The guy who played [piano] at my father’s church — Brother Howard — he was the dapper dude every young boy kind of wanted to be like: He was tall, he was handsome, he had the little ’fro. He just had that thing, that quality, right? And he could play! So I was just always drawn to him. But one Sunday, the choir sang “Lean on Me,” and that song really got my attention. I went up to Brother, and I asked him to play the song again. And I just watched what I saw his fingers doing.
So I went home, and I climbed up on the piano bench — something that we were prohibited from doing. The piano had been purchased for my oldest sister, Renee, who had tremendous talent but just didn’t like to practice. And my mom had made it clear: “This is not a toy. You do not get on this and bang on this. This is for real music.” So we knew: You don’t cross that line. But I felt like I could do what I saw [Brother Howard] do. So I climbed up, and I positioned my little two fingers, and I started sounding out, using my ear to put that song together. [Hearing it,] my parents were surprised, like, “Oh, wow, Renee is practicing!” [Laughs.] Then at some point, my mom came out and realized it was me. And I’ll never forget her saying, “Nolan! It’s Nolan!” And looking at me — you know, I was 4 — like: Whoooooa. So then I had permission to use the piano.
You talk about using your music for social good, to bridge gaps and connect people. How is music able to do that in a way that, say, words alone cannot?
So music is disarming. Words can be alarming, jolting. Because we hear words so much, we sometimes bring defense mechanisms to conversations. Presuppositions. We’re quick to pass judgment. But music — well, the [saying] is, “it charms a savage beast.” In all of us, right? You play a beautiful introduction, and you put a violin on it, and all of a sudden my walls have kind of melted down. Then, through that song, I can say the same thing to you that I intended to say without music. But your reception to that is different. Because the music itself helps you to be more open to the messaging. It’s very powerful.
Can you share an experience of connecting like that?
I once led a delegation of singers to Italy for the Amalfi Coast Music and Arts Festival. And in a town called Minori, the concert had to be canceled because the priest who was the keeper of the local Catholic cathedral had gone on vacation — and taken the keys with him. The promoters and organizers were so apologetic and embarrassed. I said: We’re still going to perform. We went down to the boardwalk and just started singing. Within, like, 10 minutes it looked like every citizen had made their way to the boardwalk — there were hundreds of people. All around us. It was the biggest recital that we did the entire time.
We had a practice of coming together to offer thanks when we finished performing. And so, after we had greeted folk, we pulled off to the side and were discreetly just doing our little circle of meditation. Well, like, a minute into what we were doing, we started hearing people speaking behind us in Italian. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. They formed a circle around our circle. We were praying in English. They were praying in Italian. And, even though we didn’t understand what they were saying, — maybe they understood part of what we were saying —there was something transformative about that moment. About the power of music to overcome all of the barriers, from language barriers to racial barriers to gender barriers. And we just don’t leverage that enough.
So I made the intentional decision to use my gift to have impact, doing projects that have greater purpose. Not entertainment for entertainment’s sake. There’s enough of that. And I don’t knock that at all because we need that as well. But we just need more balance. Like, for every popular song that’s just about feel-good, we need something that also is about: Mmm, think about this; here’s something to chew on. You know? I want to spend the rest of my days exploring music and the arts in ways that bridge communities and that speak inconvenient truths and that challenge and press us towards being our better selves — as individuals, as communities, as a nation.
And do you have moments you put your heart and soul out there, sure it’s going to connect — but then there’s just kind of polite clapping and it just doesn’t?
Absolutely. It's like, "Wow, this was really great in my head." [Laughs.] So is there something missing? Let's figure out if there's something that needs to be strengthened or added. We should never be afraid of challenging our work.
And then the other part of it is recognizing, well, maybe the response to this work had nothing to do with the work itself. Maybe it had everything to do with the audience that was gathered and what that audience needed in that particular experience. In my earlier days, I used to think if a piece didn't immediately have this deep, profound connection that there was something wrong with the piece. And I've come to realize it's just that everything doesn't reach everyone every time; it's not meant to. And I think we fool ourselves if we start to think that we have that kind of creative control over an audience that every time we do this work, it's always going to produce this response. It's kind of a fool's game to think that. And as artists and creatives, we put ourselves in a compromising place if we are only responding to popular response.
Like, in the last year, anything to do with social justice or what it means to be selfless or to be in a community, audiences are hearing and receiving those messages in a way that they didn't three years ago. It speaks to the community consciousness and the collective national consciousness of where we are. The world is ready for it.
An earlier version stated Williams is a recipient of one of the Kennedy's Center new Social Practice Residencies. The programs are Social Impact Residencies.
This interview has been edited and condensed. KK Ottesen’s latest book, “Activist: Portraits of Courage,” was published last fall.