Updated: September 30, 2013 7:44AM
Invincible. To poverty and brokenness, dysfunction and hardship. Invincible to the elements of life that can work like poison on a little boy growing up on the other side of the tracks.
Out of his musical inclinations as that little boy, Felton Offard remembers slapping beats on a playground sliding board in Freeport, Ill., a small city known as home of the pretzel.
As a child, Offard graduated to making beats on stacks of boxes and eventually to a set of drums, then to a clarinet by the fifth grade, though it was subsequently stolen.
Now, 47, Offard remembers like yesterday walking home tearfully past his high school’s band at practice in a field longingly. His family had been unable to afford to replace his stolen clarinet. Feeding a family and paying bills with barely enough was a higher priority — even if music has proven to be a lifeline, a way out — up — for some.
Hard times, generational curses, more prospects for failure than for success is the kind of toxic brew I have witnessed swallow young lives. For Offard, too, it is keenly familiar.
“I’m the first cat in three generations in my family that hadn’t been in jail,” Offard, a Chicago-based guitarist/composer I met through a mutual friend about 10 years ago, told me recently. He explained that his grandfather, father and brother had all served time.
But for Offard, much of the difference came down to making different choices.
He chose to persevere — determined to make a good life, to rise above poverty and circumstance, to fulfill a destiny beyond prison and brokenness. Destined to write the tracks of his life that might someday be the music of hope for others, he picked up his brother’s guitar as a teenager and began teaching himself to play — later studying music and earning a master’s degree at Northern Illinois University.
Today he has toured in several Broadway shows and frequently accompanies Chicago pit orchestras. He has produced two albums and teaches at Chicago State University.
Offard’s story is an American tale and his life’s song a message of hope for any kid — black, white or brown, urban or rural. It is proof that, given the right instrument, any kid can make it. It is a much-needed message in a day when heroes and role models twinkle like distant stars, and making it “rich” appears to be the ultimate goal.
“Honestly, God kept me,” Offard, married with children, told me, recounting a life too often absent of a father’s good guidance.
“My heroes because of how my father was, always had to be big, like Medgar Evers, Dr. King and Malcolm X . . .”
He added, “I didn’t want to bring shame to my people either.” Especially his mother whose sacrifices and love he celebrates in a song titled “I Love You Mama” on his latest album recently released.
It is an album, in my humble opinion, filled with deep richness, one that echoes his Pentecostal Gospel roots, his allegiance to soul, jazz, funk and even Latin music, and his fluidity and precision as a seasoned guitarist and gifted composer with moving stories to tell through song.
The album is perhaps appropriately titled for a small-town poor kid determined to live on the rich side of life. He calls it, “Invincible.”