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Sonny Apollo: From homelessness to successful artist
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond

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"One of the first things you have to learn is that you can't base your life on other people's expectations."

Musician Stevie Wonder spoke those words in a reflective 1985 interview with The Los Angeles Times. Today it is a quote used on multiple occasions across the internet on social media, blogs and in articles as a catchall for those in need of inspiration.

Yet for Chicago-based singer and songwriter Sonny Apollo, who recalls Wonder as one of his earliest and greatest inspirations, that quote encapsulates an entire life.

Few would have expected that a young Black kid in a peeling leather coat, without a penny to his name or an instrument on which to play or compose, traveling what he called "the walk of shame" down South Canal Street to the doors of the Pacific Garden Mission would, in the span of four years, become a rapidly rising star whose song Zoo is racking up both plays and fans ahead of the release of his debut E.P. Adventures In Paradise.

Apollo was born in Frederick, Maryland, and primarily raised by a single mother who, from an early age, encouraged him to explore a range of art forms.

"Mom kind of made me an artistic Renaissance man," Apollo said. "But, when I was nine, my father sent me some cassettes. Stevie Wonder's Greatest Hits Volume Two completely changed my life. 'Hey Love' and 'If You Really Love Me' are two songs I still hold close and dear to me."

So, much like his idol, Apollo set to work creating and writing music on a piano or a harmonica before he reached the age of 10.

"I wanted to make people feel the way [Stevie Wonder] made me feel," Apollo recalled. "That was when I wrote my first song 'Every Time,' which had a rockabilly feel. I was always writing, always consuming."

Apollo credits his artistic versatility to the vast range of music he was exposed to at that young age including pop, R&B and country. He continually sought out on the radio the many operas to which his middle school teacher took him and his church choir.

"The senior choir had these harmonies that just stuck out to me," he said. "I wanted to split my voice into parts. I had it set in my mind that I wanted to be a radio star. I wanted to be discovered in New York city like Mariah Carey. My mother bought me my first keyboard. She entered me in writing competitions just so I would have an outlet."

But, like many artists, Apollo was to discover that even though one can dream big, it will always remain torturously out of reach without a plan to catch it.

"I did a semester at Columbia College [Chicago] but then I dropped out and went to New York City," he said. "But I had no solid foundation. I stayed at a homeless shelter. I had a low-budget head shot and a super small resume and I just auditioned for any show anywhere."

Even though, at the age of 19, Apollo had the brazen talent needed to walk unsolicited into an opera company and be accepted, he had to drop out because the position didn't pay anything.

"I went back to Maryland," he said. "It was a bleak period in my life. I was just wasting time until I got kicked out of the house. My mom wanted me to go and do something with myself. It was tough love that I am grateful for today."

Apollo travelled to Philadelphia first and eventually Brooklyn, where he stayed with a friend he called "Lashes."

"She was in an SRO [Single Room Occupancy] with her partner," Apollo said. "I was there maybe a week or two before her landlord caught on. She gave me $300 and told me that I couldn't stay there anymore."

Apollo's trade went from music to survival.

"I had gotten used to just thinking quick," he said. "Beyond music, my life has been about overcoming the odds that were stacked against me. You think about all the institutionalized things our country says about people of color and it was almost from day one."

With the money Lashes gave him, Apollo got on a Megabus in Manhattan and began a journey that that took him from Washington, D.C. to Nashville, Memphis and eventually Chicago.

"Along the way, I met an older woman who gave me some advice," Apollo said. "She told me, 'You just have to follow your desires, believe in yourself and know that things will work out in the way they're supposed to work out.'"

He had to keep that advice firmly in mind when, with only a duffel bag containing a few clothes and a pair of shoes, Apollo arrived in Chicago Aug. 8, 2012.

"I went to the library first and began searching shelters," he said. "I'd gone through all my money on the trip here so I went to the Pacific Garden Mission. Walking down Canal Street to the shelter felt like I was walking to the outskirts of the whole state. That first day was rough."

He remained there for nearly a year.

"No one knew I was at a homeless shelter, not even my friends," Apollo recalled. "I told people I lived downtown. In about month five, I said to myself, 'You're way better than this. You gotta get moving.' There was no turning back. I could not go back to that shelter."

So, Apollo found a job at a deli in River North. He also saw a sign at an Asian Fusion lounge looking for entertainers. He was hired on the spot. A few months later, he was able to rent his own place on Chicago's South Side and, eventually, saved up enough money to buy a cheap keyboard from Craig's List.

"'Zoo' came to me at the keyboard in 2014," Apollo said. "I did not consciously write it. I workshopped it and kept going back to it. 'Zoo' was definitely the longest process of all the songs on the E.P. The song is about living my life and my truth as an LGBTQIA person without persecution. I did not know when I wrote it that it would turn out to be a timely song. I'm very proud of it and its impact."

Similarly, Adventures In Paradise has been a long and deliberate process with release dates that have been continually pushed back. It will be available on March 10 of this year.

"It took a long time to create because I want to make sure that every song that I write is a commentary for what I see," Apollo said. "As an artist and a creator, I feel like that is a responsibility for me."

He added that, for artists and personal influencers from Stevie Wonder to Mozart, "that's what art did. It was relevant and in touch with the times and the streets."

Therein lies the explanation for why Apollo is proud to play a concert at the Sleep In to fight youth homelessness Feb 24 at the Second Presbyterian Church in Chicago, produced by Pride Action Tank.

"This career, this industry has a nature of selfishness," he said. "So, it makes me feel good to be doing something that benefits someone else. Of all the events I've been approached about doing, this is the one I'm glad I said 'yes' to. It's what I know. It's what I have experienced. I'm going to deliver a performance and I hope there are youth who connect with it and find something that empowers them, some confidence or inspiration to carry them through their situation."

For more information about SleepIn Chicago, visit . The concert is 7-10 p.m. with many artists and speakers; it is free to Sleep In participants and $20 at the door to the public.

To listen to Zoo, visit:

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