Arts & Culture

Soul Survivor

A local singer gets a second chance after a devastating attack.

Ama Chandra sits under the bright lights in a tiny dressing room, her head bowed over a sheet of lyrics. Her shimmering eye shadow has been perfectly applied, a pair of dangling earrings twinkle in her ears, and she wears a brilliant, royal-blue dress.

It may seem like a regular backstage scene on this Friday night that unfolded last December, but it’s anything but ordinary, as a stream of well-wishers embrace Chandra enthusiastically, some pressing money into her hand. As she prepares to go onstage, every now and again, Chandra touches a paper card from her 8-year-old son, Tano, that sits next to her on the table. It reads, “I love you, love you, love you with all my might.” And gazing at her reflection in the mirror, she sees the constant reminder that her life has forever changed. Snaking from the glowing skin of her neck into her blue, lace bodice, is a pink, puckered scar.

Chandra, the noted Baltimore soul and jazz singer, hums softly and drums her fingers on the table, keeping an ear alert for her cue that the show at the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown is starting. Then, she sings to herself the song “Fragile” by Sting that has taken on a new meaning since last July.

Blood will flow,” she sings, “when flesh and steel are one.”

Before tonight, Chandra, 41, had doubts about whether she could go through with this. The enormity of standing in front of a packed house to share her story was overwhelming. But, she is determined, because she has a message to share. “This is all gravy now,” she says. “At the beginning, it was more about being a survivor. Now, I’m past that. I’m about championing the soul.”

So when she hears a gentle knock at the door, she stands, smooths her dress, and walks out with her head high.

On July 10, 2015, Chandra was blissfully asleep in bed next to MaeLee, her toddler-aged daughter. She’d had a wonderful evening hosting friends at her East Baltimore home, and they’d talked late into the night.

She awoke as her bedroom door opened. Chandra looked up to see a man with his face covered holding a knife, and fear instantly clutched her. Instinctively, she reached for her daughter. The man told her, “Give me the dough.” But Chandra could sense that wasn’t why he was there—her purse was downstairs, and he easily could have grabbed it, along with other valuables, and left. “I don’t have any,” she remembers saying, “but whatever I have you can take.”

“Get up,” he said, and then told her he was going to sexually assault her. Chandra began to plead, “Please don’t do this, I know this isn’t what you want to do.” That only made him angrier and more aggressive. “I will kill you, and I will kill your baby,” she remembers him saying, his voice devoid of emotion.

“I almost lost it then, but I’m grateful I didn’t,” she says, recalling that night. As the man told her to get on her knees, she saw a flashing red light coming from underneath the bed—it was an iron she’d purchased from QVC. In the darkness, it was becoming clearer and clearer to her that she wasn’t going to live, and since the machete she kept for protection was out of reach by the bedroom door, that iron became her only hope.

“I might not be here. I might not have been able to raise my kids.”

When the man told her to turn around, she reached under the bed and grabbed it, but when she turned back, her assailant had raised the knife. She swung the iron and screamed for her neighborhors as he brought the blade down again and again. She wasn’t sure if she’d hit him, but after a few stabs he darted out of her bedroom, so Chandra grabbed the machete, yelling, “I’m going to kill you!” She reached the staircase—by now the man had fled—and paused to turn on the light. That’s when she saw the blood spilling down the stairs.

As she realized that she’d been stabbed, Chandra stumbled back to her bedroom, feeling tightness with each breath. “I knew this was significant, that this meant anything could have happened,” she says. She turned on the lights, called 911, and comforted her now-awake daughter. Within 10 minutes, officers had arrived, and paramedics rushed her into an ambulance and began giving her oxygen. Chandra sensed something was wrong—especially when she heard her blood pressure was dropping.

Once inside a Johns Hopkins emergency room, Chandra learned she’d been stabbed four times—in both shoulders and the leg, but the fourth wound was the most serious—her chest. “Your heart’s been penetrated,” doctors told her. She’d need surgery and her condition was critical. It had all happened in less than an hour. The attack occurred at a point in Chandra’s life when she’d started to hit her stride. After a series of unexpected blows and heartbreak, she’d released her first album and joined a new band. As she absorbed the assault’s devastating reality, music would remain her backbone, as it had throughout her life.

