Owen O'Sound Lee on East Coast Music Hour

Hear musician Owen Lee talk about how he ended up on a track with an American Idol winner, and the message behind his own single, Listen.

Host Bill Roach interviews Owen Lee about his music, family, and racism in Nova Scotia

Former American Idol winner Jordin Sparks is releasing her first new music in five years this month. What does this have to do with East Coast music? Well, backing her up on her new single is Owen O'Sound Lee. Owen lives in Halifax and is the East Coast Music Hour bandleader when the show hosts The Story and the Song live concerts

Musicians performing at The Story and the Song: Surrender in March 2020. Pictured left to right: T. Thomason, Mahalia Smith, Tara MacLean, JR Smith, Owen Lee, SHiFT FROM THA 902, and Jamie Gatti. (Robert Short for CBC)

East Coast Music Hour host Bill Roach interviewed Lee and played the song on the show last week. 

So, how did he end up on Sparks' song Unknown? "The song was produced by a good friend of mine from Toronto, Lord Quest," Lee said.

When they realized they needed background vocals on the track, Quest picked up the phone and called Lee. He arranged all the background vocals and recorded it in a single weekend. "I set up my mic and I got right to work."

Musician Owen Lee, pictured here at a rehearsal for The Story and the Song: Surrender. (Robert Short for CBC)

Lee's been busy. In addition to backing the new Jordin Sparks track and performing at The Story and the Song, Lee put out his own new single back in February. That track, Listen, is an anti-racist anthem and plea for justice. During their chat, Roach asked Lee about the prophetic nature of the song. 

"One thing that I did say in the song is that 'the cycle keeps repeating and I'm getting nauseous," Lee said. "As everything is unfolding before our eyes, I'd be lying to say that I'm surprised. This all stems from systemic racism that has not been addressed. Until that is addressed, this is just something that we're going to continue to see repeating itself. It's very eerie, and it does feel very prophetic." 

It's sad that a song that was written over a year ago and released months ago can still be relevant this day.- Owen Lee

Back in February, Lee dropped by the East Coast Music Hour studio to chat about it. 

Lee said to create the song he had to tune into a more sombre demeanour. But when tackling a subject like racism, that mindset wasn't hard to find. "[Racism] is a reality. It's something that we've gone through either on a daily, weekly, monthly basis."

Lee said dealing with racism is embedded in the daily lives and family history of every Black Nova Scotian. "It shows itself...During, you know, street checks or certain situations might happen at certain retail stores," Lee said, referencing the arrest of Santina Rao at a Halifax WalMart.

"She was assaulted by three, I believe, police officers, and she was there with her children," Lee said. "We look at statistics, we see street checks. African Nova Scotians made up for 41 percent of street checks when we account for less than 10 percent of the population. That number doesn't make sense. The only way to justify that is, there has to be a target on the back of an African Nova Scotian."

Watch the video for Owen Lee's song, Listen, below.