A recent article in the Daily News sparked a lot of local interest in Tommy Hillard of Estherville who is embarking on a career in music. So here's more about Tommy.
When Timmy Hillard was seven, his father was murdered. His mother, whom Tommy feels to this day has still not grown up, was not able to care for him. Not that he didn't love his mother now. Or then. But his grandparents with their traditional values seemed much better equipped for the job.
And that's how Tommy Hillard joined the Blandin family.
It was only natural as he grew older that he would need to express himself - and his experiences - through his music. It was in middle school and high school when he started, just trying to get his thoughts out. His feelings out. Maybe even his anger out. Like so many young Black men of his time, and before and after, Tommy felt as though he were in a deep hole, a well, even, looking toward the top. Looking for help. Looking for light.
That anger and love - sometimes both - turned up in his music.
"What would we sound like if we could get our voices through our speakers" was what Tommy, his brother James Reeves and cousin Akeem Blandin thought. The three have been collaborating for a number of years now, and their music is just beginning to emerge on the public stage as an expression of their past and hopes for the future.
That doesn't really describe how long Tommy, James and Akeem have been doing their music though. For Tommy, it's been since 1995 - in middle school and later high school. All the time, taking that anger and frustration and turning it into a message.
When he came to Iowa and Montana, Tommy felt that the message of his message was hitting a brick wall.
"People didn't have a grasp about what was going on in our neighborhood," Tommy said of his home in Florida. "We have the same feelings that you guys have."
That brings to mind how those feelings are translated through music. And Tommy might agree when some people question why there's been a "lapse" in great music.
"It's about money," Tommy surmises. "Nine times out of ten it's going to be the artist that has money" that's going to be promoted, and not someone who's going to help his fellow man. "Having a pocket of money does not determine the character of a man" though, Tommy figures.
Tommy has nothing but sheer admiration for his grandfather and grandmother and what they went through to raise him and the rest of the family.
"I have a great respect for the old way of life," says Tommy. "My grandfather didn't know how to read but he was a very intellectual person."
"They fed 13 kids off of $25 a week," Tommy says. "Determination is what they told us. Stay focused."
It wasn't all work, though. The Blandin family even had a gospel band - The Golden Echoes. That could very well be why Tommy's own music is tinged with a strong reverence for humanity and God.
Tommy speaks of his grandmother with reverence too - as though she were someone holy - because to him, she was.
"She weighed everything," says Tommy. If he got in trouble in school, his grandmother would ask for his version before she would render her verdict - because that's the one that really mattered, not the principal's.
"My grandmother taught me that there are two sides to every story. As a kid, as a teenager, as an adult, you're going to make mistakes. But God gave me free will."
When Tommy really thinks about it, he asks himself a question about his music, "Do you love it enough that you would do it for free?" The answer always is yes.
And that leads to what brought their band together, what solidifies it and what will likely keep them together.
"We did it because we had a story to tell," says Tommy.
His grandmother taught him too that there will be consequences if a person doesn't follow God's rules.
Tommy tries to do just that in his music.
"These are the things that people don't think about," he says, thinking of an adage of Malcolm X, "You survive by any means necessary."
"Our music is based on the same exact thing. You might not like it. But you going to hear the truth in it."
In his music Tommy asks people to stop judging and open their eyes to see what's going on in the world - what's really going on.
When Tommy's grandmother died, he bounced from foster home to foster home. Like a lot of foster kids who grow out of the system, he found himself on the streets. Homeless. Hungry. Alone. Fortunately, he and his brother and cousin had a common bond holding them together, surviving together. And that bond was their music.
They would wake up each morning and pool their change. Maybe enough to go buy a few Little Debbie cakes. Maybe even enough to go buy a spiral notebook to write down some lyrics. That didn't matter, though. Often they wrote them down on cardboard. They survived, though, probably because of the values their grandparents instilled within them spurring them on.
As a parent, Tommy today feels the duty to hand down a lot of those same values that his grandparents handed to him. And one of those core values is to encourage a child to dream.
"If you have a child that has a dream, help that child to realize that dream," says Tommy. "It's about doing something positive in this life. We do it to leave a positive legacy when we're no longer here. If I feel that I'm doing the right things, that's what I'm going to do."
Listed on Facebook under Tommy Blandin, taking his maternal grandparents' name, Tommy also has a page at www.reverbnation.com/yungtizzle01. He's had hits on his Reverb page from as far away as England. People in foreign countries are hearing our music," he says. It's that sort of feedback that fuels the group. "When you have that kind of motivation, I don't think anything is going to stop you."
Tommy notes an absence though of any materialistic echoes in their lyrics. "You're going to hear the reality in our music," he says. "Life is not easy. Life was never meant to be easy."
He hopes the group can change society through their music. A song they're working on now, "Judgmental", tries to do just that. And, while their music is frank, it's far from hopeless.
"There are certain things you aren't going to hear in our music because I wasn't brought up that way. Respect is not something that gives. It's something that's earned. If you give me respect, I'll give you respect," Tommy says. "Every day, the simple values in life are still there."
It would probably be safe to say that every song Tommy, James and Akeem write is in a way an homage to Tommy's grandmother and grandfather, Mary Louise Blandin and Nathaniel Blandin. It's the memories the band has of them that temper and mollify the very real anger they so justifiably felt growing up in a world plagued with racism, and for them, poverty.
Maybe that's why Tommy believes young people facing similar circumstances that he experienced need people like him to find a way to emerge from their hopelessness.
"If God's taking me through this, he's taking me through this for a reason."