Article presented by The Toni Breland Agency.
is a not-for-profit effort, undertaken by one woman, to use a song to send a message of cultural unity into the world. The song, and the project it inspires, involves a woman and friend named Jolayne, who left the world of the living far too soon.
The songwriter believes that the inspiration, creation, and performance of Jolayne’s song represents a beautiful truth, namely, that more people are united in heart, full of love for others, and free of racial hatred than some leaders want you to know.
If you agree, listen to and enjoy our playlist, which includes three versions of Jolayne Woo: A Song For a Classmate—three versions sung by three women from different cultures.
After listening, share the playlist with others. The songwriter believes that by doing this, we not only honor the life of a worthy woman, we demonstrate cultural unity and resist the forces that seek to tear us apart.
Inspired by a Muslim American from Bangladesh.
Written by an African-American.
Created for an American of Chinese descent.
Sung by a Russian-American.
And sung again by a woman from Macedonia.
When horrible people hijacked the U.S. intelligence and airline industries, resulting in the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, a young mother in Atlanta, Georgia, scoured the internet in search of a classmate she had known in high school. The mother, Janet Walker, was a struggling Black writer and single parent who lived in a refurbished cottage on a hill in a neighborhood in west Atlanta. The woman Janet sought was a Muslim named Ruby Syed, born in Bangladesh and raised in the United States. The September 11th attacks had been blamed on Muslims, which is why Janet remembered and felt concern for Ruby.
Janet and Ruby had attended high school during the early 1980s in Augusta, Georgia, a city 140 miles east of Atlanta. Their high school drew students from all over the county, selected for above-average grades. Previously a junior high, the historically Black institution was transformed into an impressive program with a health-professions curriculum and a multicultural student body. Janet did not enter the medical field as a career, but she still believes that attending A.R. Johnson Health Professions High School was one of the best decisions of her life.
Because of the school, she had met Ruby Syed. They had been friendly on campus but had not run in the same circles. One was the daughter of a psychologist from west Augusta, and the other was the daughter of a factory machinist from the east side of town. It would be almost ten years after graduation before their paths crossed again.
Janet became pregnant eight years after high school because of a romantic date that did not go as she had planned. At the same time, a magazine she had started failed. She avoided homelessness by becoming a live-in babysitter. Eventually, in that role, she moved to a nice Augusta subdivision, two doors down from Ruby’s family home. The move, and the birth of Janet’s son, Chad Niger, occurred in 1992.
It was, Janet says, the darkest period of her life. She joyously welcomed her baby, but she was broke, estranged from her family and former religious community, and living with a family that had tired of her presence. The only light of pure friendship she felt came from Ruby, who seemed delighted when she learned that Janet had become her neighbor.
The two young women were quite different. Janet, born and raised in the South, wore a short, boxed Afro and T-shirts proclaiming Black-woman pride. Although she had worked diligently as a small-newspaper copy editor and a Bible-study teacher, since her pregnancy she had taken freshman college courses and subsisted on welfare checks and dreams of finally finishing what she declared would be a great novel.
Ruby spent her formative years in Colorado. She had lovely long black hair and balanced a no-nonsense nature with a ready sense of humor. And, despite Ruby’s Bangladeshi roots, Janet often teased that Ruby was “as American as Jan Brady,” a deeply vanilla and nerdy White girl from a hit 1970s TV sitcom. After high school, Ruby had dutifully gone to college and lived and worked elsewhere before returning to live in Augusta.
Janet was gratified that, despite these differences in their economic circumstances, Ruby treated her as a friend. With Janet’s infant son in tow, the two women ran errands together, sharing tearful laughs and girly secrets. Janet confessed truths about her love life, which was in shambles, and Ruby often spoke of her love for a non-Muslim man she knew her father would not approve.
And when Janet’s son saw his first animal, a goose at a park, it was Ruby who took the picture that froze that precious moment.
Their friendly days came to an end when the family Janet was living with moved away. But she never forgot Ruby’s selfless kindness.
Nine years later, when four hijacked American airliners were used in attacks that destroyed property and lives, Janet then believed, as many Americans did, that the horror had been caused by Muslim terrorists. A wave of hatred for Islam spread across the country. Janet hated the religion, too, believing that its fundamentalist teachings had spawned the attacks. But she grappled with the feelings, for she remembered Ruby and knew that no one, anywhere, needed to fear her Muslim friend.
Troubled by the thought that the good-hearted Ruby might be a victim of persecution, and wanting to offer comfort and assurance, Janet found Ruby’s contact information online. She began leaving a message and was delighted when Ruby picked up the phone.
