Selah Poitier '16 Perseveres through Trials into Breakthrough Success

By 
Belinda Huang
August 8, 2016
Selah Poitier '16
Selah Poitier plays at the ICA as part of Berklee's Summer in the City concert series.
Selah Poitier '16
Poitier plays at the Institute of Contemporary Art-Boston as part of Berklee's Summer in the City concert series.
Photo by Belinda Huang

On a balmy summer evening set against the backdrop of the Boston harbor, Selah Poitier '16 delivered a combination of genres from modern jazz and gospel to hip-hop, reggae, and traditional Bahamian music, to the docks of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). Throughout the two-hour set, she entertained and engaged the crowd with her energetic, grooving original songs, as well as some renditions of tunes by other artists.

The audience responded, clapping and singing along at times throughout the performance, which was part of Berklee's free Summer in the City concert series.

Hear other talented Berklee student musicians perform in the area through the Summer in the City concert series.

Given her natural charisma, it’s no wonder that the Bahamian bassist, vocalist, composer, and songwriter has connected with so many through her music.

A Breakthrough Performance

That connection took flight with Poitier's original song, "I've Learned to Love Me," which has garnered more than 100,000 views on YouTube since it was released in December. The engaging performance has drawn praise from the likes of Berklee professor and Grammy-winning drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, Berklee President Roger H. Brown, and Grammy Award-winner Dianne Reeves H'03.

Watch the video for “I’ve Learned to Love Me” by Poitier:

“We practiced it in one rehearsal,” Poitier says of the song and the video. “I actually felt really insecure about it because I didn’t get to overdub—I actually cried. But those positive reactions I got helped to push me to realize that being as real as possible actually does matter. Sometimes that resonates with people a lot more because they can feel the realness.”

Beyond the video and the song, however, Poitier’s story is a testament to her courage, resilience, and faith.

Pushing for Authenticity

At Berklee, Poitier majored in bass performance, finishing her degree in just two years by taking on extra classes and studying straight through the summers. An obligation to her family and her son drove her to finish her education as fast as possible, but even getting to Berklee was a challenge in itself.

“I was supposed to audition in Florida, but the first time I didn’t raise enough money to go,” Poitier says. “The second time, I finally did raise enough money to come, but when I was boarding the flight, the pilot literally came off and said, ‘You’re not coming on this plane with that bass,’ and I watched him close the door on me. I missed my audition, and I sat in the airport and cried the whole day.”

Poitier didn’t give up, and she was accepted to Berklee after her third audition attempt, two years after her first try. She was intent on learning jazz on upright bass because of the lack of jazz programs, teachers, and resources in the Bahamas.

“Berklee was tough for me because I didn’t have any background in jazz and I had horrible technique,” Poitier says. “My teacher would call me ‘frog hands’ because my hands would jump all over the bass,” she said.

Despite these initial obstacles, Poitier was able to mature at an accelerated rate by pushing herself, and during that process, she learned that, both as a musician and as a human being, “we should strive to be our most authentic self, not to try to sound like everybody else or impress everybody,” Poitier says. “You want people to feel your music, and the most important thing is for them to be able to identify. They want to feel you for who you are and hear you speak to them in your own way.”

Persevering through the Storm

That transparency clearly translated through her music both at the Summer in the City shows and her breakthrough video. Just as her path was marked with challenges prior to Berklee and throughout her time here, Poitier explained that everything was going wrong for her before the video started seeing success.

“It was crazy because I was getting evicted and I lost my job,” Poitier says. “I was calling my mom and she said that I had to stay in the U.S. The last thing she said before I hung up was, ‘You should know, before every breakthrough, what happens? Everything goes wrong. There’s a huge storm, and you feel like you want to give up. How do you expect God to come through for you if you don’t ask him?’”

After that phone call, Poitier said she prayed and shortly after that, the calls started coming in about her video. She is now working towards recording her music through a management/production deal she secured, while continuing to perform in the Boston area. Through her faith and perseverance, Poitier has now begun to gain traction and forge her dreams into reality, making every sacrifice she has made along the way worthwhile.