By John Mirisola
Many in the Berklee community, together with countless friends and family members from across the globe, are celebrating the life of Carla Whitney Nelson ’18, who passed away on February 11 following a long battle with cancer. Throughout her illness, the 24-year-old producer, singer-songwriter, and visual artist continued to make music and art, and to document her story. Carla’s irrepressible creativity, her passion and strength, and her abundance of love and compassion for those around her will be remembered by all whose lives she touched.
An American born and raised in Gera, Germany, Carla grew up surrounded by music. Her parents, Peter and Melissa, first met as performers in an orchestra, and her siblings, Philip and Rebecca, are both musicians as well. Carla herself loved to sing and could play multiple instruments by the time she was a teenager. “Music was the common thread in their family,” says Carla’s cousin, Kristi Thomas. In the fall of 2013 Carla took a major step toward pursuing her musical talent as a career: she began studying at Berklee, which she called her “dream school.”
In an ear-training study group during her first semester at Berklee, Carla met Elena Goddard, who would become one of her closest friends and collaborators. “Carla had an energy about her that went far beyond something people meet and then forget,” says Goddard. “She had a way of shining on everyone she met and leaving them with bright memories.” At Berklee, says Goddard, Carla also discovered one of her greatest musical passions: “She fell in love with music production. The lack of women producers in the industry only inspired her to work harder and collaborate with other women, something she did consistently throughout the past four years.”
At Berklee, Carla also had the opportunity to work closely with Donna McElroy, professor in the Voice Department, in the Jubilee Spirit Ensemble, an a cappella group that sings pieces in the “tradition of the American Negro Spiritual.” McElroy remembers her work with Carla with great fondness: “My time with Carla was spent in this ensemble, singing the songs of slavery and liberation, joy and sadness, conviction and salvation. We prayed a lot in this class, and the students grew to anticipate coming to class to get some pure affection, and a sincere embrace. It was a godsend, and Carla was so faithful to the class times and any performance she was able to contribute to.” In fact, even after Carla’s illness forced her to leave school, she returned to visit McElroy’s class, speak with students, and perform with the ensemble. “She gave so much joy, and we gave her strength, holding her up on either side!”
“Within her few 24 years, Carla changed and impacted the lives of friends, family, and strangers, and left the world a much more beautiful place than when she entered it.” —Elena Goddard, a close friend of Carla’s
During the winter of Carla’s third year at Berklee, she was diagnosed with a breast cancer metastasis that had formed in her lungs, and was told she had six to nine weeks to live. In January of 2017, she withdrew from school and began chemotherapy treatment in Germany. But Carla continued to survive, to create, and to tell her story far beyond her original prognosis. Aided by the unwavering love and support of her family and friends, she fought her illness through more than two years of intense treatments, first in Heidelberg, Germany, and later at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Carla’s parents and siblings “graced Carla with an ultimate act of love by giving her the space and freedom to fly in the face of cancer,” says Thomas. “Living their international life made this challenging, but their love surrounded her wherever she was, and I know it buoyed her up every single day.”
Carla remains the best narrator of her own journey through these two years. Her posts on Instagram (@beatsinbed), along with blog posts and a series of YouTube videos, gave her followers an honest account of her experience full of determination, insight, and gratitude. “When your body is too weak to go outside and experience life you can always find love and creativity within yourself and those you love,” she wrote on Instagram at the end of her first year of treatment. “In everyone’s hardest moments I encourage you to create. It heals, it soothes and whatever fight you’re putting up—you win.”
Through the past two years Carla kept making music under the moniker BeatsinBed. She released new tracks on her SoundCloud page—two of which were collaborations with Goddard—and shared performance videos and lyrics on Instagram. She also used the sleeplessness brought on by her chemotherapy as an opportunity to draw and paint, eventually producing a series of pieces titled Flowers in My Lungs, in which she reimagined her tumor and the effects of her treatment using floral imagery.
On September 25, 2018, in a ceremony in the Red Room at Cafe 939, Berklee President Roger H. Brown presented Carla with an Honorary Artist Diploma in recognition of her continued artistic growth and accomplishment after leaving Berklee. More than 60 attendees, including her parents and siblings, her entire treatment team from Dana-Farber, and many friends were there to cheer on Carla’s accomplishment. Accepting her diploma—the first of its kind to be granted by the college in 10 years—she spoke with eloquence, crediting everybody in the room for the love and support that enabled her to be there. President Brown, in a Facebook post after the ceremony, wrote to Carla, “Thank you for the inspiration and courage you have given us all. We are proud to be your colleagues, friends, and family.”
“She did more to fill her last couple years than most people who have decades left,” says McElroy. “She left here touched by and having touched everyone she knew with the Jubilee Spirit.”
Goddard, too, recalls the far-reaching effects of Carla’s light and creativity: “She had a kindness and a brightness about her that was so authentic and only increased as her life became more painful and difficult. Within her few 24 years, Carla changed and impacted the lives of friends, family, and strangers, and left the world a much more beautiful place than when she entered it.”
“The theme of her inspirational story is love,” says Thomas of her cousin. “Love for herself, her diseased body, and for every single person she encountered. Along the way she became a painter, a writer, she sang, she fell in love, she wrote, produced and sang her music, traveled to her beloved Berlin and Barbados, spent time with family and friends, all while enduring ceaseless chemo, medical procedures and their effects. Again and again, she picked herself up, brushed herself off and she lived.”
Less than a month before she passed away, Carla published her final post—a series of pictures and accompanying text reflecting on the past two years of her journey. And her words demonstrate, once more, her remarkable ability to find and share the beauty that kept growing amid every hardship:
“It wasn’t difficult for me to fill my life with love because there was so much of it around me. I just opened the door and let it all in and I spent this journey making room for more and more of it. That’s really all anybody could ever ask for. And I just happened to be lucky enough to have so much of it. I don’t know how I deserved so much in so little time, but even in these darker phases (that always come and go to make room for lighter times) I’m never out of love. It has been with me through it all since day 1 and sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure it’s not some crazy dream. But if there’s one thing I can say about my life so far is that it is overflowing. My garden is in full bloom and for that I am eternally grateful.”
We invite you to share stories and memories about Carla in the comments below.