Janet was relieved to learn that Ruby had not been attacked by anyone fuming with hatred and fear of Islam, but Ruby did share something distressing. One of their high-school classmates, Ruby’s best friend, Jolayne Woo, had died the year before, two days after Christmas 2000. Janet immediately recalled Jolayne, an intelligent, plump-cheeked, pretty girl with luxuriant dark hair. She had a wise and self-assured manner, a dry sense of humor, and a spirit so outstanding that the class had voted her Miss Senior.
Janet had not been a close friend of Jolayne in high school for the same reason she had not been one with Ruby: They were not of the same world. Janet, coming from an all-Black working-class community and raised in a religious cult that discouraged its members from pursuing higher education, had never known anyone like Jolayne and Ruby. Ruby’s father had emigrated from Bangladesh and obtained his Ph.D. in America. Jolayne’s father, a man of Chinese descent born in the United States, had embraced traditional Americanism. He and his family were members of a locally prominent Baptist church, and Mr. Woo, a pharmacist, co-owned a pharmacy.
With news of Jolayne’s death, Janet was struck with sadness. She hung up the phone and pondered what had happened. Jolayne had studied hard and obtained a doctorate in pharmacy (two of her brothers became doctors in other fields). Jolayne married a Japanese-American doctor and lived with him in a large Midwestern city, where she became pregnant with twins. But, while in this precious condition, Jolayne lay down to sleep…and never woke up. She, and the two babies she was carrying, died.
This, the news that their bright Miss Senior’s light had been extinguished, hurt Janet so much that she began hearing a song in that deep space, somewhere in the psyche of writers, where ideas are born. She began hearing a melody, accompanied by words. The words were Jolayne’s name. The rest of the words soon followed, and Janet scribbled them down on a piece of paper.
Soon, Janet met another Black single mother, a woman with a nine-year-old boy the same age as Janet’s son, Chad. The woman and her son were about to be evicted. Janet, seeing herself in this other woman, brought the small family into the neat west Atlanta cottage. The woman stayed just a few weeks, until she had enough money to move back to her home in California. Unable to afford to carry much, she left behind a musical keyboard. It was on this keyboard that Janet first began to play the song she called “Jolayne Woo.”
Excited, Janet mentioned the song to a close family member, only to receive a dismissive laugh. “Oh, Janet,” the relative told her. “You’re so funny.”
The reaction was not what Janet expected. It made her think that maybe it was eccentric to write a song about a high-school classmate with whom she had not been close. So, Janet mentally filed the song away and for many years forgot that she had written it.
By the summer of 2022, life for Janet had improved. She was happily employed and felt fulfilled and spiritually grounded. She began to think about how to preserve her best creative efforts. She had discovered online companies that transform one’s amateur musical efforts into songs performed by professional musicians. She pondered the songs she had written and remembered the one for Jolayne Woo. She bought a keyboard and, for the first time in years, began picking out the notes for the song. By the next day, she had practiced the song enough to record it.
She sent off the recording, and it returned, the next week, as a splendid piano interpretation. The professional singer and musician, Lydia Salnikova, a Grammy-nominated American woman born and raised in Russia, had altered Janet’s signature riff, the part of the melody that is the main, repeated element. Janet did not like the change, at first, even though she had given the woman permission to effect it. But after listening to the song repeatedly, even letting it play as she slept overnight, Janet realized that Miss Salnikova’s arrangement, adorned with blossoms of vocal harmony, was, simply, beautiful.
Janet was curious. She and Miss Salnikova had both sung salutes to Jolayne in notably different ways. How would another singer perform the song?
Using the Salnikova piano arrangement, Janet solicited another singer to add her vocals to the instrumental track. Through an online platform, she received the gift of Andrijana Janevska, a classically trained and famous musician who lives in the country of Macedonia. When Miss Janevska returned emotional vocals with a choral twist on the bridge, Janet was pleased and decided to present all three versions of the song on a playlist.
That playlist, “JOLAYNE WOO: 3 Versions of a Sad, Loving Song,” exists on the YouTube channel called The Toni Breland Agency. You can access the channel by 1) going to the YouTube platform and typing in the full name of the Breland channel; 2) opening the channel and clicking on the “Playlist” tab; and (3) selecting the Jolayne Woo title.
Janet hopes that you will listen to the playlist, share it with a friend, and listen to it again. She hopes that the playlist will prompt you to recall the backstory, and the beauty and sadness it entails. The beauty of friendship, the beauty of cross-cultural collaboration, the beauty of acceptance, the sadness of death.
Thank you for reading or listening. Please enjoy this tribute to a lovely and special girl who became an outstanding woman named Jolayne Woo.
Mercer University's College of Pharmacy offers a scholarship in Jolayne's name.