“Mama say all my songs foul/Mama say all my songs sound provocative” — “Not Going Home,” Coke Wave 2, 2009
If Sharon Wingate believes in tough love, it’s because she has earned the right to do so. The oldest of eight children, all of whom save one, she says, have battled with substance abuse, Sharon has been through her own personal trials. She served a year and half in prison after a period of crack addiction. Her son Eric was killed in Baltimore in 1991 at the age of 16. Her daughter, Sade, the youngest Wingate child, was born under the influence of crack cocaine.
But Sharon has been clean for 15 years, and her perspective on her son Charly’s situation is shaped both by her experiences and her faith. Sitting in her parents’ apartment in Harlem, flanked by Sade, her niece Laura and her father, Gerald Barton, she cites the strong religious values her mother imparted to her children and grandchildren — including Charly, a talented kid who sang in the Boys Choir of Harlem, an older brother who would share whatever he had, a creative cut-up with a penchant for trouble.
When he was little, he kinda had like an alter ego. He could always find a corner and play with whatever he had and knew how to keep himself content or create something... He would have the towels around his neck so he could be like Superman.
“When he was little, he kinda had like an alter ego. He could always find a corner and play with whatever he had and knew how to keep himself content or create something,” Sharon says. “I could never keep clean towels or toilet tissue, because he would always take the toilet tissue and break it off on the perforated line and put it around capes on all his little men and stand them up and he would have the towels around his neck… so he could be like Superman.
“I remember when they took him… I remember me and my husband walking outside the [courthouse],” she says, her normally firm voice softening a bit. “He was saying, ‘Dag, Sharon, do you know how old Charly will be when he get out?’ He said, ‘He’ll be 106.’ And it was like my whole face just dropped to the floor.”
During Sharon’s period “in the streets,” as she says, her children stayed with their grandparents, where music was always playing, either the gospel their grandmother would listen to or something of their own creation.
“When I left outta here, because most of my job time was evenings — if my wife was out and then I had to go and they were all left here, this became like, the stage,” Barton says, gesturing to a corner of the living room currently occupied by a television. “For them to rant their inner feelings, the release of music. There was no restriction as far as music was concerned.”
A no-nonsense man who chooses his words carefully, Barton speaks with an equal amount of confusion at and empathy for his grandson’s situation.
“Long terms of incarceration have a profound effect on psychological thinking and behavior. I mean, it’s abnormal. You take away a person’s freedom, and there’s not very much he has to hold on to,” says Barton. “The incarceration, not being free to move about, like everybody else… it takes its toll.”
“Charly knew better, he chose to make his own choices. Like I was sharing, I used for like 15, maybe 20 years,” Sharon adds. “And I know a lot of the things my sons did comes from some of the things I did. Being disobedient, not listening to my mom, not listening to my dad. I'm not going to say that it was all their fault, but it was not all my fault either.”
Regardless of her support for Charly in his current situation, one thing Sharon is not willing to do is “sugarcoat,” as she puts it, when it comes to her son’s choice of lyrical content, which hits closer to home than she would prefer.
“You don’t have no business talking about women, [because] men used to do the same thing to your mother that you singin’ about,” she says, referring to her time as a crack addict on the streets. “You got a sister, you got female children and nieces and cousins, and they’re gonna be big enough one day to swing around a pole — you don’t want none of that happening to your family members, so why you singing about women?”
Even with a critical eye, the family expresses their respect for what he accomplished: turning a singular talent into something that became a living. But self-discipline can be hard to come by when turning from an ex-convict into a celebrity in a period of months.
“Bottom line, he lacked guidance and leadership. That’s a big empty in your life,” says Barton. “The influence in the streets is far more stronger than much of any influence that parents may have over the kids.”
“I'm proud of him, in a way, because he took a dream, he took a goal and he made it exist, and not only in his imagination,” Sade says. “But at the same time, he didn’t know what to do with it. It’s like somebody gives you a whole bunch of money, or just fame, and you always wanted fame … you get stuck in it, you don’t know which way to go.”