Artist Jennifer Msumba, autistic filmmaker, musician, author, performs at Studio@620 on Aug. 11

Autistic artist Jennifer Msumba will perform at The Studio@620’s Signature Series on Thursday, Aug. 11. The audience will be amazed by the singer/songwriter, author, filmmaker, and vlogger.

BY J.A. JONES, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – When Jennifer Msumba performs at The Studio@620’s Signature Series on Thursday, Aug. 11, audiences will be held enrapt by an almost effervescent human who seems to defy odds.

Not only is she a singer/songwriter, author, filmmaker, and YouTube vlogger with over 30,000 followers (and 20,000 more between Instagram and TikTok), but Msumba’s comedic timing is perfect, her scripted writing is witty, and she’s a film festival award-winner.

Oh, and she happens to be a woman of color on the autism spectrum. Her “sort of” memoir, “Shouting at Leaves,” is about that and so much more because being autistic is only a fraction of what Msumba is.

Msumba shared that her mom knew “from the start that something was going on.” She was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder by second grade; at 15, she was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. “I was diagnosed with all the parts of autism, but separately,” she added, noting that because so much of her other functioning was clearly not impacted (she is a member of MENSA), it wasn’t easy to diagnose.

‘I really want to encourage people my age and younger, to not be constrained by what they think their box is,’ said Jennifer Msumba.

The multihyphenate acknowledged that when she was informed in her early 30s that she was on the spectrum, she was first skeptical, then ashamed. She now knows there was nothing to be ashamed of and credited her mother with sending her an article about autism, recommending her daughter to “read about yourself.”

“It was like such a weight off of me because I had been blaming myself for my whole life.”

Msumba said she remembers hating herself and suffering from low self-esteem. She faulted herself for not being able to “get past” the roadblocks she was experiencing. Living in “placements” from the age of 15, she now believes the environments that were supposed to help keep her “safe” from harming herself contributed to her misery.

She recalled being a child and young adult and terrified of doing anything outside of what she was told or expected to do or believed she was expected to do. “So, I limited myself, and I suppose I was limited by people around me as well, assuming what I could handle and what I couldn’t.”

But after getting her autism diagnosis and realizing time was passing, she made a change.

“For whatever reason, one day, I realized, Jennifer, no. I realized God gave me things, and I realized I wasn’t going to ever use them unless I allowed myself to go outside of the boundaries that have been set upon me.”

Msumba said that she found herself suddenly “exploding with all these things coming from my heart and my mind that I wanted to do, that I want to share” — and she wanted to show people what she had been holding in. “I just started taking chances. And it was like a liberation for me.”

Today, this liberation includes acting on stage on top of vlogging, making films and videos, writing and performing her music, and creating content for social media.

“I just tried out for my first play, a musical, and never been on a theater stage before, but my friends were like, ‘Hey Jen, the town is doing a play, want to come try out?’  And I’m like, ‘You know, why the heck not?’ And I’m loving it already.”

At Studio@620, audiences will get to see three of her short films that evening and hear her sing. A Q&A session will be moderated by St. Petersburg Film Commissioner Tony Armer, who is a big fan, and helped produce Msumba’s film “Like the Girls Who Wear Pink.”

Armer met Msumba at a film contest, where she pitched her story about a film she wanted to make.

“All these other filmmakers were pitching, you know, these big extravagant feature films that would cost millions of dollars, and she pitched this really simple story. And I was like, “That’s awesome; that was a great pitch. You know how many pages is it?’ She said, ‘four pages.’”

Armer immediately called some friends and told them, “Give me money, and we’re gonna help this woman make a movie.” The film has been nominated for several awards and won Best Florida Short Film at the Key West Film Festival 2021.

Msumba recognizes she’s becoming a role model because of the parents and young people who have shared with her how her courage has helped them to address their own barriers.

“I really want to encourage people my age and younger, to not be constrained by what they think their box is,” she said, adding that means even if it’s family that is holding them back.

“I had to start saying to them: ‘No, let me try it. I’m gonna try it; I’ll be fine.’ So that’s the message that I try to put forward.” She also acknowledged, “If there’s something that you’re truly interested in or something you even just want to experience and share, it’s OK to be uncomfortable, unsure, or nervous; a little bit of that is OK because you have to work through it.”

Of all her talents, Msumba is most excited when she discusses music. “It’s great to be able to write something; It’s great to be able to write your heart — and when you write a song, you can talk about feelings that are more private, but you can put them in a way that you don’t feel like you’re giving away too much. I love the writing process.”

She loves to perform for people but admitted it’s scary, explaining that her mouth gets dry and her legs start shaking.

Msumba travels with a support person who helps her negotiate conversations because speaking with more than one person at a time is a challenge and the support person helps minimize the stress.

She said if there’s one thing she’d like people to realize about those on the spectrum, it’s that each case is different, even while there are often similarities. One similarity is the tendency for those on the spectrum to get easily overwhelmed even when they don’t outwardly appear to be.

Her memoir offers her readers tips for coping with and flourishing while on the spectrum, and Msumba has had the satisfaction of already hearing that her words have helped others. One woman, she shared, told her that events in the book were so much like her own story that she literally highlighted dozens of pages to help explain to her family what she was going through.

“So, that made me feel like I did what I set out to do.”

Jennifer Msumba performs at Studio@620 on Thursday, Aug. 11; tickets are $10. The Studio is located at 620 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Call 727-895-6620 for more information.

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