Entrepreneur, author, and musician Nabil Ayers joins Zibby to discuss his debut memoir, My Life in the Sunshine, which tells the story of his unique family structure and how he met his father, jazz artist Roy Ayers, when he was 35. The two talk about Nabil’s mother and his reactions to the decisions she made that ultimately shaped his life, his relationship with Judaism, and how Zibby accidentally shared this book’s cover before Nabil did. Nabil also shares how he found his way to writing later in life and how his wife pushed him to finally share this story.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nabil. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss My Life in the Sunshine: Searching for My Father and Discovering My Family.

Nabil Ayers: Thanks for having me. It’s nice to be here.

Zibby: It’s nice to have you here. You wrote this beautiful memoir, musical in its lyricism and in the way you wrote, but also all the music influences in it. The way you talk about your family was so interesting. Start out by explaining more about the book and also this misperception that your mother was left when, really, that was not at all what happened.

Nabil: The book starts the moment my mother meets my father when she was twenty years old. My father was twenty-nine. He’s a relatively famous jazz music named Roy Ayers. She was a retired ballerina who was lost in New York, not sure what to do, and knew in her head that she wanted to be a young single mother. The moment she met my father, she said, this is the person I want to have my child with. To be clear, she didn’t say, this is the person I want to be with, or this is the person I want to marry. It was all about the child and her raising a child on her own. They got together a few times. She eventually asked him, “Will you be the father of my child? You don’t have to be involved in our lives.” He said yes. I’ve always known that story. She’s always known that story, obviously. Everyone kept their end of the deal. I had this really idyllic, amazing childhood where my father wasn’t in the picture, but it never really felt like he was missing because there wasn’t a divorce. He didn’t leave us. Everything happened exactly the way it was planned. I had an incredible uncle and really great male role models and I think, in a lot of ways, a better childhood than a lot of people with traditional, on-paper perfect, two-parent households. That’s where it begins.

Zibby: You don’t often hear somebody saying, let me just grab that DNA.

Nabil: I know.

Zibby: I love it. It was so empowering. Later in the book, you talk about how it’s almost a selfish act when a woman decides that on the part of the child. You wish you had had a dad. Why were you deprived of that before you even had a shot? Why didn’t she position it like, be involved? Tell me about that.

Nabil: That’s what’s interesting now that the book is out. I’m getting lots of opinions, solicited and unsolicited, from fans and other people who say, but you never got to be part of this decision, which is, of course, a great point. I lived my life based on a decision these two other people made. It wasn’t until my thirties that I finally decided, I think it’s time to try to meet my father. He’s always sort of existed in my life because I hear his music all the time. People ask me if I’m related to him. We work in the same business and live in the same city but truly don’t know each other and never see each other. When I had lunch with him when I was about thirty-five, we really got along well and connected. That’s the first time I had some different questions for my mother. I think she always protected me and, in a way, didn’t expose me to him because she was worried that I might miss him or feel like something was missing, whereas we had a really great life without him. As soon as I met him and realized, oh, wow, there’s a connection here and there could be more, I thought about the past and thought, huh, what if my mother had helped me do this when I was ten or twenty or even thirty? Thirty-five years old is pretty old to finally meet your father for the first time. That’s the first time, I wouldn’t say I felt anger, but didn’t see everything exactly as my mother had presented it.

Zibby: You said, also, that it was so crazy for you to see somebody who looked so much like you.

Nabil: It was really wild to sit across from him at a table at a restaurant. Mannerisms and the way he laughed and certain motions and sounds, it was just like, this is so weird. We’ve never really met, but that’s exactly what I would do. Really powerful.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that is crazy. You did write a lot about your Uncle Alan, your mom’s brother, and how he was so influential in raising you as well. You wove him into so many scenes all throughout. What’s your relationship now? How has that worked? Then he went and he had his own children and everything.

Nabil: He’s still a huge part of my life.

Zibby: Okay, good. I never want to assume anything. I’m timidly asking you.

