something I was not familiar with, and I usually am.
Even so, I talk about it all the time. I say, “Please be prepared before you walk into a situation.” So, I was reading the lines. Everything was good. But it was interesting because I was so nervous.
It was sensitive in a different way, though. I am [usually] excited about playing music, but I am familiar with what I am about to do. Yes, that transition to acting was a little bit challenging for me.
The Knockturnal: You were in several films following. Watching Krush Groove as a fan, I would not assume that it was a challenge for you.
Sheila E.: Oh, I am glad to hear that. [Laughs]
The Knockturnal: I read your memoir. As an Afro-Latina, you have endured your fair share of opposition ahead of breaking the glass ceiling. What advice do you have for women who feel a calling in their life but are up against difficult odds?
Sheila E.: I tell you this. As women, we were always going to be up against the wall with something… because we are women. We are strong. Our voices matter. Now women say what we should say, and that is exactly what we feel.
Women deserve to be allowed to be vocal. We should be respected! I want everyone to be true to who they are. At the same time, I feel so many of us have been called outside of our name. Ugh! It is so disrespectful.
We shouldn’t do that. Women should lift each other in sisterhood. As women, we know there is ordinarily something that we have to fight through. Collectively, we encounter many obstacles, but this begins even with birth. I do not think men could birth a child.
I do not think they could stand the pain. [Laughs] I do not think there would be this many people in the world. You know? I hear men say it all the time. Men get a hangnail, and they cry. [Laughs] So, women, remember, we are a gift. A gift!
The Knockturnal: What was your favorite thing about filming your “Sheila E. Teaches Drumming and Percussion” MasterClass lessons?
Sheila E.: My favorite thing about this project’s filming was that MasterClass was one of the things on my bucket list. [Laughs] I talk about writing aspirations down often. My bucket list is extensive. I got to check it off!
Some goals I totally forget about, then I look at the bucket list periodically. I say to myself, “Wait! I can tackle this now.” MasterClass has long-time been [in mind] since it first came out. I kept thinking, “I know I can teach. If they just provided me the opportunity to do so.” And then it happened! I cried and cried.
The best moment about MasterClass was when I first started speaking. We drove up to the studio. The whole block was taken up by trucks. It looked as if they were shooting a movie. I asked, “What else are they filming here?” The crew told me, “No, we are shooting you. These people are here for your MasterClass.” I could not even believe it.
The Knockturnal: You manifested it, Miss E.
Sheila E.: Exactly! Again, when I walked into the room, I just could not believe it. I sat down at MasterClass. It became that feeling of, “I am going to cry!” I knew I could do it, but now everyone was there.
It’s like, “Here is my opportunity. It is happening! MasterClass is me manifesting again. You know, you have to watch out for what you want to do. When you pray for it — when you write it down — when it comes to fruition, you gotta be ready.
The Knockturnal: The moment was a long preparation meeting an opportunity.
Sheila E.: Absolutely.
The Knockturnal: You had an Emmy nomination for ‘Outstanding Music Direction – 2020’ for your role as Music Director with Let’s Go Crazy, The Grammy Salute To Prince. How were you feeling ahead of such a momentous evening?
Sheila E.: This is my second nomination for an Emmy. I am very grateful — because to be recognized by your peers, by the people, and for your work is awesome. Everyone involved worked truly hard ahead of The Grammy Salute To Prince. That moment was worth all of the struggle, trials, and tribulation. There is a lot attached to that performance emotionally. I’m thankful for the nomination alongside all the talent.
The Knockturnal: How was it working with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis again ahead of Prince’s medley?
Sheila E.: They are funny. [Laughs] I have known them most of my life. I do not even know what year we met. Maybe it was eighty-something. Ugh! Perhaps we met in ’82 or ’83 — maybe sooner — but it was somewhere around there.
I believe the first time I met them was on a set. They were filming for the album, Ice Cream Castle, with the group The Time. To watch Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis do that and then become producers was a journey. Then we were finally able to work together. Everyone who was involved in putting this show together for the tribute to Prince did an incredible job. But, yes, Jimmy and Terry, beyond the music, are just good guys. They really are.
The Knockturnal: You come from a musical family. On your MasterClass YouTube reel, you said, “When you know what your passion is, and what your purpose is, and you go for it, no one and nothing can stand in your way.” When did you realize your purpose?
Sheila E.: When I was 15, I realized. I had been playing with a few different groups growing up. From 13 years old on, I was kind of jammin’ it. I played with my dad’s band a couple of times. In this one particular situation, I was playing alongside him in this band called Azteca.
