With the spring 2021 semester in full swing, high school students are still adjusting to the new normal. In addition to the usual drama of teenage life, they’re grappling to balance virtual Zoom classes with a severely limited social life. Fortunately, they have at least one person in their corner: Justin Michael Williams.
During the month of February, the singer, author, and speaker will deliver keynote speeches to four Houston high schools and discuss his newest book, Stay Woke: A Meditation Guide for the Rest of Us.
Williams, an openly queer entertainer, tells his virtual audiences that his book is for people who thought they’d never buy a book about meditation. He also explains how one can use meditation to find a higher calling in life.
His presentation style sounds promising. “It’s very different than anyone would expect from a wellness event,” Williams says. “When people hear about a presentation on meditation, they think it will be quiet, soft, and boring. This one has music and a lot of engagement. The students go nuts in the chat box. Almost every principal [I’ve worked with] says they weren’t expecting this type of dynamic.”
Williams’ overall goal for his Houston talks is to meet students where they’re at, and engage with them going forward.
“It’s about empowering them and motivating them to move past anxiety and stress and the unknown,” he adds. “[I want to help them] access that powerful and unshakable part of themselves so they can choose what they want to do next in their lives.”
For Williams, learning how to tune out the noise of the world is a practice he is quite familiar with. He wanted to be a singer when he was younger, but a lifetime of being bullied, teased, and abused made him give up his dream. After starting out in a rough neighborhood, where he lived in a home riddled with bullet holes, he became a chronic overachiever who earned a full scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles. Even though he graduated at the top of his class, his successes didn’t heal the trauma of living in an unstable area. “I thought if I did enough, I’d get out and people would love me. Then I had this moment in college where I thought about [how I had] everything I dreamed of, but I was still miserable. I still felt like that boy who is afraid, inauthentic, and doesn’t know what he wants.”
After seeing a therapist who recommended meditation, Williams’ life turned around. His debut song album premiered in iTunes’ top-20 charts next to Britney Spears and Taylor Swift. He has since been featured by Billboard and Grammy.com and has presented at a South by Southwest event in Austin. His work has also been heard at events that featured Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, and Chaka Khan.
Williams is dedicated to using his voice to serve others, being a beacon of hope for those who are lost, and making sure people of all backgrounds have access to the information they need to change their lives.
But instead of promoting his new book with a traditional book tour, he’s reaching out to youth in their own neighborhoods. His publisher wanted to send him to upscale New York City bookstores, but that didn’t sit right with Williams. “Those stores can’t be the only places we go, because the rest of us aren’t there,” he told them. “We need to go to some of the most underserved places, give the book away for free, and do [some ‘musical TED Talks’] to teach students how to use these meditation practices.”
The publisher agreed, and Williams’ plan was set into motion. That’s when Marlin Murdock, a local educator who has long followed Williams’ career, connected the speaker with leaders at the four schools in Houston. “I had been doing a deep-dive study into racial inequality, and wanted to do something to begin to change my community. [Helping Justin to come here] seemed like a great way to do it,” Murdock says.
After his tour concludes, Williams plans to continue using his voice for change. “I want to bring people together in hope and positivity, and across perceived divides. When we stand in the space of hope and positivity, we can do a lot to impact the world. That’s what I’m focused on next.”
Find out more about Justin Michael Williams by visiting staywokegiveback.org. Stay Woke: A Meditation Guide for the Rest of Us is available wherever books are sold.
This article appears in the February 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.