Gina Williams' passion for music is too strong to be defined by just one genre or confined to one format. The Canadian-American artist is a composer, pianist, vocalist and producer (as well as television and film actor). She's released original albums in styles including gospel, rock, classical and pop, and she'll share her musical gifts and uplifting message with locals when she returns to the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts for a concert on May 15.
The self-described "musical empath" said her music "stems from the desire to communicate with people, to relate to people." And when she feels called in an artistic direction, she follows that call. As the slogan on the merchandise offered from her online shop reads, "My favorite genre is music."
Remarkably, Williams said her songs and scores come to her fully formed and orchestrated, and she remembers every piece.
"I've been hearing finished music in my head since I was 4. It's like someone turns on a radio in my head," she said, reflecting on the gift she credits to divine inspiration. "It blows me away. It's really surreal."
According to her mother, Williams was singing before she could talk. Growing up the daughter of West Indian parents in Edmonton, Alberta, she sang in church and started piano lessons around age 8. Her family couldn't afford a piano of their own at first, so for several years she practiced by tapping her fingers on the windowsill.
While she always found joy in music, she struggled to fit in and was the victim of racism, she said, recalling a painful early memory of being called a racial slur.
"If there's a sport you did by yourself, I did it. I'd play hopscotch with my shadow. I'd sit by the wall and cry all recess. I was bullied and picked on," she said. For much of her life she felt she had to downplay her musical abilities, wary of being called a "genius" out of fears of being further ostracized.
"I didn't want people to know what I could do. If you do something that a lot of people don't do, people put a spin on it and assume that you're cocky, that you're ostentatious," she said. "The judgments are always so damning."
But her love of and talent for music of all kinds couldn't be suppressed, and she's always chafed against the idea that, "if you don't pick a label, you're not a serious artist." She earned a master's degree in piano, and her resume includes being commissioned to write Grenada's 25th independence anniversary anthem ("Glory") in 1999 and winning the 2019 Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies international Call for Scores competition with "Reverence," the closing song on her 2017 album "Olympiad." (Her side career in acting, including films and TV shows, came as a surprise, dating back to a gift certificate for acting lessons she earned by winning a vocal competition.)
While she's released multiple albums over the years, it was the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the civil unrest that followed that inspired her to put aside once and for all any concerns about trying to conform to the established notions of what she as an artist should be.
"The big thing for me with George Floyd is, this is a man who wasn't fighting back; he was trying to comply. I saw myself in him," she said. "People have said my art is like a giant, and I tried to comply, to make everyone feel safe, or whatever. I just need to be myself."
With that in mind, last year she boldly released five albums in five different genres (classical, gospel/folk, Caribbean pop, Electronic Dance Music, and rock) and currently maintains five YouTube channels ("for now," she said with a laugh, plotting future projects). "These are my children," she said of her varied musical endeavors. "Who can tell you who I like more? I can't pick what child I like better!"
Not being tied to a label gives her the freedom to take on whatever projects she wishes without having to conform to one expected brand or image. However, being fully independent also means a lot of hard work and 16-hour days, balancing the business and booking duties with the artistic ones.
"I have to divide my days between Gina the singer, Gina the pianist, Gina the composer ..." she said.
Her work has global reach. She's written and/or performed in 12 different languages and toured internationally, and she's developed especially close ties to Ukraine over the course of her life, thanks largely to the influence of a close family friend who became her adopted grandmother. From their relationship she gained not only a deep appreciation of Ukrainian culture and language, but also a lesson about love, trust and an open heart transcending racial or cultural barriers. When her grandmother first offered to teach her Ukrainian, Williams was hesitant.
"I was rejecting her culture the way I felt rejected as a Black kid," she recalled. But the elder woman's steadfast embrace of her made her realize the strength of their connection.
"She didn't see my skin, she saw me," she said. "Grandma taught me to not look at people the way I was conditioned to as a kid. She saw the potential."
Williams visited Ukraine in person for the first time in 2017 and has made several return trips, performing many times on Ukrainian national radio and television. In Ukraine, she said, "I'm home. These people really do get me."
With the current conflict in her adopted homeland, Williams wanted to give something back to the country that has meant the world to her.
"This is my family; they've given me so much," she said.
She's donating a portion of the proceeds from her upcoming performance to the humanitarian nonprofit ADRA International and "Front of Ukrainian Artists," a group of professional musicians impacted by the crisis.
Because the Mountain View show will be a solo vocal-and-piano performance, Williams said she'll likely feature mostly selections from her jazz and classical repertoire.
"If you go to one of my shows you're going to sing; you're going to be clapping; I'm going to be making jokes," she said. "It's not, 'sit and look at me all night;' it's a very interactive experience."
As she unapologetically lets her inspiration lead her, Williams hopes her music will continue to reach and resonate with many, and inspire others to follow their passions and be their authentic selves.
"I'm all about building each other up and pushing up as much as possible," she said. "... We can do more than we think we can. I try to model that by example."
Gina Williams performs at 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 15, at the SecondStage, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $30 general admission/$27 for seniors, students, children and veterans. Find more information at mvcpa.com.