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Tabi Haly: Rocking and Rolling
Tabi Haly, a software engineer at JPMorgan Chase, is making music history as a disabled singer/songwriter with Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities.
Tabi Haly's song “I Am Able" speaks volumes.
In her music video, Haly—who lives with spinal muscular dystrophy—doesn't pull any punches when it comes to showing what life is like with a disability. In one scene, as she sings, her home health aide's hands materialize behind her to pull her hair back. In another scene, the aide repositions Haly's arms and hands, which she can't move herself.
“Emotionally, singing a song helps me channel my frustrations," says the New York-based software engineer, who works at JPMorgan Chase. “I have chronic pain every day from my physical situation, so I have a lot of feelings of being left out. So what do I do? I go home, I sing songs to rock out or I write a song."
An accomplished rock/R&B singer/songwriter, Haly started penning songs in high school and has publicly performed them since 2010. Last year, she began sharing those years of knowledge with others, becoming the PR Committee Chair of Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities (RAMPD), a coalition of music creators established to help new musicians.
“When I got the invitation I felt so honored," Haly recalls. “Our commonality is we all want to bring inclusion and accessibility to the music industry by amplifying disability culture and showing off how accomplished and competitive we are."
Bringing Inequality to Light
RAMPD was founded by Lachi, a multi-award-winning blind recording artist and national disability advocate. It grew out of a 2021 “Conversation With Creators With Disabilities" hosted by the Recording Academy—best known for its sponsorship of the Grammy Awards. Haly joined several disabled artists for a discussion on inclusion with Valeisha Butterfield Jones, the Academy's Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer. As the discussion revealed, disabled artists face a serious lack of visibility, access and representation in the industry.
Haly, who has performed in venerated New York City music venues like Mercury Lounge and Rockwood Music Hall, says one of the best things about her involvement with RAMPD has been sharing ideas and frustrations with other disabled musicians while hearing each other out.
“I can't go to a dressing room, for example—I've never been to one actually," she says. “I'm not putting down any of the venues where I've been fortunate to perform, but it just wasn't an option for me. It is an option for someone who's non-disabled."
A History of Supporting Others
Advocating on behalf of people with disabilities is not new to Haly. When she was an undergraduate computer science major and music minor at Pace University, she persuaded the school to build an elevator so she could access a stage. MTV and Schimmel Theatre—home to Bravo's Inside the Actor's Studio—are also more accessible now, thanks to her advocacy work.
“Tabi is an advocacy phenom," says Fabian Caballero, who plays guitar in her band. “She lives and breathes it by advocating for herself on a daily basis. She stands up for herself as a human being and that, in turn, has done so much for the disability community."
Asserting herself is also not new for Haly, but she'll admit it isn't always easy, especially when it comes to her music. “As an artist, I have to sometimes bring the 'diva' in," she says with a laugh. “I may have to speak up and say, 'I love your ad libs but we have to take them out' — or the opposite can be true and I say, 'I want you to shine and rock out more.' Those are things I have to prepare for and sometimes lose sleep over."
Making Songs from Struggle
Haly's muscular dystrophy has not dimmed her songwriting skills by any means. To the contrary, she has a couple of albums' worth of songs just waiting to be recorded.
“I write about my personal life, my experiences and my feelings of being different," she says. “I'm not afraid to use certain terms or language in my songs that pertain to my particular kind of disability — like the way I use 'atrophy' in my song Morning Light."
Fostering an awareness for disability inclusion not only impacts people who listen to her music, but also the musicians in her band—like guitarist Michael Bunin, who Haly recruited through a post on Craigslist.
“She's exposed me to the difficulties our society puts in the way for people with disabilities and made me realize how much work still needs to be done to make this world accessible," Bunin says. “All of her songs are helping people see things they haven't heard about before."
In fact, Haly helped inspire the next step in Bunin's career: he plans to pursue a post-graduate degree in music therapy. Part of that, he says, comes from seeing how music is part of Haly's physical and emotional therapy. Belting out a song when she has a bad cold or pneumonia helps with her breathing; while that brings on some coughing, which she has to let out, it helps her gauge if she's getting better.
Aside from the many ways Haly benefits from her music, she's looking forward to working with RAMPD to help others appreciate what disabled musicians and music professionals have to offer.
“With RAMPD, we want people to know that everyone can play a part in helping us break down the barriers we face," she says. “Our disabilities aren't something we go home with and resolve with medication. Understanding that — and recognizing our talent — will really help us drive change."