Denise Thimes knew she wanted to be a singer all her life. But the road has been anything but straight. Born and raised in St. Louis, Denise grew up surrounded by music thanks to her later father, Lou “Fatha” Thimes, a radio icon of the African American community who played blues, jazz and “all kinds of music” for his listeners, including his young daughter.
“My mother discovered I had a voice when I was just 8 years old,” Denise said in an interview, “I was always around music, always aware of it, surrounded by it, and exposed to all different types.”
Denise recalls her first time performing for an audience; she was in second grade. “It was a Christmas play, we sang Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree… but in German!” She was the only one who could pronounce the German “Oh Tannenbaum, Oh Tannenbaum” so she got to sing the song. But her real start, like so many African American artists of her era, she says, was in the black church.
“Church was an incubator, it was integral to my talent, it was where I first started singing,” she says, “the first song I sang solo was ‘God gave me a song, that the angels could not sing’ – I loved that, a song that not even the angels could sing – but I could!”
But it would be years before Denise decided to take the plunge and devote her career to singing. Her parents knew she had a gift, but wanted her to pursue more traditional career paths – and financially, they couldn’t support Denise running away to New York to pursue a dream. She also wanted to help people, in high school Denise wanted to be a teacher and while at Spelman College, she considered being a lawyer, “but the arts prevailed and persisted in my life” she says.
Today, Denise is a jazz diva icon in her own right. She has performed across the country and all over the world, for everyone from Queen Elizabeth II to Aretha Franklin. However, the inner need to help people is still a part of her. When she was asked to perform at Dignity Period’s spring gala, she wanted to know more about the organization first.
“Once I heard that many Ethiopian girls drop out of school because they don’t have proper supplies and that these women are not finishing their education because of their periods, I said, Oh My Gosh I am IN,” she said.
Denise had worked with Dignity Period’s Jane Unger for years on other projects, but when Jane came to her about getting Ethiopian girls menstrual hygiene products and helping to change the culture around periods, “you could’ve sold me for a nickel after that” she exclaimed.
“I’m at a point in my career and my life, that I am more than just entertainment for an event, I need to be involved,” said Denise, “I said to Jane, how can I help?”
Denise met with Dignity Period board members Dr. Lewis and Helen Wall to learn more about the work they do in Ethiopia. “My mouth was open even wider, and I shed even more tears,” she said about that first meeting. Denise couldn’t believe that having a period was taboo in Ethiopia and that young girls and women alike were made to feel ashamed and embarrassed for menstruating. After that, Denise started conversations with her friends and her community about Dignity Period.
“I had a good friend who I told about DP and she just said ‘oh my gosh, Denise, I never knew about this’,” she said. Denise’s friend was so moved about the work that she bought tickets to the Gala even though she couldn’t attend.
“I wanted to share with friends and get more people involved in this. I feel that this is a part of my gift as well, not just performing, but being inclined to work on things I have a deep passion for.”
Denise was also impressed with the Walls and how eloquently and expertly they speak about such a tough issue. Menstrual hygiene, pads, periods – all of these subjects can be difficult to discuss even here at home in the States.
“The Walls do such a beautiful job of getting the message across without making people feel uncomfortable,” and Denise went on to say that “there were a couple of men in our meeting and these men did not feel intimidated or uncomfortable by the information that was presented before them. They have mastered this discussion and they really know what they are doing in presenting this to women and to men.”
When asked what she wished people knew about Dignity Period, Denise replied: “I would love for people to really understand the deficit and understand why there is a huge need for this. The supplies, the literature, the facilities, the products, the distribution, everything. I want them to see that if we don’t support this, there is a huge gap.”
As a mother of two children, Denise knows how important it is to support her kids with what they need to succeed in life, her own daughter is a ballerina in a pre-professional program in pursuing her own artistic dreams. When thinking about the challenges Ethiopian women face around menstrual hygiene Denise asks: “As a mother, would I want that for my daughter? As a father, would I want that for my daughter?”
Denise Thimes will be performing at the Dignity Period Spring Gala on Saturday April 1, at 6pm. But, as she notes, she’s more than the entertainment. She’s helping to transform the lives of young women around the world, and she wants you to join her.
“I want people to come out and support this great event and give, just mad give, don’t worry about how small or how large, give right where you are.”
Photo credits: denisethimes.com