by Christy Rodriquez de Conte
Lili Forbes strums new paths through music education and her unique Caribbean beat. Forbes is taking the stage as part of the 2nd Annual Black History Arts and Culture Festival on Feb. 10 at the Grove Museum.
The festival will also feature Ayoka Afrikan Drum and Dance, artist Kenneth Reshard and the Lee Boys.
In 1995 Hurricane Luis, a category 4 hurricane, tore through the island of Saint Maarten with 120 to 130-mile-an-hour winds destroying thousands of homes and uprooting countless lives. At 16, musician and educator Lili Forbes left her home and culture of St. Maarten with her siblings to the Caribbean Isle of Curaçao. There, with her family’s past love and practice for music combined with a solid musical education, Forbes was able to transform her life and find power in her music.
Forbes comes from a family of musicians and singers. Her mother took notice of Lili’s musical ability and eventually introduced her and her twin sister, Ilinita, to the church choir. It was there where she sharpened her ear. By the age of 12, she was part of the senior chorus. By November of 1995, she and Ilinita created The Johnson Sisters, later to be changed to the clever nod to the French word for twin, Jumelle, released a globally successful album, “Believe in a Better Day.”
Forbes describes how popular the album became around the Caribbean. “When we moved to Curaçao, we had a full career in music. We used to travel throughout the Caribbean [and] certain parts of the United States as teenagers. So music was really a big role,” says Forbes.
She lovingly recalls her music teachers who took an interest and made sure they were exposed to all kinds of music and instruments, so much so that many a recess involved all the students joyously playing their instruments outside. No doubt a pedagogical value Forbes has carried with her.
This global perspective has immensely influenced their latest album, “Created to Worship,” which combines genres like contemporary Gospel with Soca, Dancehall, Celtic, and Alternative music, all intending to bridge religious and cultural barriers through music.
For almost 25 years, Tallahassee and St. Maarten have remained sister cities providing a vital cross-cultural conversation between St. Maarten students and Florida State University, Florida A&M University, and Tallahassee Community College. In 2001, Forbes took advantage of this program to pursue a Master’s in Music Education through FAMU with the support of the presidential scholarship.
“FAMU really brought out all that musical [essence that] is in my brain. I was exposed to yet another form of music and appreciation for the African diaspora, African American style of music. And to be able to incorporate that now in my writing, it really changed and enhanced my writing and musical styles, [including] learning classical music and singing in multiple languages in the concert choir.”
Forbes took knowledge of guitar, piano, woodwinds and percussion, along with the tools she gained at FAMU, and returned to St. Maarten for a time, where she taught music in elementary, middle, and high school. Her unconventional practice of meeting students where they were and using music as the guiding principle to teaching lessons from math to history was well received.
Eventually, it made its way back to the States when Forbes returned to Tallahassee. Forbes shares, “I was teaching my students to read music while they were also learning how to subtract and divide. And everything lined up, and music was the source for it.”
For her artistry and vocal health, Lili Forbes left the classroom in 2016. However, she does not intend to stop using music to educate. “Whenever we script a show, it’s always with the concept in mind that we are going to teach our audience and bring them into this world where when they go away from it. They are not just listening to Aretha Franklin but know where she came from and how she impacted the music community.”
Most recently, Forbes has joined forces with Javacya Arts Conservatory’s founder Patrice Floyd to produce the 2022-2023 Arts-in-the-Heart Concert Series. The series will take the audience on a musical journey through music and culture. Forbes is delighted to share her featured original work, “Wave of Sound,” which highlights the story of sound as told by different voices and perspectives.
Community members can see her take to the stage and perform on Feb. 10 at the Black History Arts and Culture Festival. Forbes hopes that her whimsical lullaby, as well as many other moving classical works, will bring joy to audiences and expose them to music written and composed by Black artists.
Read the article on the Tallahassee Democrat.