Jamie Andrews: Welcome, Courtland. Can you tell me a bit about your background? When did you start singing and when did you first become a choir director?
Courtland Pickens: Okay, sweet. I am from Peoria, Illinois. I’m born and raised there and my family is all still there. The neighbors knew us as the “boys who come out on Saturday morning to play church.” On Saturday mornings as a child, me and my younger brother would literally sit on our front porch and sing so many songs. We really were singing and preaching to one another; it was so much fun. From there, I remember being a child singing in a children’s choir at my church. It was something I loved to do.
I remember being young and having this love for music and just knowing how music can make me happy or sad. It could lift my spirits. If I was breaking up with a girlfriend, there were those songs too. So, music has always just been a part of my life and it really started from church.
Moving forward a little bit. We used to always give speeches in front of the whole church, our whole family was known for crying as soon as we touched the mic. We would say 2 or 3 words and then start crying. We could never get through it. So I had this stage fright along with this love for music and I didn’t know how to overcome it.
When I go back now, they’re all like: “how are you doing what you’re doing? Because we knew you as the boy who was scared to say speeches in front of everybody.”
Jamie Andrews: Did you have stage fright singing in the choir too?
Courtland Pickens: I felt good being on stage with other people and being able to sing with other people. I found a love for that. I used to love that. And I did choir in middle school, but once I got to high school it wasn’t really my thing anymore, because I really couldn’t connect to the songs. It didn’t feel as fun like it did for me in church. And so I steered away from it in high school. In fact, I don’t even think I sang at all until maybe my senior year in high school. A girl heard me singing in a hallway and she was like, “Oh my God, your voice is so good!” And I mean, you can’t tell a young teenager that his voice sounds good from a girl. So I think I entered the talent show singing the song. I was like, “Oh, my, if she thinks my voice is good, wait till the other girls hear it.”
I entered a talent show. It wasn’t a competition, it was just for whoever wanted to be a part of it. I got a great response from that. After high school, I knew I wanted to start taking my singing more seriously. I was a member of Shiloh Temple Church in North Minneapolis. First of all, the music ministry there was incredible. The guy who led the worship team, his name is Sammy McDowell. He’s one of my closest friends to this day. But I remember going up to him after service one day. I was just like, “You know what? I want to sing and I want to shadow you. I want to grow from just watching you. I would love for you to, if you’re interested, mentor me in that area.” And he gave me the smartest comment afterwards, and I knew from that moment we’d always be friends because I have a smart mouth as well. He said, “It’s about time people start recognizing my gifts.” And I just laughed and I was just like, “I would say something like that too.” So from there we just started this mentor relationship. And so that’s what happened. I started leading at Shiloh.
Jamie Andrews: And how old are you at this time?
Courtland Pickens: I would say maybe 19, 20 years old. So I started singing, and it was not good. And everybody would tell me it wasn’t good, which is so funny. But nobody was offering me pointers on what to do to make those modifications. So I used to buy DVDs of the service and I would literally watch myself. And I feel like I used that as an opportunity to grow, self-reflect, and to perfect my gift. I started to get a little bit better.
And so I joined a group here in the city called Darnell Davis and the Remnant. We traveled all around and we sang. And that’s really when my gift began to cultivate more, because Darnell didn’t let me sound bad. We perfected our voices in that group, and it felt so good to sing alongside incredible vocalists. It pushed me to become better. And so that’s what I did. And I got a couple of leads in that group and we sang all over and I really got my training being in that choir.
Jamie Andrews: What are some memories you have touring with them?
Courtland Pickens: I’ll never forget we went to Thief River Falls, Minnesota, and we worked with a choral director named Darcy Reese. I absolutely love her. She has an incredible choir program in Thief River Falls, and I was so inspired by her love for the youth and how she interacted with the youth. And I was like, “I want to take all the knowledge that I know and I want to be able to pour into youth like Darcy does, because she’s really making an impact.” And I feel like the kids in the inner city, they need that same impact and I want to be the person to do it.
