Justin Michael Williams
Photo: Courtesy of artist
Justin Michael Williams Talks "I Am Enough," Teaching Kids Meditation & Pivoting Towards His Truth
"This is your moment! This is your time!" Justin Michael Williams shouts on his latest single, "I Am Enough," before closing with several choruses of "We are enough." The inspiring song is part of a larger project launched in February: the three-song I Am Enough EP, which also features two chilled-out meditation mixes of the single, and a hefty book entitled "STAY WOKE: A Meditation Guide for the Rest of Us."
A key element of this project is the Stay Woke, Give Back Tour where Williams brings his book and its vision of helping its readers create a personalized meditation practice that awakens their true passion and purpose to lower-income schools around the country. Each tour date, which will resume in the fall, begins with a lively school assembly where he sings "I Am Enough" and other songs with the students, leads them through meditation and gives everyone a free book to take home and dive into at their own pace. Each stop also includes a free, all-ages event for the public in the evening, to bring more people in the community into the experience.
The first tour stop was in Williams hometown of Pittsburg, Calif. in late February, followed by one in Atlanta. The tour will resume when it is safe to do so later this year, with stops to be slated for Flint, Mich., Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and more. We caught up with the L.A.-based inspirational powerhouse over the phone after his first stop to hear from him about the experience, writing "Stay Woke," I Am Enough and his personal journey to step into his own power.
What inspired you to write "I Am Enough" and how do you hope listeners will use its message?
I think for so many of us—I said something like this in the beginning of the book—we close our eyes and we can see these lives that we haven't started living yet. We can see all these things that we want to do, whether it's our art, our music, or the relationship we want, the job, or the body or whatever it is. And so many times we feel like we are not enough for those things and we dream too small or we sabotage ourselves.
My big mission with this song in particular, with everything going on in the world today and in our lives, I just wanted a song that can inspire and empower us to feel like something greater is possible. It feels so necessary in 2020. And to have it be a song that wasn't another "We Are the World." That wasn't that kind of a vibe, but just has the pop anthemic feel with the mantra in the song, "I am enough."
What I love about the song is it always gets stuck in people's heads. And I think of how powerful it is to have the words "I am enough" stuck in your head. That's such a cool thing to have stuck in your head versus, like, "all my friends are dead."
So, that's what I hope people will take from that message—that no matter what they're going through in their life, no matter what they've been through, no matter what color their skin is, or who they love, they are enough as they are, to go after the dreams and whatever change they want to see in the world.
"No matter what they're going through in their life, no matter what they've been through, no matter what color their skin is, or who they love, they are enough as they are, to go after the dreams and whatever change they want to see in the world."
I love that. What's the yoga where you just chant? It can be really powerful, but not everyone's going to connect with it.
Kirtan. Thank you. One of the other things I feel called to say, which I think is what stops so many of us. There's this [scared inner] child, no matter how much we achieve, no matter how successful we get, no matter how old we are. That's why in the song I say, "little boy don't cry, little girl don't cry."
People come to my concerts and events who are upwards in their 60s and 70s, all the way down to kids that are 11, 12, 13, and the thing we have in common is there seems to be, no matter what, this kind of child inside of each of us, that really just needs to know, "I got you. You are enough." And be reminded, especially in those moments when we feel like we're not enough, or we can't.
And the kind of spoken-word part. That's you too, right? Do you feel it's different sides or voices of yourself?
Yeah, totally. I'm so glad you asked me. You're the first person to ask that. What I actually did, it was actually the last part of the song that got inserted. The song was already mixed and everything, but something was missing. I just felt it. And my vision was I wanted it to be processed, almost like a Martin Luther King Jr. speech vocal. Like an old vocal, scratchy and kind of screaming. I did it on a super old microphone.
The reason why I felt the talking was important for me too is because I am a musician and a transformational speaker. That is what I do. In the past, I've always had Justin the speaker and Justin the musician. And now what's amazing is they've come together, so I'm trying to integrate them in the best way possible, both sides.
I want to talk about the "Meditation Mix" versions of "I Am Enough" too. Can you tell us about the vision behind that, and about your collaborator Jon Chau?
Jon Chau really did some amazing work. The two reasons there's a shortened version and an extended version is—both of them kind of work for this—but the shortened version feels like something you can vibe out to or put on while you're working, studying, writing or creating. Oftentimes when people are working or focusing, there's music that's just cool random instrumental music. I wanted to make something that had the energy of "I Am Enough" embedded in it that was made specifically to help you get into a creative flow or focus. Not just random vibes.
And with the longer meditation mix, the reason that was done has a little science behind it. It is scientifically proven that the minimum amount of time you should meditate for it to have effects on you is 12 minutes, so that's why I made it that long. And when I was working with Jon he was like, "Do you have an example?" I'm like, "No." And this was the big reason why I did it, all of it is like cheesy nature sounds, and gongs and oceans and that's just the status quo of what we've come to accept mediation music is. But that's not actually the kind of music that most of us even like listening to.
