“When you’re a child, you want to belong and want to have friends. You don’t want to seem like an outcast. The reality is, with kids, they don’t embrace what they don’t understand.”
Cassandra O’Neal is an American keyboardist, musical director, singer, composer, and producer. She has worked with a range of high profile artists, such as LeAnn Rimes, Babyface, Pink, Mary J. Blige, and Macy Gray. And when not working on her upcoming album (due out next Spring 2012), she works alongside Prince as a keyboardist in his highly acclaimed band, the New Power Generation.
But for all her current success, none of it came easily, especially amidst overcoming her self confidence issues caused by her disability. “I have a condition called Nystagmus. I’ve had it since birth. It’s the involuntary movement of the eyes and it mainly causes me to have near sightedness.”
“Growing into puberty, you want to feel like you’re pretty, like you’re beautiful. Back then, I tried to do things to hide my eyes. I would walk around with my head down or with sunglasses on, so people couldn’t see.
“As I got older, I realized that my behaviour insinuated that I didn’t like myself, which wasn’t the case. I just didn’t want to deal with all the negative looks and comments. So I told myself: pick your head up! Be strong! This is who you are!
“Going into my 20s, I continued to encourage myself: you know what, I am beautiful. I am smart. I am talented. And again, this condition is only a part of who I am. I have a personality. I like to laugh. I like to go to the mall, and shop, and do all those same things that young women do. It also helps me push and strive harder towards my goals.
“It’s a little different when you’re an adult, because when you carry yourself with confidence and assurance, people read into that more so than they read into your condition. So as opposed to ‘what’s wrong with your eyes?’ It’s more like ‘She’s confident. She’s an amazing musician!’ There’s something different about her, instead of there’s something wrong. At the end of the day, it’s about perception.”
When it comes to the music, Cassandra’s voice noticeably brightens. Being a preacher’s daughter from Copiague, New York, Cassandra found her musical potential at the age of three, playing the piano by ear and with perfect pitch. She played gospel music in church and listened to all types of music, including New Wave, rock, pop, and R&B. It was her outlet and the way she made friends.
“I sang and played on the piano all the MTV songs and that’s how I made friends. My friends were like ‘Wow, she knows a lot of songs!’”
Cassandra eventually moved to Los Angeles, California, and shortly thereafter began touring with American Gospel singer, Daryl Coley, scoring her first big break in the music business. Through working with a variety of artists, she eventually came to know and tour with Sheila E (a well known artist and collaborator with Prince) in 2005, in her gospel tour called Sisters in the Spirit. The two later collaborated in a band called C.O.E.D. (Chronicles Of Every Diva) along with Rhonda Smith and Kat Dyson, which eventually caught the ear of Prince.
“Prince asked if we could accompany him to the Montrose Jazz Festival. Sheila E said sure and we began to put something together. As Prince listened to the three songs we recorded, he asked who was playing the keys, and they said, ‘That’s Cassy!’ A little while later after C.O.E.D. got off tour in Japan, I got a call asking me to come out to Minneapolis.
“ When I flew over, I met up with Prince and his band at their rehearsal. He came up to me, gave me a big hug, then said, ‘So how long do I have you?’
“And I’m like, ‘Well, how long do you need me?’
“’Do you have a coat?’
“Two weeks later, I did my first show with him in Paris (at the Grand Palais and La Cigale concerts in October, 2009) and the rest, as they say, is history.”
While talking about working with Prince and the New Power Generation, Cassandra makes it clear how blessed she feels to play among such accomplished musicians. “As a female musician, it is expected of me to play as well as my fellow male players. Over the years, Prince has embraced the presence of female musicians in his band. We rehearse consistently. It’s work. And work is fun, because we get to play all genres. It’s not just funky. It’s rock, pop, R&B, and everything in between. Playing such a variety of music has really helped me to stretch by abilities and broaden my instincts.
“In this band, we are all at the same level. There’s no need for egos or arrogance, because we’re playing for the best. In fact, we go out of our way to help one another as a team. I love all of my band members very much. We’re a family.”
Asked if she has any advice for students with disabilities looking to land their first job or maybe even follow in her musical footsteps, Cassandra answered, “Don’t be afraid to chase your dream. Understand that your impairment exists, but it doesn’t define you. Know your craft! That in itself will give you the confidence in whatever industry you decide to go into. Know the grind! Practice, do your research, study, and network! These are some of the key ingredients that will enable you to have that edge in your particular field. If I can do it, then anyone can do it!”
Photo: Oleksandr Staroseltsev/Thinkstock