Nabil: I know. I know. I think he’s seventy-one. The crazy thing is that he and my mother never drank, never into drugs, even in New York in the late sixties, early seventies. Very clean-living hippie people, so they have really perfect memories. They’re in great health. It’s great. He’s two years younger than my mother. They grew up very close to each other. Both moved to New York City as soon as they could when they were around eighteen. When my mother decided to have me, Alan pretty much vowed at that moment to be a part of my life when my mother was having this “This is what I want to do, but what am I doing?” moment. Alan stepped in and said, “Don’t worry. I’m here. Everything’s going to be fine.” He was always a huge part of my life. Even when we didn’t live in the same city, I would spend summers with him in New York. He would come visit us. He was really my father figure. What’s interesting is, I’ve had a life in music. I played music. I played drums in bands for decades. Now I run a record company. That’s all I’ve ever done, is something to do with music. The assumption has kind of always been that I got that from my father, who’s a very talented, famous musician. I’m sure I got some of his DNA, but I never got anything else from him, whereas Alan and my mother both really nurtured that. Alan bought me a drum set when I was two years old. He would play music with me. He took me to so many concerts and bought me records. The two of them were the people that really made sure that music was part of my daily life. It’s this nature versus nurture thing.

Zibby: Didn’t Alan go to Berklee School of Music?

Nabil: He did. Of course, yeah.

Zibby: He also had that in his .

Nabil: Also an amazing musician. We’ve also learned later on that on my mother’s side and Alan’s side, there are tons of classical musicians and opera singers and way more people than we thought.

Zibby: You were just doomed.

Nabil: Right. It comes from everyone.

Zibby: It was predetermined. What choice did you have, really? Tell me about being part Jewish. I was sort of surprised to read about this. I am Jewish myself.

Nabil: Oh, you are?

Zibby: How you changed your name, tell me that whole piece. Visiting your family was so funny. I had a Grandpa Joe, by the way. Visited your Grandpa Joe in Flatbush — here, wait, let me just read this little passage. You were talking about what it looked like in Flatbush. You said, “They looked at my mother and me, but nobody smiled or said hello. The residents of Flatbush likely had no idea that by Jewish law, both my mother and I were Jewish. Instead, we walked the streets feeling judged and unwelcome, but when we arrived at Grandpa Joe’s, we were home. ‘He’s such a schnorrer,’ Edith would say describing a neighbor who always asks to borrow things. ‘She was hocking me like a chinik,’ Joe exclaimed about a former colleague who talked too much. The next winter when my mother brought me to the doctor with a serious cold, the doctor asked me to describe my symptoms.” I don’t even know how to pronounce —

Nabil: — A hock and a schnoz.

Zibby: “‘I have a hock and a schnoz,’ I said in a nasal voice, describing my sore throat and stuffy nose in my own made-up Yiddish-sounding terms.”

Nabil: I’m glad you like that as a Jewish person and you aren’t offended by it.

Zibby: Oh, should I be offended? No, I loved it. I loved it.

Nabil: No, not at all. My mother and Alan, my uncle, were raised by my grandparents, who were Russian and Romanian Jewish in Long Island. They were raised Jewish. Everyone’s last name was Braufman, which comes for the Romanian Braufmanu, a very Jewish name. I was raised, or born, Nabil Braufman. That was my name until I was done with high school. I wasn’t raised Jewish. I wasn’t really raised in any religion. My uncle and my mother didn’t convert but so sort became, is the word I like to use, Baháʼís, the Baháʼí Faith, in New York in the early seventies, which is a very open, accepting religion that’s all about equality and peace and love. It’s pretty amazing. My name comes from a Baháʼí book. They never abandoned their Jewish faith, but they definitely took on something else. We went to a lot of Baháʼí things when I was kid, but Jewish culture was always a huge part of my childhood.

I saw my grandparents a lot. I knew my great-grandparents, who you just read about. That scene, we used to go visit them in Flatbush in Brooklyn. What we haven’t mentioned yet is that my father is black, and my mother is white. My mother was definitely, even when I was ten years old, a pretty young, cool hippie who wore great dancer outfits. I was just remembering what it was like for us to walk down the street in a sort of conservative Jewish neighborhood, her in really short shorts and a tank top and me with an afro and probably a Kiss T-shirt. It was a crazy scene. What those people didn’t know is that we were going to visit my eighty-year-old great-grandfather, Joe Chesler, to go eat lox and gefilte fish and do the whole thing. That very much felt like and stills feels like part of me. My wife is Jewish. We had a Jewish wedding with a rabbi. I don’t necessarily consider myself Jewish because I don’t go to temple or do anything, but it’s a huge part of me.