It was an 18-piece band! My father was playing in San Francisco. His other percussion player was sick. I begged him to let me play. He said, “No way! You are just 15. You don’t know anything.” [Laughs] So, I went to my mother. I said, “Mommy, Daddy will not let me play in his band.”
She went and spoke to him. So, I got my way. Exactly! [My father and I] went to the show. There were about 3,000 people in attendance. I was nervous. I did not even know there were going to be that many people. I didn’t even get to rehearse with them. I knew all the music by heart because my dad had recorded it.
We played that album in the house every day. Yes, I knew that whole record, but I did not even go to rehearsals. I showed up at the gig to play, and I did not realize how empowering it was to sit in a situation where you are among your peers and your father. Who gets to do that as much as we did?
The Knockturnal: How did the show go?
Sheila E.: You are sitting in a situation. You are either going to rise to the occasion or fail by not trying. All of a sudden, I sat up in my seat higher. My head was up. My shoulders were back, and I felt strong. I thought, “This is my opportunity to play with the most amazing band I know.” I get to play with my dad!
It just felt so crazy. My dad takes a look at me during one of the songs and says, “Take a solo.” I closed my eyes. I think, “Oh, my God,” and then that was went everything changed. That specific moment changed my life. After that solo, I knew this was my purpose.
Before that moment, I was running track and field. I was an athlete, and I wanted to win a gold medal in the Olympics. My mom was an athlete, so that was all I wanted to do.
During my solo, I tried to cling, but I felt an out of body experience. I felt like I was looking down at myself playing. When I opened my eyes after the solo, I had given it everything that I had. I put it out there — from my fingers to my head — down to my toes.
I used every single piece of me to play that solo! I didn’t feel anyone else in the room. I just went somewhere else. I started shaking as I was playing and crying. I finished and got a standing ovation.
It was nothing like I ever experienced. As mentioned, I competed for most of my life as an athlete. I played on an undefeated women’s soccer team for 5 years. I love competition, and I love winning. I broke records in track and field. I love to be apart of a team. But even with all that, as amazing as it was, that moment changed my life.
I told my pops, “Daddy, I want to go out on tour with you.” He had grabbed me. We started hugging and crying. He was like, “Oh, I can not even deny what you know.” Two weeks later, I went on tour, and I never looked back.
The Knockturnal: That solo made for a one-of-one story. I have to ask the Nuyorican question. Do you have a favorite memory with your godfather Tito Puente?
Sheila E.: Thank you. [Laughs] Yes, I have many. We went to New York City, my dad, and me. I do not know what event we went for, but we met Tito. He knew we were coming, and he was playing at one of the clubs in New York City that everyone played, the Corso.
That establishment must have had five different bands a night. This was when there was a music scene. You could go down any NYC street, and there was music playing. I mean live bands! Back then, they would change sets by going from one club to another.
Tito told my dad, “Meet me at the club.” It was a massive deal for us to be there. My dad and Tito played together all the time, but not with me. It was my opportunity. Also, this was big because it was always East Coast against the West Coast bands.
Traditionally, the well-seasoned claves-playing musicians of the salsa genre were from New York. They would then come through Miami, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The West Coast was a little bit different then. We were more lenient about what the claves’ rhythm was like for those who do not know it.
The Knockturnal: How so?
Sheila E.: More specifically, that percussion is like your clock. There are ways of playing to that clock. Again, Tito asking us to [perform] was cool. He was playing the timbales. I played the timbales, congas, and bongos. So, did my pops. We just traded off on stage. Formally, we did not know how to play the claves. Still, it did not matter.
Tito told me, “I don’t care what any of these guys are going to say.” He grabbed me, looked me in the face, and said, “Don’t listen to them. New York always looks mean. They do not care, but they don’t know nothing. You go out there! Come to play with me. Don’t worry about it.” [Laughs]
The Knockturnal: He believed in you.
Sheila E.: Yes, because Tito and my dad had known one another since [my father was in his] teens. Growing up, I would see Tito in the house. Nonetheless, playing with Tito Puente’s band in New York was a moment my dad and I will never forget. Yeah, we all played at the Corso. That was it! That was one for the books.
The Knockturnal: You have already left such a tremendous mark on the world, and you are still working. How do you wish to be remembered?
Sheila E.: I think I want to be remembered as someone who gave back to the community. You know? I am someone who cares about the culture. I fought for the rights of the people. My only job is to bless one person every single day. So, if someone has been touched by what I have done, then I have done my job.
Find Sheila E’s masterclass here!
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