Gospel singer Dorothy Self is a passionate and talented woman whose deep devotion to her faith has helped her cope with poverty and loss. Throughout her life her powerful and soulful voice has been the vehicle that has helped her accomplish many great things.
Self, 60, can be heard singing gospel songs most every Sunday at Tiberian Baptist Church in St. Albans, where she has been a parishioner for the last 29 years.
Self gave a powerhouse performance of the tune “Victory is Mine” at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration on Jan. 16 at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center. She had the crowd clapping and singing along as she belted out the spiritual number a capella.
She has never made an album, but Self has performed at concerts, weddings and on public access television. She said people often ask her if she has a CD and where they can buy it. Though she has considered self-producing one, she’s just never gotten around to it.
“God made a way for me with my voice,” Self said. “It was the vehicle for me to come to New York and get an education.”
Self was born in Natchez, La., a tiny town with a population of around 600. When she was two years old she watched as her mother collapsed and died of a stroke. When she was 13, her father was struck by a car and died from a brain injury. Self was raised by two of her older brothers.
Decades later she would suffer another heartbreaking loss.
Self broke down in tears as she recalled how her only daughter, Shamari, was struck and killed by a car on her 12th birthday in 1994. The driver had taken her eyes off the road for only a second when she ended up on the sidewalk, hitting the young girl as she waited for a bus.
“I can’t describe what it’s like to lose a child,” Self said. “I lost my mother and my father, but it is nothing like losing a child. I can’t describe it. But through it all, I felt God had a plan for me, so I lift him up in song. He has always been there for me, through the bad times and the good.”
Self began singing as a youngster, participating in the children’s choir at her church. Then she began imitating songs she heard on the radio. And although she says she has eclectic taste in music, gospel has always been her first love.
Coming from a poor family, Self never dreamed that she would be able to attend college. But thanks to her voice, she got a music scholarship to Grambling University in Louisiana, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in music education with an emphasis on voice.
One of her teachers at Grambling encouraged her to move to New York City because he said there would more opportunities for her to develop a singing career. After consulting with her sister, Self decided to make the move in 1974.
She was a soloist at Carter Community AME Church in Jamaica from 1974 to 1976. After that she continued to sing at various other churches. She was once offered a chance to professionally record music and travel, but Self said the deal never came to fruition.
Self has a master’s degree in early childhood education from St. John’s University and another master’s in special education from Queens College, where she also received a professional diploma in administration.
For the last 29 years Self has worked as a senior school improvement special education specialist at the Department of Education.
Asked how she feels when people compliment her on her singing, Self replied, “I feel good. I feel anointed. The Lord keeps lifting me up so that I can continue what I am doing.”
Self of St. Albans is divorced and lives alone, but has many friends. The singer may be leaving the Queens community in coming years, however. She is considering moving back to Louisiana to be closer to her family. She has seven brothers — three are deceased — and one sister. But even if she does move, she said she will continue singing.
“Gospel is embedded in me,” Self said. “I pray to God that I can minister to someone and touch them through song.”