Youngstown native is ‘Rising’ to Grammy Award nominee

Staff file photo ... Lawrence Brownlee performs for a hometown audience with the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra at Powers Auditorium on March 7, 2020, his final appearance before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawrence Brownlee developed his voice in the Mahoning Valley.

It’s a voice that has taken the Youngstown native and 1991 East High School graduate around the world singing operatic arias and classical repertoire with renowned orchestras in prestigious venues.

Youngstown also is where he developed his activism, and both are on display on his latest album “Rising,” nominated for a Grammy Award for best classical solo vocal album.

“Carol Baird was the one who started the (vocal) group Youngstown Connection, and the central theme of Youngstown Connection was brotherhood, was togetherness, was unity, was love, so my activism kind of grew out of that,” Brownlee said. “The first time I ever went to Europe was in 1989, when the Berlin Wall was coming down. And we were talking about spreading love, spreading brotherhood. I want to make a difference, because I want to show love, because I can use my voice for good. My activism started about being vocal, being out front, unashamed of the message I want to put out there.

“Carol Baird was a very big part of that, and I’m thankful she took me into her group and I had the opportunity. … My activism is bred into me, I can’t get away from it. It’s just a part of who I am, and I’m thankful Dr. Baird really drove us and pushed us. That was her message that extended to me and a big part of why I do what I do.”

The idea for “Rising” was born during the pandemic and inspired by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020. The time off gave him time to ponder what he could do to make a difference, and younger artists were reaching out to him asking the same question.

“After the pandemic, I decided my projects are going to be about giving space, giving opportunity. What can I do?,” Brownlee said. “That’s why I essentially put this project together, to make space for others. I contacted composers about writing something meaningful that could make a difference for people. That was the birth of the project, talking about the black experience, taking the writing of the Harlem Renaissance, people who inspired me. Use these words and merge them with the music of these young composers to make something meaningful and put into the canon.”

The six African-American composers Brownlee reached out to – Damien Sneed, Brandon Spencer, Jasmine Barnes, Joel Thompson and Shawn E. Okpebholo — were told about the concept, given information about Brownlee’s vocal range and also given some of the Harlem Renaissance poetry that Brownlee liked. They also were encouraged to do their own research for pieces that spoke to them.

“That’s how we did it,” he said. “We just really made it more about letting them choose something that inspired them and let them take off on their creative process to create something special.”

He called the result of “pot pourri” of styles, and he was fascinated by the diverse directions the different composers took with the material.

Classical music fans agreed. “Rising” received rave reviews. The New York Times called it one of 2023’s best albums, and it was nominated for a Grammy last fall.

Brownlee previously was nominated for a Grammy in the same category nine years ago for “Virtuoso Rossini Arias,” which was recorded with the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra. This nomination is more special to him.

“I’d been nominated before, but it was through someone else’s desire to do this project, I just came along later,” he said. “To be able to have something that’s essentially your baby and have the powers that be deem it worthy of that type of recognition really bowled me over.”

Brownlee wasn’t able to attend the ceremony last time because he had engagements in Europe. This time his schedule is free, and Brownlee said he and his wife are looking forward to taking in the full Grammy experience when the awards are presented Feb. 4.

He said that gold statue would be nice to have, but win or lose he doesn’t think it would define him as an artist.

“It’s something to lead with,” he said. “It helps you when you walk in the door. It would be great recognition that your piece has been appreciated far and wide. It amplifies my voice, being in that circle, being around those people – `OK, he’s a Grammy winner. He’s not to be played with.’

“Winning is not the end all, be all, but it’s great recognition from people in the industry that I admire. Just to be nominated a second time means a lot. It would be so great to win it, I’m not going to lie. I have many friends who are Grammy winners for projects that are meaningful, and I do believe `Rising’ is a meaningful project, and I hope we get the opportunity to take it far and wide and let it live in the space it’s supposed to and hopefully touch people and inspire them.”


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