Zibby: I would say a lot of people who are Jewish don’t go to temple. A lot of it is about the identity and culture behind it, as you well know.

Nabil: The funny thing is, my mother is now back to being Jewish, culturally Jewish, but her husband is a non-Jewish person from North Dakota who converted, which, as you know, is much more difficult to become a Jew that way than to be raised Jewish and simply fall into it. I went to his bar mitzvah when he was sixty and watched him chant the Torah. He does all the work. He’s super devout. It’s amazing.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. My husband converted when we got married, my second husband. It was very sweet. I’m like, oh, yeah? I didn’t really know that. It’s a good crash course. Tell me about the process of writing this book. When did you even decide to write a book? Then what was it like doing it?

Nabil: It’s funny. I’ve never been a writer. I loved writing in college. I was a terrible student because all I was doing was playing in bands and putting on parties and DJing at the college radio station and doing all the things that applied directly to my life and the music business now. It all makes sense when I look back. The only A I got in college was in a writing class. It wasn’t because I really buckled down or worked hard. It was simply because I loved it. It felt natural. It was really fun and easy for me. I thought about that, but then I started working in the music business and playing in bands. It was never part of my life. About six years ago, I just started writing. I think I was old enough in my forties. I had so many stories in my head about touring in bands and the record store I used to own and just lots of things. For some reason, it felt like, I feel like I should start writing these down, not necessarily to publish them, not even for anyone to see them. If I think about it, my mother does this. I get emails every day that are kind of short stories, her observations from riding the subway and the people that she saw. My grandmother wrote a ton of short stories. I found them a few years ago. They’re really incredible, about Brooklyn in the forties and fifties. Maybe it’s just kind of in my blood, this storytelling or documenting of my life. I started writing these fun stories and published a couple of them, which was really fun and exciting and felt good.

My wife finally said, “Look, this is really fun. It’s great that you’re writing about your record stores and your band. What you should really do is write about your father and your race because that’s what you’re interested in. That’s what people will be interested in.” I thought about it. It scared me a bit, but in a good way. Those are much more personal topics. Those are things I don’t talk about very much. In a weird way, I thought, oh, that’s a great idea because I’m already writing with no plan for anyone to see it, so I don’t see why I can’t tackle these more difficult subjects with no plan for anyone to see it. I did, but I’d never known my father. I remember being puzzled and sitting there in the Brooklyn Historical Society Library, where I did a lot of writing at the time, and saying, hmm, what do I write about? I thought, well, I can just write about each of the times I met him when I was a kid and what that felt like. There was one time when my uncle brought me to Electric Lady, a famous recording studio in New York, and we met him for a brief time, or another time when we ran into him on the street and my mother sort of introduced me to him, all these things that were in my head.

I started writing those as just short stories and then started writing about what it was like to hear my father’s music at a bar or in a club, which happens all the time and used to happen all the time, or when someone asks me if I’m related to him, all these things. It’s very visual to me. This was all on a computer, of course. I saw this long table and these little stacks of paper that started at age zero and went until very recently, so decades of stories. I realized, huh, that’s interesting. If I just could figure out a way to connect these and figure out a theme and a binding element, which, of course, is music, I might be able to turn this into a book. That’s the first time that it occurred to me. I was never trying to write a book. I think it would’ve been much harder to say, I’m going to write a book. Chapter one. There’s no part of me that was ready to do that, but I’d done so much of the hard work. There was still a lot to do, but emotionally getting into the father space, which was the hardest part, I’d already sort of taken my brain and my heart there. It felt like, well, now I’m in it, so I should just really try to do this.

Zibby: Wow, interesting. Then when did you sell it and all that? What happened then?

