Robb Nash has made many breakthroughs with his music – touring with some of the biggest names in the Canadian rock music scene and releasing top 10 singles – but the most important ones came after he tore up his record deal.
“[There’s a] difference between playing in front of massive crowds every day and looking into the eyes of a young student that’s handing you their suicide note and having a breakthrough right in front of you,” Mr. Nash says.
Taylor Bowman is one of those students who handed Mr. Nash her suicide note. She had been going through difficult times when The Robb Nash Project performed at her school, Nelson McIntyre Collegiate, five years ago.
“When I was 15, I felt very alone, and then when the guys came to my school and played a show, that’s when I realized I [wasn’t] alone,” says Ms. Bowman. “I’m much more open and able to talk about what I went through.”
Through The Robb Nash Project, Mr. Nash and his band tour schools, First Nations communities, detention centres, and other venues, sharing positive messages and hope through music and storytelling.
“Kids walk up and they say ‘Wow, this guy’s been through something tough. So have I. He’s talking about it. Maybe so should I. He got help. Maybe so should I,’” Robb says. “And I think that’s why people are responding, because we’re willing to get up on stage, be vulnerable, tell our stories, let people know that it’s OK to feel weak sometimes and let other people in.”
At 17, after a serious car crash, Mr. Nash was pronounced dead at the scene. He came back to life, but suffered from memory loss, had his skull and chest rebuilt with metal, and struggled with anger and depression for a year and a half following the accident.
“I don’t think bad things happen for a reason, but I do think they happen with potential,” he says.
“I wanted to tell my story so other people wouldn’t have to die like I did before they started to live.”
He formed a band, Live on Arrival, that started to make a name for itself in the Canadian music scene. But in 2007, Mr. Nash tore up his record deal so he could bring his music and message to young people. He’s reached more than 985,000 students to date.
“I’m massively in debt, and we don’t charge for this tour,” says Robb, whose presentations rely on sponsors and other sources of funding. “Everyone thought we were crazy, but I’ll tell you what: this transition has been beautiful. I wouldn’t go back for a second.”
To date, 611 students have handed him their suicide notes. Countless others have handed him razor blades they used to cut with or bottles of prescription drugs.
Many students have even tattooed lyrics from Robb’s songs on their arms, which inspired him to tattoo the signatures from the first 120 suicide notes he received on his right arm.
“I wanted to show students after our shows: look at these signatures on my arm. You think you’re alone, but these are all people that once had the same thoughts that you’re having right now and they’re still here – and they’re conquering the world around them.”
Ralph Wagner, Principal of Nelson McIntyre Collegiate, says that Robb’s positive message plays an important role in promoting dialogue with students.
“Every school will have students that are going to be struggling, either with self-image, or in terms of self-harm,” says Mr. Wagner. “You want to be proactive, and Robb is one of those people that is able to reach kids across the spectrum.”
The Robb Nash Project works closely with schools prior to the presentations. Occasionally, schools will bring in additional counsellors or social workers to follow up with students. If the band receives a suicide note, they notify staff to ensure the student can get further help.
The band also hands out cards that include the Kids Help Phone number and a link to download their music for free.
“We let people know, ‘Just because we’re singing for you today, doesn’t mean your life is going to be fluffy. You’re going to have more bad days,’” Robb says. “If you look for pain when you wake up in the morning, that’s all you’re going to find. But if you wake up in the morning looking for strength, looking for hope, looking for help – that’s what you’ll find.
Here more about the Robb Nash Project on the River City 360 podcast.
This story is featured in the Winter 2017 edition of The Winnipeg Foundation’s Working Together magazine.