As a young child in Guyana, Winston Sumner would sit for hours on the floor next to his mother, Stella, and watch and listen as she sung and hummed along to Gospel songs, smiling and tapping her feet to the beat.
It was through her that he discovered his love of music.
“Mom, how do you sing like that?,” he’d ask, held rapt by her talent, and her joy.
It didn’t take long for the self-described quiet and introverted young boy to learn how to harness his own natural gifts — an ear for music, and a love for song and dance. Long before he became “Winston Irie,” the bashful child took to performing wherever and whenever he could, building his craft and his confidence.
“When I was in my single digits, I would breakdance and sing wherever I could,” recalls Sumner. “I’d do it at home, at school, on the corner, you name it. I was shy but I loved it.”
Sumner, who moved to Brooklyn when he was 14, continued to grow and explore as a musician, playing school concerts, block parties and anywhere where there was a welcome opportunity for music. Three years later, at the tender age of 17, he got his first big break — a spot on the stage at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem.
He was on early in the evening for one of the club’s Amateur Night live performances back in 1989. But, despite his nerves, and his inexperience on such a big stage, Sumner managed to capture the attention of the producers while earning some appreciation from the demonstrative crowd.
“I guess they liked what they saw,” he admits, adding that the place billed as “where stars are born and legends are made” issued him an $80 check and a rare invitation to come back and perform again.
Sumner was buoyed by the experience, and couldn’t wait to come back, but he also realized that he still had to earn a living. So he used the money from his time on stage to buy himself a hammer, that way he could work in construction and support himself and his mother in the meantime.
Soon enough though, he went back to the Apollo. And after his third and final time there — where he performed an original song, “Come Here to Me Girl,” which drove the crowd wild — he was ready.
“They said, ‘you don’t belong here any more, you’re a professional now.’ And that’s how I got started,” says Sumner.
Soon, Sumner started booking professional gigs all over Brooklyn and New York City. Though he continued in construction, and also moonlighted as a security guard to pay the bills, the up-and-comer started to gain more widespread recognition as he played gigs at hotspots such as The Lion’s Den, Gonzalez y Gonzalez, Caliente Cab Company and The Red Lion.
Along the way, he became Winston Irie and got signed to his first label, as lead vocalist for The Hotheads. Eventually he would go on to share the stage with performers such as Lenny Kravitz, A Tribe Called Quest, Richie Havens and John Stamos, and opening for Jimmy Cliff, Steel Pulse and King Yellowman.
Now a staple on the East End as well, Irie is one of a handful of musicians who is still in demand and able to play during the pandemic. Since summer began, he’s performed several socially distanced gigs out East — at The Stephen Talkhouse, The Clubhouse, Gurney’s, Southampton Arts Center, Unity Fest, etc.
He’ll play wherever and whenever he can, he says. Because music is essential and helping others is one of the most important things that anyone can do.
“Music is especially important now. It’s liberation for people. It’s encouraging. It gives some stability. And hope,” he says.
Irie has been putting in some serious studio time as well. He and his label, SPI Music, recently released the singles “Ja Love” and “No Time to Lose,” which are both available on Spotify, Amazon and Apple Music. In August, his newest album, “It’s a Good Thing,” dropped.
Getting paid for doing something that he loves so much is nice, says Irie, but it’s not necessarily the most important thing to him. What really matters is emancipation, freedom, the love of life and unity with one another and the planet.
“It’s okay to be rich, but it’s not okay to oppress other people. We’ve got to stop brutalizing each other, and Mother Nature,” he says. “For me, hearing that something that I’ve done has helped someone else through a tough time, that’s what gives me purpose. That’s more than money to me.”