photography by Emily Jane Davis
writing by George Goodell
Rayvon Owen’s young musical career can be divided, almost cleanly, in half. The two phases of Owen’s career straddle his appearance, in 2015, on American Idol, and are contrasted with one another by their varying levels of popularity and musical maturity. Whereas Owen seemed to rely a bit too heavily on synthesizers and production in his early music, drowning out his vocal talent, in his later music he has discovered a harmonic accentuation of vocals and production, pulling the best sound out of both. It’s pretty clear that Owen’s experience
on American Idol fundamentally changed him as an artist and, probably, as a person. Before appearing on American Idol, Owen released a moderately popular EP, Cycles, the final track of which, “Sweatshirt,” also has a music video . Since appearing on American Idol, Owen has released a handful of singles, along with a video for the most popular of his songs, “Can’t Fight It,” at the end of which Owen crosses a dimly-lit dance floor to kiss his partner, Shane Bitney Crone, in what would serve as Owen’s offcial “coming out” to the world.
Photography by Emily Jane Davis
Although Owen had never openly denied being gay before “Can’t Fight It,” he also never publicly admitted it, which led to some tension for him as an artist. Before his appearance on American Idol, when Owen had only a few thousand fans across the world,
the difficulty of living a closeted public life must have felt small, a slight extension of the difficulty of living a closeted private life. But when he finished fourth in season 14 of American Idol, Owen’s public life grew exponentially. And the pain of living in the closet grew with it.
When he was competing on American Idol, Owen probably never considered a public acknowledgment of his sexuality. It would derail his efforts to win the enormous singing competition show that consumed him at the time. Controversy would be generated. What would the fans think of his coming out? How would the judges perceive such controversy, as an honest escape from the difficulties of being a closeted homosexual man, or as an attempt to get sympathy, or as an attempt to generate media attention, fueled by questionable motives? No matter what, the result would not be good. So Owen waited. He continued to live in the closet, dedicating everything to his craft, separating who he was from the music he made.
But the fans did not forget him. He was just as big of a public figure, if not much bigger, after he left American Idol as he was when he was on it. Nobody would question his motives in the same way as they would have if he had come out during the show’s competition, but nonetheless how could he know if his enormous fan base would accept and embrace him for who he was, or reject him? For a day, maybe two, even three days after he released the music video for “Can’t Fight It,” on February 14th, 2016 (which, of course, is Valentine’s day) Owen was wrought by this uncertainty. Had he just launched his career into its next step, or had he completely ruined it?
And then came the letters. Letters from fans, admirers, even people who had never heard of him or didn’t like his music came pouring into Rayvon Owen’s life. These were not letters about American Idol, or about Virginia, or pop music. They were letters about Owen’s coming out story. About the significance of hearing his story, of having him as a public figure, a pop musician, in America. Owen was and is a black, gay, out-of-the-closet singer-songwriter who tore straight through the largest televised singing competition the world has ever known. And, after doing so, announced to the nine-million-or-so viewers of the show that he was gay;
that he could be Virginia’s sweetheart and Virginia’s hunk.The significance of this cannot be overstated, and since recognizing that fact Owen has committed much of his time to LGBQT activism. But his activism is not a distraction from his music, nor his music a distraction from his activism. Just like the harmonious combination of vocal finesse and production expertise in his post-American Idol music, Rayvon Owen’s commitment to LGBQT rights and his career as a pop star accentuate each other. And it is this combination that makes Rayvon Owen’s place in modern American pop music a unique but absolutely crucial one.