Mercedes Wilson’s voice captivated the attendees of the 4th annual For Our Daughters Gala on Friday, October 30th. While her heartfelt singing and commanding voice were beautiful and exhibited incredible talent, it was also the words of the song, “Superwoman” by Alicia Keys, and the accompanying spoken word poem written and performed by Thomas “Lazyrus” Panzarella that reached every soul in the room.
Mercedes Wilson is a breast cancer survivor. “I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer at the age of 28.” Wilson says. “This flipped my world upside down. No one ever wants to hear those words, especially at such a young age!”
The shock of such news is unimaginable to anyone who’s never experienced it. To most people, hearing those words would feel like facing death. But for Mercedes Wilson, her diagnosis was an eye opener and a call to action:
It was during that process that I learned how much I actually didn’t know! I had to learn my family history and get lessons on healthy living.
Wilson realized, at twenty eight, where most people believe they have a whole life ahead of them, how much she did not know about her own health. There are many factors that can influence someone’s risk of breast cancer, even in young people, and most young people, particularly young women, are not aware of them. Wilson decided this needed to change. In June of 2012, barely a year after she was diagnosed, Wilson founded her own non-profit organization, For Our Daughters Inc. Wilson says:
That’s where the mission to ‘empower young women to break down communication barriers and become advocates for their own health and wellness’ came from. Through For Our Daughters, my goal is to educate young women on how to open up dialogue with mothers everywhere and learn their risks and find their voices when it comes to their health and wellness.
This kind of information could make the difference of life or death for someone, so it is crucial that this information is accessible to young women and young people in general. For Our Daughters Inc. travels to middle and high schools in the Western New York Area, educating young women about better health and wellness practices and cancer prevention and consequently, inspiring young women to be their own voices for their health.
Two of the many moving voices at the night of the For Our Daughters Gala—which was held to raise funds that would enable the organization to continue traveling to different schools in Western New York—were that of Mercedes Wilson and her accompanying spoken word poet, Lazyrus. “Superwoman” is a song about female empowerment, a song of survival. Wilson’s performance breathtakingly reached out to every breast cancer survivor. About choosing the song, Wilson says:
I was sitting and thinking about how to pay tribute to breast cancer survivors at the gala and a friend suggested that I sing. I was very hesitant, but agreed to it. I asked another friend to come up with a list of inspirational songs. She gave me a list of songs and ‘Superwoman’ popped out to me. It speaks of struggle and triumph. It gives credit where credit is due for so many struggling women!
“Superwoman” talks about the battles we as women face alone, and the masks we wear to show everyone that we are okay, we’re still strong, even if we don’t feel the same way on the inside: “Even when I’m a mess / I still put on a vest / With an S on my chest” (Lyrics from azlyrics.com) Wilson sings straight from the heart, as if she is speaking to us directly about her experience fighting breast cancer; her pain, her struggle, and her eventually, powerfully, coming out on top. Wilson wants every survivor to know that they are a superwoman too, that they have overcome one of the most difficult and painful challenges imaginable, and they are stronger for it:
The song makes me feel empowered as a survivor and also grateful to know that it made so many other women feel the same way. It was truly an honor to see so many women inspired! Music is an art that can do so many things! It has the power to take you back to the past, give you hope for the future, heal relationships, cure a broken heart, make changes in your life, recognize some things you didn’t know were there in the first place. Music got me through so many lonely nights, it helped me to not lose my mind while going through cancer, allowed me to express my fears, frustrations, triumphs, and make it through cancer.
Wilson certainly showed how powerful music is in influencing other people and inciting our emotions. This collective experience was even more enhanced with the addition of Lazyrus’s spoken word poem at the end of the song. Lazyrus is very personal and touching in his words, talking about the shock of getting a diagnosis, and all of the questions young women have when this happens, the feeling of the unknown. Young women, even in their twenties, still think of themselves as “just a girl,” as Lazyrus says, but he points out how their overcoming of the pain, the radiation, the uncertainty, is what makes them much more than “just a girl.” Lazyrus talks about knowing Mercedes Wilson during her battle with cancer, remembering the days he knew she was really suffering, but she kept her head held strong. Young women like Wilson are required by their fight with cancer to age quicker, mature faster, until they are no longer “just a girl.” They become an unstoppable force against cancer, against death: a Superwoman.
On deciding to pair the song with spoken word poetry, Wilson says:
The idea of the poet just came to me. I really wanted something that spoke to the women in the room. I gave Thomas the song that I was singing and told him what the night was about and he did the rest! We actually only had one rehearsal and it just came together.
Wilson asked Lazyrus to write the poem after he was recommended to her by Streetpoetz. She told him the purpose of the event, the context of the song, and he wrote the poem from there. On writing and performing the poem, Lazyrus says:
The poem itself, literally, just came to me in about a half an hour. That was the easy part. I’ve performed many times but felt a little nervous about this one. I felt an obligation to these women to make sure it came out good. They deserved something special, I thought.
Wilson’s collaboration with Lazyrus shows how powerful art can truly be. The art Wilson and Lazyrus have created together is not only an expression of great talent and artistic ability; it is a message that has brought people together and inspired them to influence change. Hearing the beautiful singing of Wilson and the lasting words of Lazyrus have brought community to breast cancer survivors and their loved ones and reminded people of the bravery every survivor has demonstrated. Their performance reminds us of the importance of art, that art touches us in a way nothing else can—it reaches our hearts, reminds us to be grateful for our own lives, and motivates us to take advantage of the time that has been given to us.
How can we do this? By educating young people about the risks of breast cancer and what it means to understand your own health and be your own advocate, and by supporting organization’s such as Wilson’s. Wilson is optimistic about the future of For Our Daughters Inc., and the future of women speaking up for themselves when it comes to better health and wellness:
I see For Our Daughters inspiring young women all over the world, empowering them to find their voices and using that to help someone else! Long healthy lives are what we are after, and having a closed mouth prevents that. Our voices matter.
Video taken and arranged by Ray Almonte of Blackfire Recordings.
Feature photo taken by Will Jones from BWNY Magazine.