Tom Prasada-Rao, musician who captured anguish over George Floyd, dies at 66 (2024)

Tom Prasada-Rao, a folk singer with a soulful voice and genre-blending style who crafted songs of social justice that included the mournful “$20 Bill” after the police-custody killing of George Floyd in 2020 and the protest wave that followed, died June 19 at his home in Silver Spring, Md. He was 66.

Mr. Prasada-Rao was diagnosed with cancer of the salivary gland in 2019. The cancer had spread to his lungs, said his sister Patty Prasada-Rao, who sometimes performed with him.

Since emerging from the Washington-area folk circuit in the 1980s, Mr. Prasada-Rao developed an eclectic musical brand over more than 10 solo albums and many collaborations. He found influences in American soul and rhythm and blues as well as musical traditions reflecting his Indian heritage, such as the sitar.

A tattoo on the inside of his left arm — placed so he could see it while he played guitar — was “Gitanjali,” or Song Offerings, a collection of Bengali-language spiritual poems by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

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“As I grow older I care less about the music business than I probably should,” Mr. Prasada-Rao wrote in a biographical essay. “I care more about life as poetry, trying to play like there are no wrong notes anymore.”

Mr. Prasada-Rao’s first big break came in 1993 on a ranch in Texas’s Kerr County, at the Kerrville Folk Festival. He had released his debut album in 1991, “Incoming,” that had reviewers drawing comparisons to folk-rock stars such as Canada’s Bruce co*ckburn and Britain’s Richard Thompson. He was still little known outside a niche fan base.

“I played around a lot doing all these gigs from hell,” Mr. Prasada-Rao recalled.

Then at the Kerrville festival, Mr. Prasada-Rao found a powerful ally in Victor Heyman, a Washington-area concert promoter (and former Defense Department official) who was influential in launching careers in folk music.

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Before the Kerrville competition for emerging songwriters, one of the festival’s showcase events, Heyman and his wife printed T-shirts with Mr. Prasada-Rao’s image and then took seats in the front row during his set in a show of support. He won the top prize.

At the festival he also met guitarist Michael Lille and singer-songwriter Tom Kimmel, who had written songs for performers including Johnny Cash and Linda Ronstadt. Mr. Prasada-Rao, Lille and Kimmel formed the Sherpas, which toured for the next three decades and recorded two albums.

The tracks on “Honor Among Thieves” (2003) include a funk-inspired beat on “Jesus, Chicks and Politics” and Mr. Prasada-Rao’s homage to his muse on “Gitanjali,” in which he plays the sitar. (He often performed in a long South Asian tunic known as a kurta.)

“Save me from the shackles of doubt/ Help me find my way out,” the song begins.

Mr. Prasada-Rao increasingly explored themes of spirituality and righteous anger in his music. On a compilation from a Martha’s Vineyard songwriting retreat, “Follow That Road” (1994), his “Ashes of Love” was dedicated to the late D.C.-area homeless activist Mitch Snyder. As part of the 2003 album “Out of the Blue,” he added funk beats and harmonies to a cover of Phil Ochs’s antiwar ballad “Is There Anybody Here?”

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“Though clearly a romantic, when Prasada-Rao sings of love his balladry comes across as reassuringly human, rather than sentimental, and when he raises his voice in anger or despair … he makes his point forcefully, without resorting to melodrama,” Washington Post reviewer Mike Joyce wrote in 1994.

“See Myself in You,” written by Kimmel and Mr. Prasada-Rao about an encounter with an enigmatic street character in Houston, was recorded by country star Randy Travis for an album in 2000. (The song was also performed by Mr. Prasada-Rao and his wife, Cary Cooper, in a duo called the Dreamsicles.)

“Even though I don’t know a thing about country music, I’m really grateful for [the song],” Mr. Prasada-Rao once told an audience, “because every now and then I get checks in the mail.”

In May 2020, Mr. Prasada-Rao was watching CNN coverage of the outrage after Floyd died from brutal restraint by Minneapolis police, including having a knee pressed on his neck for more than eight minutes. Mr. Prasada-Rao said he was in a “chemo fog” after the latest round of cancer treatment and felt too exhausted to even get up from the couch.

Yet one part of the Floyd tragedy wouldn’t leave his mind: how the incident began over a store clerk’s claim that Floyd tried to use a possibly counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Mr. Prasada-Rao felt a song begin to form.

“The lines kept tumbling out of my head, it felt like an avalanche,” he told Music and Musicians magazine. “It’s all I could do to write them down and try to remember the other lines rushing behind them. … It was like I stuck my hand in the water and pulled out a fish.”

Mr. Prasada-Rao — still weak from chemotherapy — posted the guitar chords and lyrics on the internet and asked musicians to take it from there. Hundreds of people played their interpretations of “$20 Bill (for George Floyd),” some giving it a bitter edge and others turning it into a sorrowful ode. Mr. Prasada-Rao later released a version with the band Fox Run Five.

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The song, which is still widely performed, became one of the defining cultural artifacts from the months of demonstrations and anguish after Floyd’s death. (A former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, was convicted of second-degree murder and other counts, and other former officers were convicted of violating Floyd’s civil rights.)

The song begins:

Some people die for honor

Some people die for love

Some people die while singing

To the heavens above

Some people die believing

In the cross on Calvary’s hill

And some people die in the blink of an eye

For a $20 bill.

“I was just trying to express my incredulity of this man’s life being taken away for a supposed counterfeit $20 bill,” Mr. Prasada-Rao said. “This is so wrapped up in racial issues and policing issues — and those are really big issues.”

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He noted, however, that he purposely avoided the specifics of the killing, seeking to give the song a more timeless quality.

“It doesn’t even say he was a Black man killed by White police,” he added. “It just keeps it simple. How stupid and ridiculous is this — that this man’s life is taken for a $20 bill.”

Raised in Maryland

Thomas William Prasada-Rao Jr. was born on April 11, 1958, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and was raised in Takoma Park, Md., after his Indian-born parents brought the family to the United States. His father was an accountant, and his mother worked on projects at the World Bank.

Tom sang in church choirs and studied the piano and violin as a child. At home, his father played the tabla, a percussion instrument with roots in South Asia. “We used to sing little songs in the evening before we’d go to bed,” Mr. Prasada-Rao recalled.

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He attended Newbold College of Higher Education in England and later spent a year at Spicer Memorial College (now Spicer Adventist University) in Pune, India.

Mr. Prasada-Rao stopped touring in 2007 to concentrate on studio recordings and producing albums for folk performers including David LaMotte and Rachel Bissex. He also held classes in songwriting and music at the University of Virginia and other places. He returned to the stage after the release of his 2012 album, “Adagio,” featuring renowned pianist Julie Bonk.

His marriage to Cooper ended in divorce. Survivors include his mother; two sisters; a brother; and two stepdaughters.

Mr. Prasada-Rao often found performing in smaller venues — and smaller towns — more enjoyable. He said urban audiences can be “closed-minded” and less receptive to his music.

“They have the attitude of, ‘Okay, blow me away. Prove something to me,’” he once said while on tour in Kansas. “In small towns, people are more open to enjoyment. They find joy in the smaller things.”

Tom Prasada-Rao, musician who captured anguish over George Floyd, dies at 66 (2024)

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