The image of rap music has often included violent messages and images – or at least that’s the general stereotype many may have of the genre. In truth, rap styles are as varied as any other musical form, and just as many positive messages are put forth in rap as are negative ones. A perfect example of an upbeat rapper is Ethan Birch, an area artist who has taken his interest in music to a new level and is sharing that gift with residents locally and nationally, with children as his primary focus.
Birch’s own life could provide a full catalog of lyrics, both upbeat and tragic, but he only allows the bright side to shine through. His attitude has a lot to do not only with his growing success but his ability to handle the many challenges life has thrown his way.
Adopted at the age of one, Birch grew up in Columbia City and resides there now, though much of his work brings him to the Summit City almost daily. A graduate of Indiana University, Birch majored in public speaking and minored in psychology. While both of those academic pursuits no doubt come in handy in his current role as motivational speaker and performer, Birch admits now that music was never a vocational consideration during his college days – nor was there any other immediate career plan.
“I was majoring in classes,” he laughs now. “I had no aim, no clue, no direction whatsoever. I just had an idea of working at nickel and dime jobs, maybe trying to find my niche.”
He got on track for that niche early, developing a sales career that revealed his charming personality and quick wit. Birch concedes that his success in sales was fairly dubious at best.
“I was good at sales because I was a good B.S.-er” he says.
It was in a later endeavor, as job recruiter for a local small business college, that he came upon his true calling.
“I’d go out on a recruiting trip at the local high schools, and it allowed me a shot at speaking to people, the teachers and the kids. And soon it became the Ethan Birch show and not about the recruiting at all.”
The seed had been planted when tragedies began to strike the Birch family. First, in 2004, his then 2-year-old son Keithan was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given little chance of survival. Then his older son, Davion, was diagnosed with cancer as well. Needing to raise money to cover mounting medical expenses, Birch knew he needed to find that elusive direction fast.
“Up until then music had just been a hobby, but I wrote a song for my son and used it as a fundraiser. The bills were crazy at that point, but people were moved by the song.”
That song not only helped ease the financial crunch but provided Birch’s combination of music and motivational message a new audience – one which included the national CEO of the Head Start program. With performances at local Head Start schools and then later around the country, Birch was quickly establishing a reputation for his humorous, upbeat, but important message for young people. Schools throughout the city began bringing him in to talk to their students, and Birch began recording CDs and uploading videos onto his website (www.six8productions.com) and You Tube and MySpace.
The notoriety has earned Birch some influential fans, and one of them led to a December appearance on Fox News’ “The Big Story with John Gibson.” Recovering from some recent surgery last month, Birch was surprised by a call he got while out retrieving a prescription.
“I had just had some surgery on my eye and wasn’t really supposed to go anywhere, but I was at Wal-Mart getting some medication, and my phone rang. This person asked me what I was doing, and it was someone from Fox News. They said they’d seen my videos on You Tube and appreciated what I was doing and wanted to know if I wanted to come on the John Gibson show. I told them where I was, and they told me not to go anywhere, they were sending a limo for me. And the next thing I knew I was taken to Indy in a limo, and they put me in front of a camera. It was crazy!”
Birch hopes to spend more time in front of the camera — and if he has his way, it’ll be Oprah Winfrey’s cameras one day soon. Part of his ongoing campaign to make his way to the popular talk show has included a letter-writing effort in Fort Wayne Community Schools, which has yielded 1,000 letters on his behalf.
While Birch is clearly euphoric with the response of the media and the schoolchildren of many ages, the real inspiration for his music can be found in his now-healthy sons. Birch himself now battles cancer, the result, he believes, of a bargain he made when his sons were sick.
“When people find out I have cancer, they ask me how I can be so happy,” says Birch calmly. “But I asked for this. When my kids had cancer, I prayed over them, and I asked God to please give me the cancer. I said, ‘Give it to me, they don’t deserve this.’ And one year to the day later, they discovered a tumor on my colon.”
Before Birch could begin treatment for that tumor, it ruptured, causing a life and death struggle he nearly didn’t survive. But that close call, and a current battle with skin cancer, is what provided the real drive and purpose in Birch’s life.
“I ended up flat-lining twice,” he recalls. “That was September 26, 2006, and that further proved to me that I was here for a reason. It was a sign for me of what my music is for me. When I realized how close I came to dying, I wondered how my children would remember me. I think back to when I was two or six and what do I remember? I don’t remember anything! But I knew if I recorded my music and had a CD, my kids would always have something. They’d always remember me.”
With his recent CD, 12:34, gaining audiences around the country, Birch is busy trying to promote himself as best he can, sending out CDs to places as far-flung as Florida and Hawaii. With the recent appearance on Fox and the continued local support of the community schools — not to mention his full-court press to appear with Oprah — Birch is still touched by the small and personal victories he gains as he spreads his message of hope.
“One of the letters I got was sent by a blind student, and she wrote the letter in Braille. Her teacher told me what it said, how this girl was inspired by what I’m doing. And that just motivated me to want to be better. Every day I’m pushing this stuff, trying to get more people to take notice. And it’s because I want to share this with the kids. It’s not about the money, it’s about the message. There’s still a lot of work to do.”
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