We did big concerts in Thief River Falls, and we took that same concert to Carnegie Hall. And I want to say we did it at least twice. And I thought, “this is incredible” and “these kids can sing.” So I wanted to do the same thing in Minneapolis. I got back to Minneapolis and I went back to the high school that I graduated from, Patrick Henry High School, class of 2002. And I said, this feels like home to me. This is where it started for me. I grew up in the neighborhood and I wanted to be able to make an impact in that area.
Hearing so much on the news and always about how bad North Minneapolis is, I just want to be the change that I want to see in the community. I want to be a part of making a difference in the lives of youth. And so I did it. I went to Patrick Community High School and met with the principal at the time, Ms. Latanya Daniels. I love her. I said, “Listen, I would love to start an after school choir program here. I’m really gifted at working with youth and choral music and I would love to get a start just working with some vocalists here at the school.” And so we took a meeting, talked it through. At that time, they didn’t have anything open for me, but she said she would contact me when they did. Only a couple of months passed, and she called me and said that their choir teacher had gotten ill and would I be interested in coming during the school day to be a community partner, like an artist in residence. I said “sure, I’d love to do it.”
Jamie Andrews: Can you describe the choir program at Patrick Henry High School?
Courtland Pickens: At that time I want to say they had about 20 to 30 students. And within a couple of months it grew to 60 kids. And it was only 60 because I couldn’t take any more. It was just me and a licensed teacher in the room. So not only did we grow the choir, the sound that came from these kids was impeccable. And they asked me to come back the next year. But by that time, the teacher had recovered. He’s still a good friend of mine, Peter Hoffman and we still are in contact. But he got better and he heard about the difference that I made in the choir program, and he said “well, I want him to come back too, and I’ll just work alongside him.” And that’s kind of what we did for, I want to say, 6 or 7 years. And man, not to toot my own horn, but I thought we had one of the best choirs in the district. It was so incredible. We’d go places and people would recognize us like, “Oh my God, that’s the Patrick Henry High School Choir!” I mean, it was so good for the kids to see that and for me to see that. To recognize the work I’m doing is really making an impact on some people’s lives.
You know, because of all of all that I’ve said so far in regards to church, I am a man of faith. And, for me, what the world needs is a deeper connection with faith in their own personal walk with God. And so knowing how much of a difference I was making in the lives of the kids at Patrick Henry High School, I wanted to create a space where I could freely speak on my faith and give kids an option to grow in their faith. And I knew I couldn’t do that at school. So I wanted to create my own space. And that’s when KNOWN MPLS was birthed.
Jamie Andrews: So what year did you finally start KNOWN MPLS?
Courtland Pickens: In 2019. I was getting so many kids who graduated from the choir still wanting that community that I built at Henry, so it forced me to think about what I can do outside of a school setting. So, I asked a couple of the students who really loved the choir program “if I started a choir, would they join?” Without hesitation they said, “Pickens, do it!”
We had just finished a school year in June, and I told the kids “Be prepared. Within the next couple of months, I’m going to start posting about this. And if you’re serious, let’s just do it.” So I made a Facebook post in late June saying “I’m looking to start a youth and young adult choir, and if you know any kids or youth that are interested, have them send me an email and I’ll send them an audition link.” We got 160 youth to audition for this choir .
Jamie Andrews: That’s amazing. How many were you anticipating?
Courtland Pickens: Like, 20! It was incredible. I didn’t know that that many people would be interested in something like that. So, after auditions and narrowing it down to stay within the age bracket of 13 to about 22, I selected 60 of them. So, we started. We had our first rehearsal at 1101 West Broadway in this community room. I’ll never forget, we sang this song called “Wynter’s Promise” by Kirk Franklin. And after we sang the first song, we all got goosebumps and were looking at each other near tears. Our first rehearsal, sounding this good? And from there it just kind of took off. We did our first concert at Valley Fair in August. We were opening up for major gospel artists by October, getting booked for corporate gigs like the Minneapolis Urban League, a big MLK breakfast at Saint Cloud State University. We did a huge concert with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra at the Ordway. I highlight those specific examples because, at that time, it hadn’t even been six months yet!
Jamie Andrews: That’s incredible.
