It’s a Thursday morning and Gerald Graham has been performing at the 42nd Street A train platform entrance for exactly one hour. His unzipped guitar case is nearing $20 in singles; he’s been asked to turn down the volume on his speaker twice — told to move once — by the NYPD; and has been recorded by a handful of New Yorkers who, with the tap of a finger, could share his voice with millions.
“I don’t mind when they record me,” Graham, who performs under the name Fly Bay Jay, says while pushing his speaker in a shopping cart to find the perfect alternate location for a morning of busking.
After passing a few of his go-to spots that have been occupied by other buskers (spots are first come, first served), he stops in front of the NRQW platform entrance so he can catch the eyes and ears of passers-by looking to exit on 41st Street.
The 26-year-old from Far Rockaway has taken to a lifestyle of performing for commuters for the past two years, “on and off.” He could pursue a 9-to-5 career (he holds a certificate degree from the New Life Business Institute in Jamaica in the medical field) but he’s instead decided to listen to his instincts.
“Music is my passion. I choose to do what I love,” he says.
One afternoon last month while riding the A train, a performance of Sam Smith’s “Too Good at Goodbyes” turned him into an overnight Facebook sensation. Commuter Ginnette Candelario recorded a nearly two-minute clip of Graham singing, posted it to her Facebook page and 335,000 shares later, his rendition totaled more than 15 million views.
“I was surprised because that was just a day I was out trying to make some money and I went viral,” he says.
Busking has become almost routine for Graham, who heads out to the A train, 42nd Street station or Grand Central Terminal, about three times a week for enough cash to pay the bills.
“At first, because I’ve got big speakers, their reaction, in the beginning, is like (sigh) because they don’t know what I’m going to do,” Graham says of the exhaustion commuters can feel running into more than a handful of performers daily on their way to the train. “I say, ‘You guys can put your headphones in if you’d like, but you’re just gonna take them right back out.’”
“They always end up taking them right back out,” he adds.
Above the NRQW platform, the scene is cyclical: crowds gather, disperse, repeat. The reaction to Graham’s performance is primarily positive, with more than one commuter telling him he’s “too good” to perform in the subway as they drop him singles.
Graham pushes on through moments of crowds who seemingly couldn’t be bothered as he sings “Too Good at Goodbyes” and John Legend’s “All of Me,” and welcomes an uptick in compliments while he belts out Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years.” That track, he notes, always brings in the bucks.
“I like performing in the subway — to an extent,” he says. Born in the Bronx, Graham was separated from his four siblings as a child and was placed in foster care. He was transferred to Hillcrest Educational Center in Massachusetts for school and remained in the system until he signed himself out in 2005 and moved to Queens to be with his family and follow his passion for music.
“I want to take my music much further. I like performing for people in general. I like to see the smiles on people’s faces,” he says.
A few days after the Facebook video of Graham made the rounds on Facebook, he says he got a call from New Jersey-based management company Mpower Records. The company is currently helping him put together a breakout album featuring original tracks.
“It’s like as soon as I started to take my music seriously this happened,” he says.
Graham’s album, which he says will reflect a mix of R&B and pop genres, is still in the early stages and doesn’t yet have a release date. He says he hopes to one day grace the stages of all of New York City’s iconic venues, from The Apollo to Madison Square Garden. Until then, you can catch him weekdays riding the A train to and from his busking spots.