Joseph Hellon: Fighting His Past Demons

Joseph Hellon, a saxophonist
Joseph Hellon, a saxophonist. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

Once in a while, a man will do something extraordinary with what is placed in his hands; a revolution in Nelson Mandela’s fists; a guitar in Luambo Makiadi’s hands and then there are some like El Anatsui whose hands keep birthing art. There was the legendary Hugh Masekela creating magic with his puffed cheeks, and then there is Joseph Hellon in whose hands was placed a saxophone when he was in high school. The poor village boy who grew up blowing fire in the hearth breathed both fame, success and controversy through this instrument. Everybody remembers the circus that involved him almost a decade ago. He has since licked his wounds, grown his musical school, started a ministry in Uganda. He met JACKSON BIKO in his house for a chat, the soundtrack of his three-year-old daughter, Misgab, playing a grand piano downstairs.


What do you think is the biggest misconception people have of you?

People think I was born in a rich family. I've never appeared anywhere as a poor person, so they think I'm this spoilt child out there causing trouble. I was born in abject poverty. I walked barefoot. We showered once a week, because we had to travel long distances to fetch water from the river. The water was for drinking and for cooking. If you poured it on your body, that was wastage. I joined Starehe Boys under a full sponsorship. I already loved music from childhood and it’s there that I saw the saxophone for the first time, I picked it up and I started learning it. I learnt many other musical instruments. By the time I was leaving Starehe, I was already some form of celebrity because of music. Then I started making money. I guess my riches came from that.

When you say rich, because rich is relative, what’s your definition of rich?

Rich is having enough for yourself and enough to give away. It means you eat well, sleep well but you can also help somebody who's in need, that's a rich person.

What is it about the saxophone that agreed with your spirit?

(Chuckles) It’s not a spirit. It’s called practice. If you take anything on this earth, even something wrong, and you practice it really well, it becomes an extension of yourself, it becomes your voice. The first time I saw the saxophone, I asked my music teacher, ‘what is this instrument and can I learn to play it?” I started practising and practising and practising to the extent that when I played it, it communicated exactly what I wanted to communicate.

Almost everybody I’ve read about with a unique talent or skill has beasts that they have to battle with. What’s your beast?

(Laughs) My biggest beast in the past was fear. I was afraid of what people would say about me, what they'd think about me. I was afraid of new experiences, darkness, death … I hated night because of the darkness, I would sleep with my lights on. I was afraid of people's opinion. I always wanted people to like me, so if you disagreed with me that really scared me. So I decided to face and slay the beast. I decided to live my life without an apology. I decided to make choices in life, choices for myself not for people. I conquered fear by asking myself; 'what is this thing that is in the darkness that can kill me?' So I began to read about fear and learnt that if something is potent and present, then fear it. For example, if a dog is present and it has teeth, it has potential to bite, then it's healthy to fear it. So I began to classify the fears as either healthy or unhealthy, rational or irrational.

Are there moments that you see yourself as a genius?

All human beings are born geniuses in one form or the other, but not all of them manifest the genius. Some people never develop their genius.

Do you think if you would have picked a paint brush you would been as good with it as you are with a saxophone?

Yes. Because the nature of a human being is this, whatsoever you take seriously, takes you seriously, even if it's something wrong. How do people rob banks? It takes a genius to rob a bank. That's a genius using their ingenuity the wrong way. It’s about practice. By the way, if I were to pick it up now, and give myself two years of practice, I would emerge a genius.

You feared people would not like you, did that stem from something in your past or present?

(Pause) Interestingly, there are so many people like me. Everybody who is a leader or successful will have friends and foes. Sometimes in equal measure. So why was it that I was afraid of not being liked? Because I grew up in a society where people were ironical, sometimes sarcastic and most of the times out-right malicious. I'm small bodied, some people had a problem with that. 'Look at this small thing', they'd say. So I thought they didn’t like me because of my size and also because I’m dark. I thought that someone had to be light-skinned to be good looking.

Some of these things land deeply into people's psyche and hearts. And they start forming that person's behavioural patterns.

Being teased and bullied made me feel like I was not a likeable person. Yet I was always number one in class and the teacher’s favourite. I realised in retrospect that it was envy.

The saxophone gave me confidence because I became very good at it and it drew people, it gave me reaffirmation. When you excel at anything you are faced with two paths; pride because you're the best, or gratitude because you're grateful that you're the best. Now, I didn't have anyone to train me on the two paths, so I took pride.

Did you realise that you had become too proud?

I didn’t. You don't know until people tell you. I just thought I'm very good at what I do and everybody who told me I wasn't was a liar. Most outstanding people have that element of pride and ego. Soon I noticed that there was resentment building against me. (Chuckles) So I quickly started studying myself. I began to read books again. How do I interact with people? How do I appeal to people? How do I make friends with people? I discovered that I was an achiever who had not been mentored. I got the skills but I did not get mentorship. So I started looking for mentorship. The Bible helped me, I picked from Jesus’ humility.

But I think my biggest wake up call came in 2010, when suddenly the entire nation seemed to turn against me. It came as a shock because I was making money, I was happily married, music was shooting up, life was good, then wham, things turned drastically. People started calling me a cult leader. I was accused of a number of crazy things. I even got arrested in the process like a criminal. And that was a turn around for me.

Your church, Finger of God, and the Placenta Party, was it a form of a highbred irony that we all missed?

Good question. Finger of God is actually a Biblical name, an epithet, another name for the Holy Spirit. So when we named our church Finger of God, we were naming it the Holy Spirit. I didn’t want to use the normal terminologies because I don’t do common very well.

Is the church still there?

Yes. Now we call it New Creation Realities. I’m a preacher there.

How did your marriage survive that sort of drama?

Well, what we were going through was mostly spiritual and economic. It was not domestic neither was it marital. (Chuckles) Spirituality wasn't affected, because the Bible promises us that we shall be persecuted. So economically yes, we've suffered a few millions but we were not brought down to our knees.