Courtland Pickens: We were a part of these incredible events, and it literally just took off from there. We didn’t stop. We continued, even throughout the pandemic. Around March, when the pandemic started to get really bad, I closed rehearsal and we started to do virtual rehearsals. The kids absolutely hated it. We all hated it. From about March to late May we did zoom every Monday night. I lost about 20% of my kids. They just didn’t vibe with it. A couple of my girls got pregnant, and I just knew at that time a lot of the kids were just idle. We all were. We were suffering. We didn’t have community. We started back meeting in person by June, with masks on. We were realizing how important community is.
Jamie Andrews: Did you have gigs during the pandemic too?
Courtland Pickens: We were booked and busy throughout the entire pandemic. We were sending in virtual concerts for churches. We were their music department. We would send in songs that they could play for their services. People were still hosting conferences virtually, so we were doing virtual concerts, and that kept the kids busy and productive. I just found that, during that time where community was needed the most, it was important to be able to provide that for youth and young adults. And it literally helped me throughout. It helped us to cope throughout the pandemic. You know, there was sadness. It was traumatizing.
With George Floyd during that time as well, it was heightened depression, stress, and anxiety. But having a space that we can come and bare our souls, and use music as an opportunity to invoke healing. Man, I feel so honored to be able to hold space for youth and young adults. And we made it through. We survived it. And not only did we survive it, we thrived. I tell people all the time, this thing is bigger than a choir. This is a community. This is a space for youth and young adults to grow and evolve into who they’re supposed to be. We’re working with them through college, through finding employment, through helping them with life stuff: groceries, transportation, self-care. In the past maybe eight months, we started doing self-care days, teaching them how to self-care. We pour out so much, and I don’t think we as a people take time to pour into ourselves and give ourselves a break and rest.
Jamie Andrews: And what do those days look like?
Courtland Pickens: We’ve partnered with Lululemon, so once a month we’ll do either yoga, Afro-aerobics, or different things. I love working with Liz at Lululemon. She has been absolutely incredible by offering this to the youth and young adults. It’s helped us tremendously. And we use instructors who are people of color for each of these events. It’s just been such a blessing for the youth to just center themselves.
All of the sessions have been incredible. But there was a specific one with Gabby, it was a yoga session, and when I tell you the stillness that was in the room…there were several people crying in that moment because I don’t think we realize – we never give our body an opportunity to just sit still and listen to our body. And I really want to teach the youth and young adults that it’s a beautiful thing to pour out and to give a beautiful gift to the world. But you can’t pour from an empty cup. You have to make sure that you are filling your cup so that what you’re pouring out is something of substance. I’m loving this next stage of KNOWN MPLS. We’re constantly growing and reaching more youth. And I just want to continue to do the work to reach more and more youth.
Jamie Andrews: That’s absolutely amazing. So what is next for KNOWN in the next six-months, year, or five years?
Courtland Pickens: Oh, my gosh, so much. I didn’t mention, but we did make KNOWN MPLS a nonprofit. The nonprofit is called Voicez Inc. We’re doing something great for the city by keeping youth off the streets and keeping them into something very productive. So it was important [to become a nonprofit] to be able to receive more funding so that we can do more work right now. We’ve been funded through dues every month, some donors, and gigs. So those kinds of avenues help support a lot of the things that we do. We just released a single, “He Did It For Me.” We wrote it with one of the girls in the choir and myself. We co-wrote it. We filmed a music video as well. And it’s incredible, the response that we’ve gotten from it has been so, so good. We also got a billboard on Broadway and 94. You’ll see our big billboard up there with “He Did It For Me.”
I’m working with the youth as solo artists. We have a writer’s circle where we get together with some of the youth in the choir and write songs, so we’re going to release a compilation CD. We’re going to host a huge concert in June, which I’m excited about. June is Black Music History Month, so we want to honor the choirs that have come out of Minneapolis. Teaching the youth how to honor those who’ve come before you. We didn’t just arrive here, but we’re standing on the shoulders of some incredible artists that have come out of the city. Sounds of Blackness. Donald Davidson and the Remnant, Excelsior (the leader from Excelsior is Senator Bobby Joe Champion) Javonte Patton and DFY, James Greer and new company. Robert Robinson and Apostle Hill. There’s so many great choirs that have come from the city and we want to honor them. So, be looking for that concert in late June.