Nabil: I spent about a year, year and a half, probably closer to two years on my own getting it together and got it pretty far. There’s a version of it that was done. It’s funny because I don’t know anyone in the publishing world. No agents, no authors. I’m just in a totally different business but in New York where I know lots of people who know lots of people. I looked online. It said you have to have a book proposal. I said, okay, I’ll write a book proposal. I wrote one. I had a lot of fun doing it. It actually helped me figure out the end of the book, which was great. I just started emailing some friends and saying, “Hey, who knows a literary agent? Apparently, that’s what I need to get to the next step.” A bunch of friends got back in touch. Some people put me in touch with people. This took a few months. I met with, I think, seven agents and had offers from most of them, which was shocking and amazing, and chose my favorite one, who I love and still work with. It was a crazy thing. I work in the music business, again, where I used to play in bands, and you want to get signed. There’s always some confident manager who would be like, I’m going to get you a record deal in two months. I’m just going to send this out, and you’re going to get signed. I’ve been there a million times. My agent said, “Look, we’re in a great place. This proposal’s great. Let me tweak it. I’m going to get it out to a really small group of people who I think will like it. I think we’ll do a deal by Thanksgiving.” This was in September of 2019. I thought, that’s crazy, but sure, do your thing. To make a long story short, signed the deal with Viking before Thanksgiving.

Zibby: Wow. Wait, which agent did you pick? Who is your agent?

Nabil: It’s Meg Thompson.

Zibby: Great. Oh, my gosh, I hear more great things about her —

Nabil: — She’s amazing.

Zibby: That’s awesome.

Nabil: Then it was another, about a year and a half of working with my editor, Meg Leder, who I loved, and which was such a better process than I could’ve even imagined. Of course, there were times when I got frustrated because she was, I’m sure, working on other books or taking a long time to work on my book. Then when she would bring a draft back to me, just the notes and the edits and the thoughts were so incredibly helpful and spot on. There was never a moment that I feared, which was always going to be like, oh, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. What is this? You hear about things like that. It never even came close to happening. It was really a great match. She totally understood it and helped make it so much better.

Zibby: Would you ever do it again now that you know what it’s like?

Nabil: Yeah.

Zibby: Are you doing it again?

Nabil: I’m not doing it again yet. This weekend, I finally had time to sit and do some writing. It’s a funny thing. I’m sure you’ve experienced this. Lots of people have. The way that the first book came was so natural. I wasn’t trying. I had all the time in the world. There were no expectations. Nobody asked me to write a book. Then it happened. Now I definitely have this, what’s next? What are you doing? People are asking me. It is a different kind of pressure. I’m trying to do the same thing I did before, which is just think about what’s interesting to me and write about it and see where it goes.

Zibby: Well, you know your process. There’s no straight line to getting this output. For people who aren’t as familiar with your dad or you and maybe music is not the center of their world or whatever, can you give more insight so that maybe when they hear a song — what you’re working on now in the music world. Just give a little more background there.

Nabil: My dad is named Roy Ayers. He is eighty-one right now, which is crazy. He has been playing music for a long time. He’s known as a jazz musician, but also seminal in the jazz/funk scene where it kind of merged in the seventies. He’s super heavily sampled, perhaps the most sampled artist of all time, and so really had this big resurgence in the nineties and two thousands when hip hop started doing that. His most famous song is called “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” which, even if you don’t know it by name, you’ve probably heard. I think it was in five different commercials last year alone. It was in an Apple commercial and a Coors commercial. It’s really crazy how much this song from 1976 just lives on. He has tons of albums. He’s touring Europe right now as we speak. Very active, can’t do anything but play music. We still don’t know each other, but I like him. I love his music. As far as me, I’ve played music all my life. My uncle started playing music with me. He’s a saxophone player. I would play drums. He would play saxophone. We have amazing audio recordings of that when I was three or four and when he would’ve been in his early twenties. It’s me being really bossy. You can hear my mother in the background introducing us. I was exposed to a lot of jazz and punk as a kid.

Zibby: I love how you were carrying around your sticks.

