Singers David Correy, Nelson Emokpae are in harmony on reality TV
Md.-based contestants on 'X Factor,' 'The Voice' each draw from traumatic pasts
Riva, Md.-based singer David Correy is a contestant on this season of "The X Factor." (Fox, Handout / October 5, 2012)
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One is a humble, clean-cut 32-year-old African native with a silky voice. The other is 26, covered in tattoos and piercings and so passionate about his music he breaks down in tears while talking about it.
Yet Correy and Emokpae came up in and around Baltimore, and both have tragic pasts that pushed them to seek solace in music. Now they're both competing on rival reality singing competitions — Correy on "The X Factor" and Emokpae on "The Voice."
Emokpae doesn't like to dwell on his traumatic past, preferring to separate his current life as an artist from his childhood in Nigeria. Correy wears his early struggles as a badge, which he hopes will inspire others to follow their dreams, despite their setbacks. Their outlooks may be different, but they share a driving ambition — which could take them to the top of national TV.
Coincidence, more than anything else, helped Emokpae land on NBC's "The Voice." Auditions for the show happened to coincide with the two days he had off from his national tour of college shows.
Emokpae, who sings and plays guitar under the moniker Nelly's Echo, performed Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" for the judges. After hearing him, pop star Christina Aguilera and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine both offered Emokpae spots on their teams. He was happy, but surprisingly nonchalant.
"I guess in a way, 'The Voice' picked me," he said. "I didn't pick it."
Emokpae is accustomed to sudden, life-changing movements. At 16, he fled Nigeria with his mother and three brothers, leaving his father, Rolan, behind in prison for a crime he didn't commit. (He was later released, and rejoined his family in Baltimore.)
In Baltimore, Emokpae built a new life. He enrolled in community college before transferring to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to study psychology.
On the side, he began playing gigs at Baltimore clubs such as Rams Head Live. After Emokpae realized he was spending more time in UMBC's music department than its psychology building, he began to consider the idea of becoming a full-time musician.
"I think [the music] started in the bathroom — when you're taking a shower and there's the reverb and the echo, no pun intended, just makes you sound so much better," Emokpae said.
Since then, Emokpae has self-released two albums and visited colleges all over the country promoting his work.
Emokpae said he chose Aguilera over Levine because she offered first. "The Voice" is a blind audition: Judges sit with their backs turned as the contestants perform, and only get to see the singers after they commit to tutoring them.
While Emokpae is uncertain about his short-term plans (which he hopes involve winning "The Voice"), he has some surprisingly ambitious long-term goals. In the next three years, he wants to earn a Grammy, and, ultimately, build hospitals and music venues in as many "major locations" as possible — especially African countries.
Until then, he'll watch soccer, his other addiction. He'll give "high fives and sweaty hugs." He'll keep singing, motivated by his loving family and the knowledge that if he's honest with himself, he'll be happy. And he'll remember that all of that started in Baltimore.
"One thing I've said a couple times about Baltimore is it's a city that doesn't lie," he said. "If Baltimore likes something, it sticks behind that thing — Ravens, Orioles —and I've been fortunate enough that the community of Baltimore has embraced me from the beginning."
For as long as he can remember, David Correy knew he was adopted. He loved his adoptive parents and growing up in Riva, Md., where he spent his days crabbing and playing sports.