Although he can’t see, Fitzville Martin deftly maneuvers the keypad and levers on the control panel, quickly judging which button performs which function.
He was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease. As a child, he could still see through his peripheral vision. Once, as he rode his bike down the street, he looked sideways to see where he was going. But a lady passing by shouted at him: “Look where you are going! assuming he was casually looking sideways.
His parents didn’t stop him from playing in the street or doing what the other kids were doing. “They let me live. … It wasn’t, ‘Oh you have vision problems, so you can’t go out,’” he said. Their attitude encouraged Martin to pursue what he wanted.
From an early age, Martin got into music. Around the age of 10 and before immigrating to the United States with his Jamaican family, he frequently played with his uncle’s band. “Whoever didn’t show up out of his band, I played the instrument,” he said. The drummer often backed down, so Martin became a skilled drummer, often playing at weddings. “I always knew that music would be part of my life,” he said.
Today, Martin, 46, is a notable producer and CEO of Willpower Entertainment, a studio known for working with hip hop and R&B pioneers like Jay Z and Toni Braxton. Nicknamed Funkmaster Flex, he has produced records for many emerging talents from Brooklyn’s hip hop industry. He also mentors young people, disabled or not, to learn audio engineering and enter the music industry. “I wanted to find a smoother way for them to be on their own, a smoother path to adulthood,” he said, noting that many teenagers growing up in the tough neighborhoods of Brooklyn struggle to avoid trouble. He wanted to give them opportunities to grow.
He believes his mission is to help people with vision loss live their lives to the fullest. “I didn’t have anyone like me when I was growing up,” Martin said, to show her that it was possible to carve a path in the music industry. He cited current statistics that say about 70% of blind Americans are unemployed — and he hopes to change that through his advocacy nonprofit, Voices for the Blind. In a way, he thinks people with vision loss are gifted with a special gift: extraordinary hearing ability, which can be turned into successful careers using those skills.
“If you have 20/20 vision, you’re a good marksman. If your ears are what you live for, music is your thing,” he said. Martin is able to use his hearing to detect modulations in the music he produces, or sense when someone is approaching the door. He uses his other senses to help him get through daily life without depending on anyone: putting on his suit, walking down the street, maneuvering in the workshop he built from scratch in the garden of his house when he had about 20 years. He wants to be living proof that blind people can do anything anyone else can.
Growing up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in the 1980s was a difficult time. But because of his vision loss, Martin attended specialized private schools. “I think it’s a blessing, … to have a vision problem. I think it saved me from natural trouble. He remembers the nuns at the Catholic school who would put him in his place. “I’d do my cool Jamaican walk down the hall, and Sister Mariana would rush at me, ‘Uh uh. Go to class,” he fondly recalls.
His parents also instilled a work ethic that emphasized self-reliance. Her mother worked as a cashier in a supermarket. “Instead of spending money on us [siblings], she will take us to pack our bags next to her. She will say: ‘He is my son. You better tip him. We will come home as a young kid, $100, $200 every weekend,” he recalled. At night, his mother worked in a telephone company. She also went to school and took computer classes. She then became an accountant for the supermarket chain.
His cousin and iconic rapper, Special Ed, frequently recorded music in the studio. Martin followed and learned the tricks of the trade on his own. “I was just a calm, just listening, paying attention to everything,” he said. Back then, there were no tools accessible to the blind, such as text-to-speech features and the special braille tablets he uses today when working in the studio or taking notes at Baruch College. , where he is preparing a master’s degree in music. and politics. “I had to remember what happens when you press a button.” He taught himself how to record, mix and master music. After building his own studio, he began working with artists, earning $40 an hour. He quickly became a well-regarded name in the industry. But he still wanted to get a formal education, and he went on to earn an associate’s degree in video arts and technology.
What gives her the most joy is being able to help others achieve the same goal. He started Voices for the Blind in 1999 to teach high school graduates life skills and audio engineering. He recently mentored a teenager with epilepsy. He wanted to become a DJ but was worried about having an episode while working. Martin encouraged him to overcome the mental hurdle, suggesting that he prepare a pre-recorded mix and play it when he detects an incoming episode. Today, he DJs at quinceañera parties and other celebrations. Martin told another hand-impaired teenager who was afraid to get into the music industry, “Use your mind and do the right thing.” Martin said he realized early on that “you are only as strong as what can break you”. He encourages the young people he mentors to support them, no matter how difficult things may seem.
Currently, he is working on making industry-standard audio software, Ableton Live, accessible to the blind. He hopes to be able to develop the association in order to be able to help at least 20 teenagers per semester. “When I wanted to give back, … that’s when I really got everything I wanted,” he said, explaining that he feels most fulfilled when he is able to open up. doors to others.
He is a state delegate for the American Council for the Blind, acting as an intermediary between local government and the blind community. He attends conferences on innovations that benefit the blind and advocates for legislation that benefits the visually impaired. During the pandemic, the organization helped blind people get groceries and essential goods. The next step for Martin is to go to law school, so he can continue to advocate for the blind community. He can’t wait for the day to come; he developed a curiosity for this field when he was young. “You have to go through what you go through in life. Just be strong and keep pushing,” he said.
This article originally appeared in American Essence magazine.