Soul Singer Brian Owens Continues His Calls to Action Via Music
Ferguson doesn’t have to just be associated with a police officer’s 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. The name of the city could also bring to mind musical artists like Michael McDonald and Brian Owens, who collaborated on Owens’ 2017 album “Soul of Ferguson.”
Owens’ message about Ferguson is that, it’s “a city where by and large the people want to support each other and do the right thing—not just because it’s good for the city—but because it’s the right thing,” said Owens, a soul singer who, unlike McDonald of The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan fame, didn’t grow up in the St. Louis suburb.
The two artists not only collaborated on Owens’ Ferguson album, but they also performed and conversed about the “St. Louis sound” on a January episode of a digital video series with Grammy Award-winning saxophonist David Sanborn.
Owens aims to address social problems in Ferguson—which was torn apart by the shooting and subsequent protests and riots—and the surrounding area through his music and his nonprofit, LIFE Arts (Leadership, Innovation, Faith and Entrepreneurship), which offers musical education and artistic mentorship programs to local students.
“I want to build out an industry that allows us to create opportunities for young people as we train them to be leaders, innovators, faithful, entrepreneurs. … We want to develop a generation of people who have economic opportunities through the industry that we have created and who also know how to serve their community,” said the 39-year-old Owens.
The soul artist bought a house in Ferguson in 2006, after his wife was hired to teach in the nearby Jennings School District. “We loved the community. We loved the street. So we bought,” he says. They have since moved to a home across the street where his wife, Amanda, now home schools their seven children. Owens also operates a church in his home.
Some of his more notable accomplishments include a cover of Sam Cooke’s classic song “A Change is Gonna Come” that has been viewed more than 35 million times on YouTube, performing for former First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House and, of course, his collaboration with McDonald.
The two artists met in 2015 when Owens opened for McDonald at a benefit concert at the Sheldon Concert Hall for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse-St. Louis Area chapter. Owens has since opened for McDonald at other shows.
Owens thinks Ferguson is what brought the two together. “It’s kind of that kindred spirit, both being soul artists. And I’m not from here, but I have lived here long enough to claim it, and [I have] an understanding of what it is to live here, work here, grow up here, do music here and have an appreciation for the musical heritage of the city,” Owens says.
On the session with Sanborn, during which they also performed “A Change is Gonna Come” and the Doobie Brothers’ “Minute by Minute,” Owens says to McDonald, “Your vibe is the St. Louis sound.”
“It’s equal portions of gospel, jazz and blues, where it’s informed by all of those things, but then it’s under-girded by this rich tradition of gospel music,” Owens explains.
In addition to singing the original “For You” with McDonald on the Ferguson album, Owens also recorded with his father a cover of the Steppenwolf song “Desperation,” which features the lyrics “It’s so easy to do nothin’/ When you’re busy night and day.”
“It’s a call to action to say that we need to wrap our arms around the people who are struggling, because we have been there too,” says Owens.
In his nonprofit, Owens operates programs such as Compositions for LIFE, in which middle and high school students participate in therapeutic songwriting sessions with music therapists from Maryville University, and Lessons for LIFE, which pairs students and prominent musicians for mentorship sessions. Past sessions have included Stevie Wonder’s saxophonist Ryan Kilgore and members of the “Hamilton” musical touring company.
Malena Smith—who will open for American Idol star Clark Beckham on Feb. 19 at Off Broadway—is one of the many success stories from LIFE Arts. Owens began mentoring Smith while she was a student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Over the years, she has been involved with different aspects of LIFE Arts. Through the Tour for LIFE program, Smith was given the opportunity to perform in various states and, most recently, internationally in Japan. An audition video from her Japan performance secured her the opener spot with Beckham.
Owens envisions the organization paving the way for LIFE Creative Group, through which local artists will “make records, make films, make podcasts, really just utilize those mechanisms to, number one, change the narrative of our city, but also tell the truth about our city.”
He mentioned the way actor and musician Donald Glover and the late filmmaker John Hughes “industrialized” the stories of Atlanta and Chicago as a model for what he would like to do with Ferguson and North St. Louis. That way, “the people from the city can begin to benefit from their story in tangible ways, in economic ways,” he says.
Owens is now working on an album titled “Love Came Down” that he expects to release around the end of the first quarter of 2020. Three of his LIFE Arts students, described as fellows, traveled with him to Memphis to serve as production assistants for the album recording.
Owens remains committed to helping such students amidst headlines about St. Louis being the most dangerous city in America and children falling victim to gun violence. “People who leave the city because they don’t feel like they can make a career here—that’s a matter of perspective and opinion,” he says. “Where one person sees as a lack of opportunity, another person may see the potential for an industry.”
See more videos by Owens and McDonald on the Brian Owens Soul channel.
Images courtesy of Brian Owens.