The Revival of Ruby Red
December 13, 2016
Ruby Williams found herself lying on the floor in a house in Fresno, a McDonald’s hamburger in hand, gunshots ringing out around her.
The home was dilapidated with no running water or electricity, the domain of countless drug deals and drive-by shootings.
She didn’t have her daughter or even a car. She was barely holding onto a job. Now this.
The then-21-year-old turned numb as she watched the scene play out like a movie for nearly 20 minutes: her cousins firing guns out of the window, and returning gunfire hitting the home, just missing her on the floor with her hamburger still in hand.
It was then that Williams realized she had reached her lowest point.
“I’ve been through so much I don’t even care,” she remembers thinking. “If a bullet hits me, at least I’ll have this burger.”
While a bullet didn’t hit Williams that day in 2011, a realization did, she says.
“I was just tired. I was fed up,” she says. “I knew I wanted better for my life.”
She says about a week later she witnessed the gunning down of her cousin by Fresno police.
“They shot him, dragged him out the car, beat him,” she said. “They put a gun to my head and said they would kill me too.”
Williams felt helpless. “That really did something to me,” she said. “I was like, ‘I gotta leave this house.’”
Now 26, in a bright blue floral-print dress and a smile, Williams holds a notebook in her hand as she sits down at a table in the student lounge at Fresno City College.
Williams, an English major, is a returning student trying to finish up what she started in 2008. It’s been a long road since then, she says.
Williams is articulate, a trait that has gained her both a job as a radio host and a passion for writing. To some, she goes by Ruby Red, her stage name.
Williams got her start in radio at Central Valley Talk, where she was a talent and event coordinator. She later moved to 88.1 FM but things didn’t work out.
“Some people don’t believe in the same things you believe in,” she says. “So I left.”
Soon after, she got a call from 103.3 The Voice, an African, R&B and old-school station headquartered inside the Pacific Southwest Building in downtown Fresno.
Now she hosts her own radio show Monday through Friday on The Voice.
“It’s a black-owned radio station which is awesome,” she says. “You don’t really have too many of those here in Fresno.”
On Tuesdays, Williams hosts “The Local Block,” which features a local artist who gets to promote themselves and their music for an hour.
She has met the likes of local celebrities like singers Marques Anthony and Tyrell Williams. She also met rapper Young Joc when he came through Fresno.
Not only does Williams have her own show, but she is helping to shape the up-and-coming station as well.
“When I first started off, they wanted just funk music, but now I’m kinda blending in local, mainstream and also positive influential music,” she says. “We play hip-hop but we don’t play derogative hip-hop.”
Station manager Jamila Harris describes Williams as hardworking and dedicated. She explains the nonprofit is run solely by volunteers and Williams comes in five days a week on top of being a single mother and a student. “She slides right in there like ‘nada,’ no nervousness,” says Harris. “That’s why she’s here.”
But Ruby Red isn’t just a DJ name. She also sings, and has performed all over California, most recently at the Fresno Fair in the Next Big Thing Talent Show. She has a few recorded songs under her belt, and hopes to record more in the future.
People are surprised to hear that Williams has two unpublished books, she says.
One of them is a poetry book that includes a poem she wrote when she was just six years old.
The other she describes as an non fiction urban story. It’s about different characters whose lives collide, she says. “There’s a character who is going through domestic violence, [one] who is homosexual, [one] that’s a prostitute,” she says. Another is in prison. Despite slight similarities, she says the story has nothing to do with her own life. ”It’s about things I’ve seen and things I’ve heard,” she says.
She wants to learn more about the “ins and outs” of publishing before she goes forward, but hopes something can be done with the books next year.
When Williams was four, her mother was shot to death in Fresno. Denise Jackson’s boyfriend was shot first, execution-style, before she was chased and gunned down, Williams says, adding that the killer was never prosecuted. The fact that the case isn’t closed has left a hole in her heart, and she has spent many years trying to fill it.
”I just remember she was real loving to me,” Williams says. “I used to remember her smile, but not that much anymore.”
Williams seems reserved about the topic, but insists she has come a long way from where she was about accepting her mother’s death.
