At The [email protected] in St. Pete
Jennifer Msumba grew up with autism but didn’t know it, leading to an early life filled with obstacles and challenges unimaginable to many. Now a successful filmmaker, singer/songwriter, and author, she spreads her inspiring message of courage and hope through the telling of positive and meaningful stories. The [email protected], in partnership with St. Petersburg/Clearwater Film Commissioner Tony Armer, will host an evening of entertainment with the artist on Thursday, August 11, at 8 p.m.
Diagnosed as a child with Sensory Processing Disorder and as a teen with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Jennifer was thirty years old before she learned she had autism. “That’s when it finally all fell into place,” she says. “It helped me understand myself and overcome more challenges because I was more patient with myself. And it helped other people understand me better.”
Today Jennifer Msumba uses her many talents to raise awareness about autism and give a voice to others who have a similar disorder. Her book, Shouting at Leaves, which has been lauded as an extraordinarily beautiful and powerful memoir, describes the difficulties she faced from childhood through adulthood, including her time trapped in an abusive mental health facility. But it also celebrates her triumphant survival and the freedom she achieved through sheer will and determination. “I really wanted to get my story out because I had many comments on my YouTube videos from people who found them helpful,” she says. “I wrote the book almost like a manual to help other people on the spectrum deal with things I went through.”
Those inspirational YouTube videos also caught the attention of producers at A&E, who cast her in a 2019 episode of a reality show called The Employables. It follows adults living with autism and Tourette Syndrome as they search for employment. There she discovered her interest in filmmaking.
“I fell in love with the process of making well-produced content,” Jennifer Msumba says. “Up until then, I’d only done YouTube videos.” The experience prompted her to start reading books about filmmaking. In 2020, she made her first film, “The Fish Don’t Care When it Rains.”
“I wrote and edited the film,” she says, “and my support person helped hold the camera.” The film went on to win the 2020 Easterseals Disability Film Challenge and later won “Best Short Documentary” at the 2021 Sunscreen Film Festival.
Jennifer Msumba followed up her first filmmaking success with another win: “Like the Girls Who Wear Pink” was awarded “Best Florida Short Film” at the Key West Film Festival in 2021. On her website she explains her motivation for making the film:
“I want to convey that there are so many neurodiverse individuals who are having internal struggles that others can’t imagine. … I hope to affect people into having a change of heart about that kid they may have teased growing up, and to open their eyes as to what that kid may have been going through. Not to shame them, but to help them be better allies today.”
“Heroes in Training,” the artist’s newest film project, presented the most technical difficulties, she says. Two days before filming was scheduled to start, she lost the camera crew and two of the actors, but she didn’t let that stop her. Although she admits she was nervous and scared, she quickly pulled herself together. “Jennifer, you’re still going to do this,” she told herself. “There is another way. You just have to pull it together and figure it out.”
Through the nonprofit organization Help Us Gather, in Clearwater, Jennifer found her new cast member, Mikey Johnson. The film’s director, Brittany Phillips, put her in touch with a new camera crew. She was very happy with the result. “I think the film had an even better outcome because of the adversity,” she says.
In addition to making films, Jennifer Msumba uses her musical voice to educate and inspire. As a child, she learned to play the piano by ear and began violin lessons in the third grade. But it wasn’t until 2015 that she wrote her first song, titled “When You Were Born,” about lessons learned as one grows older. “Because of my horrible experiences in the mental health system,” she says, “it took me many years to start recovering from everything that had happened to me. Around 2015 I started playing the piano again and letting my creativity out. I began learning to express myself through music.”
She originally wrote the title song for “The Fish Don’t Care When it Rains” and then wrote the film around it. That song became a track on her first album, “Music Saved Me,” recorded in her home studio during the height of the pandemic. In the future, she plans to work on more projects that blend her love of music, writing, and filmmaking. “I never thought about doing that before,” she says. “I’ve found that world, and I’m really loving it.”
With so much creative energy, Jennifer says it’s sometimes hard to focus. “One week it’s all about a song that I’m writing, and the next week it’s about writing a script,” she says. “I do what I’m feeling at the time—where my heart is at the moment—but I do buckle down and get it done when I have a deadline.”
Jennifer Msumba is looking forward to her upcoming event at The [email protected], “An Evening with Artist Jennifer Msumba,” in part because she likes meeting new people and hopes they will get something out of what she has to say. The evening will feature a musical performance, the screening of three of her films, and a Q&A session, moderated by Tony Armer.
Jennifer explains her triumph over adversity—from misunderstood child to successful adult—with a powerful message for all of us, not just those living with autism and other disorders:
“I was a bright light simmering on low, and I just needed that breath of oxygen to help me grow and shine bright. What would happen if we breathed that oxygen into all people with disabilities? I bet the world would be better for it.”
To learn more about the event and purchase tickets:
An Evening with Artist Jennifer Msumba
Where: The [email protected], 620 1st Ave S, St. Petersburg, Florida
When: Thursday, August 11, 2022, 8 PM
Story written exclusively for Destination Tampa Bay™. All photos and posters supplied by artist Jennifer Msumba. Videographer support by Tony Armer.