Rush hour at San Francisco’s Civic Center BART station brings one word to mind: nightmare.
Whether being sandwiched between other strap-hangers during your commute or braving pedestrian road rage en route to holiday shopping, the experience ranges from monotonous to downright offensive. But when riders get off at Civic Center, they’re greeted by a reprieve from the madness: the sweet melody and soulful guitar strings of local homeless artist Ron Kemp.
Kemp, 60, has been playing here and at the Powell BART station since last October, improving his craft, inspiring fellow San Franciscans, making friends who are trying to help him get on his feet and ultimately trying to survive.
“I look forward to coming down the escalator and hearing your music,” writes a fan named Michelle on Kemp’s Facebook page. Michelle describes herself as a Civic Center commuter who works at a nearby childcare center. “I think you bring a lot of joy to people,” she goes on to tell him.
When Bhanu Vikram, a station agent at Powell, first heard Kemp, he told the busker that he couldn’t perform with an amplifier. Then, Vikram changed his mind. “He ended up liking it and came over and said, ‘You can turn it up some, I like it.’ And we’ve been friends ever since then,” Kemp said.
“He’s wonderful, the way he sings. It just moves me, and it moves everyone,” says Vikram. “I’ve always said, ‘Thank you for coming here and spreading all the positive vibes.’”
Vikram, a 36-year-old immigrant from southern India, lived in the Mission for six years before settling in South San Francisco, where he could get more bang for his buck.
“I’ve gone through my own struggles as an immigrant and I have come to the verge of being homeless a few times,” Vikram said. “[It] makes me feel bad for others who are trying but [are still] homeless.”
To help Kemp, Vikram recently started a GoFundMe campaign.
It’s easy to see why people are drawn to Kemp.
Like his music, he has a calming effect. It’s not just his salt-and-pepper hair or his easy laugh, nor his relaxed wardrobe, which is weathered but tidy, nor his deep rhythmic voice or even his kind eyes. What puts people at such ease is his smile. It reveals perfect pearly whites, exudes warmth and invites people in.
That world includes some of the best classic rock songs – “Lyin’ Eyes” by the Eagles, for example, and his own music, which offers simple melodies and heartfelt lyrics that convey his journey. “A Song For You” recounts the struggles of a street performer. “Lookin’ back life’s been good to me, filled with laughter and with pain…It took a while to find my way, through the sunshine and the rain…”
“Your performance is absolutely the best part of my commute,” writes someone named Grant on Facebook, who also commutes through Civic Center. “I’m so glad to hear you play, it reminds me that there’s so much more to life than the office.”
Kemp’s musical career started in high school glee club, which led to being in a band named Fast Food in his early 20s. He was even known in the Bay Area as “The Minstrel” for a time. Kemp knew early on that his voice was his natural talent. But it wasn’t until 1986 when he saw a musician playing guitar in San Francisco that he was inspired to learn the instrument himself. Soon he was adding music notes to his lyrics. Before he knew it, he was producing harmonies that people seemed to like. A lot.
“It’s like sunshine at the end of that tunnel,” writes Bob of Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
Country or folk are genres he hears a lot when describing his music. But he prefers to call it “heartfelt easy listening rock ‘n roll.” Of his two albums, the first was a compilation of nine songs titled Better Late than Never. And in 2015 he released Simple Life, a five-song EP.
Although he recorded over a dozen songs for the EP originally, he couldn’t afford to have them all edited and hoped that proceeds from it would cover the rest. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out. But he’s still hopeful. His current single, “So Close,” is another attempt to fund an album.
“I am so happy that your gifts are being shared with so many people. You brighten the world one song at a time,” writes Kate from Madison, Wisconsin.
As a Maryland native, Kemp’s first extended stay in the early ’90s in San Francisco lasted seven years. He remembers that time fondly.
“Back then, you could just walk the city and have a good day,” he said. “You could hear a good live band on the corner here, you could go have lunch at a banging place with a sidewalk cafe, you could go over to Golden Gate Park, something great [would be] going on in the Haight, there was always something good and cultural and it was just warm.”
He saw success as a busker after returning home to Maryland. He frequently played at the Shady Grove station in the DC metro area, where he had a strong fanbase that supported him at gigs. He was doing so well that he was able to pay for an apartment and a car.
The East Coast winters, however, meant that there were many months during which he couldn’t perform at his regular outdoor spots, and would have to find alternative sources of income until the season changed.
He’d worked previously in lumberyards and restaurant management, but decided that was not a life he wanted. So he and his partner returned to the Bay Area in October of last year to find a much different San Francisco than the one he left in the late ’90s.
“The people I met [before] were amazing. I have not met those people this time around. It’s so much colder,” he said, adding solemnly, “The warm and fuzzies are long gone.”
He is making more than he did last time, and even more than he did in Maryland. Yet he is stuck living out of his car. “You know you’re pricing everyone except for Googlers out of here,” he said, “and that sucks.”
For Kemp and his partner, “eating in” isn’t an option without a kitchen and eating out takes a big chunk from his earnings – “being in the car and being homeless is expensive.”
Once he gets stabilized, Kemp wants to become involved in advocacy work to address what he feels is an unfair housing situation. “I’ve always loved the city but it’s never been like this,” he said. “You can’t keep pushing the culture out of San Francisco and expecting it to thrive.”
A hand-scribbled letter a passerby tossed into his open guitar case, which bears a sticker for his website, reads, “SF needs artists like you. Stick around.”
Vikram hopes that the crowdfunding page will keep Kemp here. “Ron is truly a one of a kind gentleman who deserves your help. The nights are freezing and the heater doesn’t work as the car needs a new radiator. He hasn’t been able to save enough money to make a deposit for an apartment,” Vikram’s message reads.
Without assistance, Kemp likely won’t be able to stay in Bay Area. But he’s not giving up yet.
Commuters march past as he strums along to U2’s “One Love.” Some appreciate his heart and talent, while others charge on.
“One life with each other: sisters, brothers
One life, but we’re not the same.
We get to carry each other, carry each other”