By Mary Clare Fischer, The Baltimore Sun
7:44 AM EDT, October 8, 2012
At first glance, David Correy and Nelson Emokpae could not be more different.
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.
But he never stopped wondering about his Brazilian birth mother. She was only 14 when she had Correy. What had become of her? Did she still think of him?
Initially, auditioning for Fox's "The X Factor" was just an attempt to find her. But Correy has since realized that his struggles with a near-fatal car accident and a disease that nearly ended his college career might give others hope.
"It's all about inspiring people, and I think I'm the guy to do that," Correy said. "My story is bigger than me, and my voice and my message is way bigger than me."
Correy's father, an elevator mechanic, and mother, a lobbyist, weren't musically inclined. But when his passion emerged, they encouraged it. At 5, Correy began singing on a stage his father built in his backyard. Sheets became the curtain, and neighbors, the adoring audience.
By fourth grade, Correy was starring in local plays and by seventh, in musicals. He played the title role in "Bye Bye Birdie" and fell in love with Elvis Presley. Yet he was also a self-professed jock, playing baseball, basketball and golf, among other sports.
Correy was torn — the jock who loved musicals, the child who loved his parents but couldn't stop thinking about his birth mother — and became insecure. He studied at Archbishop Spalding High School and spent his nights exploring Baltimore clubs such as Hammerjack's, Bourbon Street and Iguana Cantina.
"It wasn't 100 percent conducive to my progression as a musician, but boy, did it teach me how to grind," Correy said.
Correy received a scholarship to Berklee College of Music, where, during his sophomore year, he became so sick he lost his voice for a year and a half. Though his illness temporarily took away his ability to sing, he continued to write songs.
Correy later made a full recovery, and began landing gigs with pop and hip-hop stars such as Ne-Yo and Bow Wow. While driving one night in 2006, Correy fell asleep at the wheel and wrecked his car. He emerged with a fractured hip, and broken leg, but persevered.
"As hard as it is not to quit when times get hard, you just never know when your time is coming," Correy said.
To get to "The X Factor" auditions, Correy drove 13 hours through two thunderstorms to Greensboro, N.C. There, he wowed the judges with Bruno Mars' "Just the Way You Are" and moved on to boot camp in Miami. He made the first cut and is waiting on the next round of results, which should come Wednesday.
There may be 60 remaining contestants, but Correy is impossible to miss. Tattoos wrap up both his arms and stretch across his torso. His favorite? A rose on his hand that bears the word "breathe," something his mother used to calm his stage fright when he was a child.
Soon, he may have another role model — a woman has come forward claiming to be his birth mother. Her story lines up, he said. The only step left in the process is a DNA test, which Correy wants to pursue.
"It's all so surreal now," he said. "I truly believe I have the biggest heart, and that's something you can't teach."