Soul musician Brian Owens returns to a campus he never really left

by | Jun 6, 2017

The UMSL alumnus recently joined the Des Lee Fine Arts Collaborative as its community music artist in residence, and the role is suiting him well so far.

Seated on a bench inside the stunning lobby of the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center, Brian Owens is the picture of a community music artist in residence.

The University of Missouri–St. Louis alumnus is squeezing a quick interview in between an afternoon studio session and an evening road trip to his next gig – and every few minutes a passerby briefly joins the conversation. Owens is a familiar face here at the Touhill, where an outreach event is underway.

Brian Owens portrait

(Photo by August Jennewein)

“This guy’s dad was my dad’s math teacher,” Owens explains after giving yet another impromptu hug.

Moments later, four vocalists wander over to the bench and break into a gospel number on the spot. Owens, who earned his music degree from UMSL in 2008 and is an accomplished American soul singer, doesn’t seem surprised.

“I live here, I work here, I worship here – three important things,” says the musician, who released his latest album, “Soul of Ferguson,” in February. “I graduated from here. So I’m in love with this university, and you know, I really want to develop the artistic culture of my community.”

Toward that end, Owens recently joined the Des Lee Fine Arts Collaborative as its community music artist in residence. It’s a far-reaching educational and community-oriented role that is suiting him well so far, though in some ways it doesn’t feel so new.

“I never really left campus – that’s the thing,” he says. “Even when I hadn’t graduated yet there was a professor who had a stroke partway through the year, and the department was like, ‘Hey, Brian could teach the class!’ And so I’ve taught here and continued to have a relationship over the years.”

As the busy-yet-easygoing father of six assists the collaborative with a wide variety of initiatives, he works closely with UMSL faculty member Michael V. Smith, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Music Education.

“He’s like a mentor to me now,” Owens says. “I call him my Obi-Wan.”

The residency, sponsored by the Sterling Bank for LIFE Community Partnership, also has Owens collaborating with the St. Louis Symphony, where he leads its IN UNISON scholarship program and mentors young musicians, including UMSL students.

Tying it all together is the focus on urban youth and the contemporary music industry.

“How do we provide opportunities that prepare them for the jobs that actually exist now and will exist in 10 years?” Owens wonders. “And we’re aiming to do it in a way that’s holistic – so we’re not just dealing with the artistic side but the whole person.”

As he juggles his own pursuits with service to a community he loves, he points to three key things that keep him grounded: faith, family and Ferguson.

“And I’m not moving,” he adds.

This story was originally published in the spring 2017 issue of UMSL Magazine. Have a story idea for UMSL Magazine? Email

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Evie Hemphill

Evie Hemphill