She is quick to say that she spent a lot of time dwelling in the past, like spending Mother’s Day crying at the cemetery and using alcohol to numb the pain.
“When she died, I tried to jump in the casket,” she says. “I used to have dreams about that.” But she realized something had to change.
“I’m not gonna better [myself] drinking and crying about it because it’s not gonna bring her back.”
Still, a piece of Jackson is in everything Williams takes on.
“Recently I was working on a project where I was going to reenact her death with a song that I wrote for her,” she says. “I wanted to live that moment again. It’s like you’re an actor. I wanted to play her to get that [feeling] of losing your life unexpectedly [and] being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person.”
Williams eventually realized the project was too much for her. “It kind of took a toll on me,” she says. “I felt it would’ve taken a toll on my family, so I let it go.”
“It’s my obstacle,” Williams admits about her mother’s death. “It’s what has made me stronger.”
Growing up in Caruthers with her grandmother, also named Ruby, Williams had never experienced city life before becoming pregnant at 17 and moving to Fresno.
Racism was a common occurrence at her small-town high school, where only a handful of African-American students attended, she says. Dead animals ended up in her locker after band practice and a few girls would call her the n-word.
Williams kept the bullying to herself because there were more pressing matters on her mind. “There’s people actually dying every day. Some people can’t even go to school,” she says, adding that it was harder to speak out back then.
“They’re in a small community,” she says, shrugging. “Maybe if they stepped outside the box, they could see that there’s more to it.”
But the racism eventually drove her to Washington Union High School in Easton where she took an offer to play basketball. At the time, Williams believed that was going to be her way out. “My whole goal was to be in the WNBA,” she says.
Williams’ basketball dreams weren’t meant to be, and she eventually landed in continuation school and became pregnant with her daughter, Aleezah, at 17.
Despite her hardships, Williams graduated early and was a speaker at her own graduation.
She began attending FCC while she was pregnant and got her own apartment.
“I wanted to major in sociology/psychology,” Williams says. “That takes up to 8 years.” She would drop out two years later.
Her main obstacle was her boyfriend at the time, Aleezah’s father.
“He had an alcohol problem,” she begins. Williams picks her words carefully in describing the abuse she says she endured by her ex for three years.
“[It was] just — being hit on, yelled at, not respected; having your apartment destroyed everyday,” she says. “He would crush everything in my living room.”
Williams eventually left the relationship when she was 19, after one of her instructors at FCC called her out.
“One day my face was bruised and she pulled me over and she was crying,” says Williams. The instructor had seen her bring her daughter to school and threatened to call CPS on Williams if she didn’t leave the relationship.
“At that point I was like, “wow, this is not just affecting me, it’s affecting my child; it’s affecting my school. So I stopped going to school. I actually left him after that,” Williams says. Although it was the right decision, the move led her to become homeless.
She left her daughter in the care of her grandmother in Caruthers, and without a car, Williams left to live in Fresno with her cousins and to find work. “It was the ‘trap spot,’” she muses about where she lived.
As for her ex, the last time she saw him was earlier this year after he was hit by a car while intoxicated.
With both legs broken and his “intestines hanging out of his stomach,” Williams gave him the benefit of the doubt when she visited him, but was left disappointed that they still couldn’t get along.
“He still has that bitterness about him,” she says.
Williams’ quest leads her to love in an unlikely place — Wasco State Prison.
Jesus Jones, Williams’ fiance, is an inmate at the facility, likely to be released next year, but she hopes sooner.
“It was a ‘Love & Hip Hop’ story,” Williams insists, smiling. “I fell in love with him at the same time I was going through a lot of stuff. I really didn’t know who I was at the time,” she says. “Honestly, he’s the one that kind of got me singing.”
Before landing in prison, Jones encouraged Williams to visit her cousin that had a studio and that’s when the couple realized she had a talent.
“One night I was drunk and I started recording,” she says. “He [Jones] was sitting there on the couch and I was crying. I was really, really… emotional. I had been with someone since high school, so it was kind of different.”
