Soul Song

Jennifer Msumba Draws From Her Autism to Create Messages of Hope

Jennifer Msumba self-produced and released her first album "Music Saved Me," during the pandemic.

By Allison Forsyth November 1, 2020 Published in the November-December 2020 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Jennifer Msumba

Jennifer Msumba

Image: Joe Lipstein

For 44-year-old Jennifer Msumba, music has always been a rhythm beating deep inside her soul, waiting for a chance to express itself. From a young age, Msumba would sight read music and play the piano by ear, learning classical music pieces heard from her family's record player spinning in her childhood home. By the time Msumba was in third grade, she began violin lessons, and learned there was something different about her. She was an extremely talented musician, who also happened to be diagnosed with autism.

The road to Msumba's current life, living in a supportive facility for disabled people, surrounded by her musical equipment, was not without obstacles. Msumba had a hard time relating to other people, managing her emotions and finding ways to express herself. She was moved to several residential homes and state hospitals before she found a good fit here in Florida. She took solace in playing music, and after meeting with her church's worship leader one day, for whom Msumba plays the piano on weekends, she had the idea to begin writing songs to describe how she was feeling.

"I wrote my first song five years ago," says Msumba. "I was in bed, ready to fall asleep, and the words just came to me, so I wrote it down. It was really exciting." From there, Msumba bought her own microphone and downloaded software on her computer to create her own recording studio. 

"I ended up writing a lot of songs during quarantine this year," says Msumba. "I knew someday I'd make it to a recording studio, but thought, 'Why don't I just do it myself first?'" Msumba learned how to record and produce songs by watching YouTube videos, and during the course of the months-long Covid-19 lockdown at her facility, created her first album called "Music Saved Me." 

"The first song I wrote for the album is called 'Finally Home,' which is about my life growing up and how difficult it was," says Msumba. "I improved my guitar skills for this album as well, learning chords and melodies and putting words to them." Other songs like "The Fish Don't Care When it Rains," are fun, light-hearted pieces to get listeners happy.  

Msumba at the piano

Msumba at the piano

Image: Joe Lipstein

"Music Saved Me," a 10-song album, was released on July 11 of this year, which Msumba still finds surreal. She receives comments and positive reactions from people all over the world, describing how they can relate to her lyrics. She has also received positive feedback on the album through her YouTube videos, which she posts to two different channels called "Jen Msumba Music," created in 2014, where she posted a new song cover each day for one year, and "Rebranding Autism," created in 2017, where she talks about her daily life and challenges she's overcome with autism. These channels, one of which has more than 30,000 subscribers, help Msumba share her positive message with the world.

"I am a very optimistic person, and I want people to feel that optimism when they hear my music," says Msumba. "Things are going to happen in life that will bring you down, maybe even for years, like me, but you can come out the other side. My mom always says, 'Morning does come,' whenever I'm feeling sad or anxious. There will always be a new day to start again." 

Despite Msumba's autism, she has found ways to work with her disability and use it to her advantage when writing music. She finds that she hears things differently than most people, and has a unique perspective on life that others might not have. "I pick up on small details when I listen to music, whether that's lyrical or melody changes, and I choose to highlight those details in my own music," says Msumba.

Msumba also finds her music's content to be different than that of the mainstream. "My life has gone differently than most people my age," she says. "But I've tried to make all my songs relatable, whether I'm talking about an emotional struggle due to autism or not." 

For example, Msumba's song "Beautiful Love," is intended as a love song, but she knew it would be inauthentic to write about a relationship she's never experienced. So she wrote the song about her dog who had recently passed away, and exchanged words for pronouns so that people could relate easily. "The song can turn out to mean whatever love you want," says Msumba. 

Creating music has helped Msumba's conversational and social skills, and filming and editing YouTube videos allows her to practice becoming more animated in her facial features and gestures, a common struggle for those with autism. She has become more expressive and learned to read the expressions of others' faces while editing. "It still doesn't come naturally, but I'm able to practice," says Msumba.

She has also made friends with a shared love of music, through her church band and while learning at the Music Compound, a Sarasota music school where Msumba has been a student for five years.  

"It's easier to make friends when we all love the same thing," she adds. 

This Friday, Sept. 18, Msumba will perform live with the Music Compound, performing four original songs. Monthly performances are hosted by the school, complete with professional lighting and equipment, and will be live streamed on the school's Facebook page. Several other adult and high school students will also be sharing original music.   

As for the future, Msumba already has plans for another album, and wishes to collaborate with musicians and form a small band to perform at local events.

"Music has always been the base in me. It's like I've always had a rhythm beating in my heart," says Msumba. "It's a part of me that God gave, to share with other people and communicate with the world." 

The Music Compound will live-stream Msumba's performance on Friday, Sept. 18, at 6 p.m. on the school's Facebook page. 

Msumba's album "Music Saved Me," is now on Spotify, Soundcloud and Amazon. 

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