Growing up in the small city of Plant City, FL, singing “was what made me the most happy,” she says. Chandra—who back then was known as Chandra Reaves—didn’t have much opportunity to pursue her passion outside of the high school choir, so she studied psychology and sociology at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University, before going to nursing school. Years later, after moving to Baltimore, she would again find her voice.

Chandra and her husband studied capoeira, the acrobatic Brazilian martial art, which is accompanied by music played on native instruments. Chandra became one of the go-to vocalists, and discovered she had a knack for it. “I began to learn what the music did to me,” she says, “and what my expression of that would do to others.”

While she was rekindling her love of music, however, her marriage, strained by several miscarriages, was falling apart. She and her husband separated in 2008, about a year after Chandra gave birth to their son, Tano, which required two and a half months of bed rest. But Chandra forged ahead, attending her first open-mic night at the age of 34. She was just having fun, but people started asking her to come back, and she began to take singing seriously. While keeping her job as a nurse, she traveled to Brazil to study and re-discover herself, and came back to Baltimore to write, record, and locally release Destiny.

More heartache would follow. Chandra became pregnant with twins in 2011, but they arrived early, too tiny to survive on their own. The boy twin, Miles, died, while his sister, MaeLee, survived. Though her relationship with their father had deteriorated, it was a time when Chandra realized the power of friendship. “I had this world of people praying for me, sending out all this positive energy,” she says. That, and the music she sang each day, made all the difference as she got back on her feet.

Through the years, Chandra found a loyal following in Baltimore arts patrons. Baltimore Choral Arts Society music director Tom Hall described Chandra as “a veteran of the [indie soul] scene, with a beautiful voice,” when he interviewed her on Maryland Morning with Sheilah Kast in 2013, after Destiny’s release. Others recognized her talents, too. Josh Kohn, performance director at the Creative Alliance who got to know Chandra after her involvement with a Nina Simone tribute concert, says, “I was always interested in her because not only does she have a great voice, but she connects so well to her audiences.”

Ama Chandra show

When she joined the jazz and soul group The Fruition Experience, its members helped her grow into her velvety voice and solidified her commitment to music. Aaron Hill, keyboardist and leader of The Fruition Experience, was looking for a vocalist who could grow with his group, who had a profound relationship with music, who could forge audience connections. He found that in Chandra. “Ama is a person who draws attention,” he says. “Since she joined the group, we’ve really developed a particular chemistry and sound.”

The band allowed Chandra to fine-tune her talent. “They helped my ears to open up, to refine my sound because their musicianship is so high. I was growing, preparing to do more with myself and my musical career,” she says. “And then this July thing happened.”

Six hours after her surgery, Chandra opened her eyes and saw her friends’ concerned faces. She could barely talk, it hurt to move, and pain medication made everything cloudy. But slowly, she realized that her life would never be the same. “I remember waking up in that room, looking around, and understanding all I could try to do was just be here,” she says.

Doctors told Chandra that mere centimeters had saved her life. If the knife had struck a little to the right, it would have hit an artery, and she would have died. Her injury had required open-heart surgery, which explained the aching pressure in her chest. But in the following days, as she processed what had occurred, Chandra felt something beyond pain. She looked at Hill and others who gathered at the hospital, who kept saying, “You’re still here,” and at the doctors and nurses who were amazed that she could walk so well a few days after surgery. She realized that what she was feeling was grateful. “I just kept thinking, ‘I might not be here,’” she recalls. “‘I might not have been able to raise my kids.’ It was super intense, but incredibly humbling.”

Chandra also knew she had a long recovery ahead—emotional as well as physical. Police remained stationed outside her hospital room for protection. (Officers still have not made an arrest. Chandra says they were unable to obtain DNA from her iron or kitchen knife, which the assailant had used in the attack.) During those first days, Chandra was jumpy around anyone she didn’t know, and kept the bathroom door locked. Friends organized shifts so someone was always with her, and her ex-husband agreed to care for her children. Hill created a GoFundMe account, which raised over $20,000 for her medical bills and eventually the cost of finding a new home and necessities like a bedroom set—“I couldn’t bear to look at the old one,” she says.