Nabil: I really wanted people to know I was a drummer. That was important. That was like carrying around a sign, walking around with drumsticks. There’s lots of pictures. Then I saw Kiss when I was — well, I discovered Kiss when I was five. My mother took me to see them at Madison Square Garden when I was seven, which was truly a life-changing moment. From then on, it was like, I just want to be a rock drummer, and that’s it. We moved a lot. Lived in New York and Amherst, Massachusetts, and Salt Lake City. All I was trying to do was play in bands and move to Seattle to go to college in 1989, which was an incredible time. That’s right when Nirvana and Soundgarden and grunge and all that stuff started to happen. It was coincidence that I was there, but was really there at the right time, so was around for a lot of that. Got to see some incredible shows and started playing in bands and toured through the nineties and two thousands and also opened a record store with my friend and always had my feet in both sides. I was always interested in the business. Even as a kid, my band would record a demo tape, and then I would try to sell it at school the next day. There was always a part of it that I understood and appreciated, so it wasn’t weird for me to eventually stop touring in a band and start working for a record company. Now I’m the president of Beggars Group, which is the biggest independent label group. We work with Radiohead and The National and Grimes and Adele and tons of great artists. It’s a wonderful job.

Zibby: Wow, what a great story, which is why it’s a great book.

Nabil: Thank you.

Zibby: Really amazing. We had joked at the beginning before we started recording, but now I will admit to everyone listening that I accidentally revealed the cover of this book, and feel terrible about it, in a post after I’d gotten the galley and didn’t realize it hadn’t been publicly revealed. I’ve been feeling contrite about that.

Nabil: I loved it. As I was saying, it was so funny. I turned fifty on January 23rd. My plan was, I’m going to announce my book on my birthday. Then I thought, oh, actually, that’s a Sunday. I should do it on the weekend so we can get some press pick-up. Of course, the business mind kicked in. Whatever it was, I planned for a certain day. I think the day before, your story popped up. I was like, oh, my god, but my “oh, my god” was this incredible feeling of excitement because it’s the first time I saw it on a phone screen. It was really amazing. I loved it. I DM’d you. I said, “Thanks. I was going to post this tomorrow.” You’re like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” Honestly, it couldn’t have been a better launch. I’m thankful that you did that.

Zibby: Okay. Well, good. Phew. Sorry.

Nabil: You gave me this instant credibility.

Zibby: I do a lot of stuff on the weekends. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors now that you’ve gotten a book successfully out and everything?

Nabil: I was lucky. I really realize this. I’ve never been a writer or an author for a living, so I’ve always been able to take my own time, write about what I want to write about, not worry about getting paid for it. It’s an incredible luxury because I have a job, and writing is my hobby or side hustle or whatever you want to call it. I know everyone’s not that fortunate. I do think that’s a way to think about it. If you have another job or you do something else, which a lot of people do, and you want to write, what worked for me, what we just talked about, was really just writing with no intention of anyone seeing it, ever. Just write for yourself. It really, for me, took away this incredible layer of fear and insecurity and all the things that we all feel when we’re writing about ourselves or about our feelings or our thoughts and all that stuff. It allowed me to really write about anything and say anything. Then eventually as I honed it into this book or into shorter pieces or whatever, I just took out the things I was uncomfortable with or sometimes left in those things because I was like, wow, I’m glad I said this because, actually, maybe I can say this. That’s what really worked for me. That’s what I recommend. Just go in totally thinking no one’s ever going to see this. Hopefully, something good will come out of it.

Zibby: I’m going to take your wife’s advice, too, when she encouraged you to write the stuff that you really wanted to write and even the stuff that made you feel scared and uncomfortable. That’s usually the good stuff anyway, so might as well go there.

Nabil: It’s hard.

Zibby: It’s hard. If it’s hard, it’s probably good. If it’s feeling hard, I feel like that’s a really good sign, for the reader at least. Nabil, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” My Life in the Sunshine, fabulous book. As you know, I really, really enjoyed it. You’re a great writer and have a wonderful story.

Nabil: Thanks so much, Zibby. I appreciate you having me on. Hopefully, I’ll see you soon in New York.

Zibby: My pleasure. Yes, that would be great. Take care.

Nabil: Bye. Thanks.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



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