Although she says they had chemistry, the two split after a period of time. “We were young and reckless,” Williams says.
Jones was eventually picked up for a probation violation, and was involved in a prison fight, which led to more time added on to his stay.
They reconciled while he was in prison and plan to marry when he gets out.
Although it’s difficult to maintain the relationship, Williams says it’s definitely doable.
“If you have patience, you have loyalty,” she says. They write to each other everyday without fail.
Williams has maintained her celibacy for two years, and says it’s easy compared with what she’s already been through.
“When you’re at a point [that] you lose everything, [sex] doesn’t matter. What matters is a place for your child, a place for you to lay your head, having money to provide, having a car, being stable. That’s what matters.”
Jones and Williams plan to work on a few projects together, although she won’t reveal just what they are. She did say she wants to lift him up spiritually, and says he is working on getting his high school diploma while behind bars.
“That’s another reason I want to move out of Fresno — to give him a different outlook. A lot of people go to prison and when they come out they don’t really have a lot to look forward to,” Williams explains. “That’s why they go back to the same thing.
Williams encourages others to leave Fresno. “Not forever, but just go experience it,” she says. “Go live somewhere for a year.”
Williams’ ultimate goal is to leave Fresno. She longs to get away from the suffocation of the valley, she says. She doesn’t want to get stuck in the small-town life and forget the big picture.
“I feel sometimes like I’m going to die here because of the stuff that goes on,” Williams says. For a long time, she was terrified she would perish at the same age her mother did.
“That was one of my fears growing up,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh God, I’m going to die when I’m 21.’”
Williams has developed a love for southern California and Los Angeles in particular while traveling for her singing career.
Meeting KeKe Palmer of BET fame is one of the highlights of Williams’ travels. She is in the background on a “Just Keke” episode named “Cypher” that was taped a few years ago in Los Angeles.
She was invited on the show by a friend, but when that friend dropped out, Williams knew she couldn’t let the chance slip away from her, so she went alone.
When Palmer noticed she was wearing the wrong undergarments for the taping, she had workers go buy her the correct ones. Williams laughs, “She was like, ‘Girl, you know people are going to see this!’”
Williams still has her sticker from auditioning for America’s Got Talent in Los Angeles. Although she didn’t make it onto the show, it still made a great impact on her.
“That day forward I was like, ‘I gotta move out here. I’ve got to make something of myself.’”
Shortly before her wake up call in the “trap spot,” Williams began going to open mic nights at the now-closed Babylon Club in the Tower District. That’s when she met her producer that she worked with until 2014.
When he saw how she was living, he begged her to leave the house, she says. Williams remembers receiving a frantic call from him one night — a premonition. “He was like, ‘I don’t want to scare you [be]cause I know I haven’t known you that long, but I had a dream and you should leave that house,’” she says. Days later, she would find herself amid the gunfire.
A stroke of luck hit her when an opening came up in an apartment complex she had put in an application for and she was called. Everything began to look up from there. She got her daughter back and a car. Then she enrolled back in college.
Williams knows she’s lucky to be alive, and she doesn’t take one day for granted.
Building her own empire is at the top of her to-do list, along with raising her daughter and future children in a two-parent household. Williams is desperate to do all the things for her daughter that her mother wasn’t able to do for her.
“Raising my child is a blessing because I didn’t grow up with my mom or dad,” she says.
Williams knows she is where she belongs career-wise. “I love the feel of talking to people and performing in front of people,” she says. “I love people watching me.”
She looks forward to her open mic nights on Wednesdays at Martin’s Bar in Clovis, where she invites anyone with a voice for singing, poetry or the spoken word to step up to the mic.
Williams has felt her revival in a myriad of ways, and her self-esteem has benefited.
“From being in an [abusive] relationship, from people telling you you’re nothing to actually being something,” Williams says, describing her change. “It took me from losing everything to find that I was special, that I have a voice, that I influence people.”
After reaching success, she wants to come back to Fresno, and be a symbol of hope for other kids struggling with the loss of their parents.
As she’s proven with every morning she gets up, “just because your parents are gone, you can still make it. You can still survive.”