Her friends found her strength remarkable. “Even in the midst of what she was going through, she was still smiling, still inspiring others,” Hill says. Galanda A. Bryan, who has been friends with Chandra since they met in their Reservoir Hill neighborhood years before, remembers being most touched by the small victories Chandra had each day—being able to lift more than 10 pounds, having a simple conversation. “She could have had a different reaction. She could have been more negative, as a lot of people can be,” Bryan says. “I’m very proud of her. I’m most proud that she chose happiness.”

Within a week, Chandra was released from the hospital and moved in with Bryan, but faced major setbacks. Fluid started to fill her lungs due to surgical complications. She couldn’t breathe and again was hospitalized. Doctors talked about continued surgeries, and Chandra experienced feelings of anxiety so she began to see a therapist. “She’s moving through very well, but it’s going to be a long process,” Bryan says. “For her, the emotions that went with it were heavier.”

Through it all, she kept singing. The attack didn’t impact her vocal cords, and though fluid was continually drained from her lungs, she could sustain her breath. She performed in public for the first time a month after the assault—singing “Beautiful” by India.Aire—and was featured on an A&E special about race in America with the nationally known singer Alicia Keys. But she knew a solo concert would be her true milestone.

During her recovery, Chandra thought about the positive power that an audience could wield. “The healing effects of music were nonstop,” she says, “and when people have come up to me and told me I’ve never sounded better, it has meant so much.” Though she knew it would show the world how vulnerable the attack had made her, she began to consider honestly sharing the details of her assault and triumph while onstage. “There’s a very strong message in not just living, in thriving,” she says. And she realized that revealing her darkest hour could provide the ultimate catharsis and release her from its grip. So when Kohn at the Creative Alliance approached her about such a show, Chandra says, “I knew I had to say, ‘Yes.’”

“I’m very proud of her. I’m most proud that she chose happiness.”

She spent the next weeks envisioning the concert. She invited others to perform who had flourished when the odds were stacked against them, including spoken word artist Olu Butterfly, African drummer Menes Yahudah, and capoeira practitioners. For herself, she selected works both old and new that celebrated the emotional depth she felt while recovering—including Sting’s “Fragile,” that includes lyrics describing an attack—and planned to tell pieces of her story between each song. And she and a friend thought up the perfect title—“I Lived, Dammit!”

“I told myself, ‘You owe it to yourself, you owe it to your kids,’” Chandra says. “They need to see that not only did you live, you thrived. It’s going to be great, it’s going to be scary. But you’re going to be better than you know.’”

Backstage at the Creative Alliance, Chandra asks the performers to gather. “The most perfect thing has happened,” she says. “Everyone who’s supposed to be here is here. . . . I ask that you be joyous, bold and audacious. I’m so grateful that you’re a part of it.”

Chandra knows that tonight won’t be the last time she tells her story. She has started a nonprofit called One Love, One Heart, Inc., which aims to provide care to sexual assault victims, as well as education and prevention services, and her experiences will be central to spreading the word and obtaining funding.
After a round of hugs, the opening act heads out, and Kohn tells the audience, “There’s so much love back there, I just know it’s going to be a great night.”
Chandra sits back down to rest. At one point, she had wondered if her physical condition would limit how long she could perform, and she still feels pains in her chest. A stool has been placed on the Creative Alliance’s stage so she can sit while she sings. Though a few butterflies are flying in her stomach, and she hopes she doesn’t cry “too absolutely much,” she’s calm. “I know I’m meant to be here,” she says.

When it is time to go on, an emcee revs up the crowd, which starts to chant —“Ama! Ama! Ama!” Chandra walks out under the glowing lights with The Fruition Experience behind her, and amid claps, cheers, and a standing ovation, a smile grows on her face.

“I lived, dammit!” she shouts. “I’m so glad to be alive!”