Jamie Andrews: Are you touring with the group anytime soon?
Courtland Pickens: I want to travel. I definitely want to take this show on the road. But, the impact that we’re making in the city…I told the kids I wanted to conquer Minneapolis first. I want our city to know who we are, so that when that time comes for us to go and do more traveling, we have the support from our home. The city needs to know who we are. We are KNOWN MPLS, a youth and young adult choir on fire, and a beautiful community wanting and longing to reach more youth. And the name KNOWN MPLS is kind of like a double whammy. It’s our objective to make Jesus known, and we want to be known in the community in a better light. We’re sick of the dark cloud over the city, but there is light that has come through, and we want to be a part – no, we are a part – of the light that is shining through.
Jamie Andrews: Well, as I’ve said to you, there’s certainly a buzz about your group, that’s for sure. I’ve heard that from many people and from many corners of the city. So kudos to everything that you’re doing.
Courtland Pickens: That means a lot. That means we’re doing the job.
Jamie Andrews: So, maybe a little practical question. How big is your staff and how often do you meet?
Courtland Pickens: We have a booking manager now, which is super helpful for us. Faith Ross is her name, and she’s been handling all of our booking and has been doing an incredible job. My wife, MJ, she’s been helping us with grant writing. It’s so important for me to empower the youth that I serve to lead as well. So we have a bunch of youth in the choir who have leadership positions, and we utilize them because these are great traits to have in life. So we have about fifteen leaders within the choir who step up and who help us organize and plan. We meet weekly before our rehearsal to talk about what’s coming up and how we can execute it in the best way.
Jamie Andrews: And so you rehearse once a week on Monday evenings?
Courtland Pickens: Yes. One night a week back at my home church, Shiloh Temple International Ministry. Bishop Howell, he has done incredible work in North Minneapolis. And when I told him my idea for the choir, he said “Son, whatever you need, I got you.” And he’s consistently kept his word with that. We’ve been able to rehearse there since the beginning. We had our first rehearsal at 1101 West Broadway, which is a block away. And then we started to use Shiloh Temple right after.
Jamie Andrews: Do you follow the school calendar, or do you really meet every week?
Courtland Pickens: Every week. We only cancel if there’s a holiday. Other than that, we meet every Monday. In the three and a half years of our existence, I think we’ve missed about five Mondays. I know from the youth’s perspective, consistency matters. Having that consistent space, not just to rehearse, but like I said, community. You’d be surprised most of them crawl to get to Monday…[they may have had] a horrible week or weekend, but when Monday comes there’s this sense of family, this sense of love and home – yeah, they love it. They hate it when we miss.
Jamie Andrews: That speaks to the cohesion and the community that you’re really striving to achieve in that group.
Courtland Pickens: Absolutely.
Jamie Andrews: Is there anything else that you want to share that you haven’t said already about KNOWN MPLS?
Courtland Pickens: I will say a part of my history that I forgot to mention. I started at Patrick Henry High School. I’m still there, but I also taught at Franklin Middle School, North High School, Fair High School downtown, and Richfield High School.
Jamie Andrews: And how many of those school jobs do you still have? Are you still teaching during the school day?
Courtland Pickens: I am still teaching during the school day and only at Patrick Henry High School currently.
Jamie Andrews: And then do you have an adult choir or church choir in addition to KNOWN MPLS?
Courtland Pickens: Thank you for that. Yes, I am currently leading worship at a church in South Minneapolis called Epiphany Covenant Church. And on third Sundays, I lead the youth choir at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in North Minneapolis.
Jamie Andrews: That’s a lot.
Courtland Pickens: It is, but it’s all good. It fills me. It fills my tank.
Please check out KNOWN MPLS at https://www.knownmpls.com/, follow them on social media using the handle KNOWN MPLS, and don’t walk, run to their next concert.