My whole idea is to make meditation not this thing that feels like this other thing that's not for us, that's only for like this certain demographic and you have to be super hippy. This is actually for us. Its music that has the vibe that we already like, that's made for you to meditate to. Making it for this purpose was really important to me. At the beginning of the extended mix, the idea was to make it sound like crystal singing bowls, an electronic version of them, sweeping from side to side. We were trying to pull that energy through and in a new way.
You also recently released your book, "STAY WOKE." You've been touring its empowering message across the country. What do you hope readers will take away from "STAY WOKE"?
The starting point to the book was really, for me, when Trump got elected. I have been teaching mindfulness and meditation and to be totally honest with you, and I say this publicly all the time, I actually don't give a sh*t about meditation itself. I never set out to be a meditation teacher. The only reason I teach it and I got so passionate about sharing it with people, is because I grew up in a home, literally with gunshot holes etched on the outside of my house. I grew up in the hood in the Bay Area, with domestic violence, lots of stuff. And I've done therapy and all the different healing things, I've done ayahuasca. I've done everything to try to heal and overcome. The thing that has transformed my life the most, over everything, was a consistent meditation practice. And not a meditation practice to help you relax, that's good too, but a practice that actually helps you take action.
There's so much confusion about meditation. There are so many different styles and, for a lot of us, the style of trying to sit there and get your mind to stop thinking doesn't work. That's because we're modern people living in a high-tech world, we have all this sh*t to do and meditation techniques try to get you to disconnect from that. But what we want is not to disconnect, we want to connect, we want to connect more deeply to our passions and emotions and the causes we believe in. I think that's what the world needs today.
For me, meditation is about awareness. And right now, awareness is calling us to take action in our lives, for our families, for our communities, for the planet. When Trump got elected, I was like, "Okay, what do I do?" I think so many of us were there. I wasn't really engaged in politics or anything, social justice, I was kind of in the backseat. Going to Pride events, or going to a protest occasionally. And then it just came to me; for some people organizing, marching and fighting is their authentic way. But my authentic way is through my music and my teachings, showing people how to empower themselves and take action in this dark time.
"People always say we have the answers within, but nobody actually tells us how to get within. How do you get there? How do you heal it?"
People always say we have the answers within, but nobody actually tells us how to get within. How do you get there? How do you heal it? People try meditation apps. And for most, when they're really honest with me, they're like, "I tried it for like a week or two, but it didn't really stick. It didn't really work." But everyone's pretending their practices are really working for them. What I just found is a lot of the practices people are doing are just not the right recipe for them.
With my book, one of the things I use is what's called Freedom Meditation—the point of the book is to help you recognize the guru is within you. And I don't prescribe, "This is exactly what you need to do every day." I actually guide people through a process to go within and create their own practice that fits with their life. That is, for the amount of time you have, you self-generate the mantra, you decide what it's for, what it's leading you towards. And the whole book is guiding you through, kind of like a cookbook, but with fill-in the blanks that help you create the recipe for your freedom meditation practice.
I'm going on and on, you can obviously tell I'm really passionate about this. [Laughs.] But to answer the second part of your question, I hope people get a deep connection with their intuition, with their higher self, with their sense of empowerment, that can help them step in fully to the lives that they were born to live. It's meditation for the rest of us, for people who have felt left out, disengaged from the conversation. People of color, the marginalized, people of all kinds, and even people who are not marginalized but who understand why that's important.
I think, for so many people, you don't know where to start. It's like "I don't know how to listen to what I need because I've been ignoring it for the last 20 years." So I really like the guided workflow concept of your book.
I love that you said therapy too. I found the meditation and therapy combo to work, and the science actually backs it too, about meditation basically amplifying everything else you're doing. Because if you're doing therapy but you don't have a practice of being self-aware, you're not actually going that deep. Doing meditation helps you actually really go in and understand what's happening inside of you so that you can even bring more to your therapy practices or integrate more.
One of the things I talked about on my last tour stop is how we're kind of in this wellness renaissance, and all these practices—astrology, crystals, tarot cards, honoring the earth, meditation, everything—come from marginalized people and people of color originally. From Latino cultures, indigenous cultures, African cultures, Asian cultures. Over the years, these things have been, co-opted, colonized, demonized, and now corporatized and sold back in a way that people feel like, "Oh, that's not for us. I don't relate to that." But what's happening now, as different marginalized groups are coming back to these practices and infusing it with our different cultures and our different lenses, what I keep finding is they feel like they're coming home. Like, "Whoa, this really works." That's because these practices literally come from us. And so it's this reclaiming happening I find really, really powerful.
That's such a good point. And I feel like that gets overlooked a lot in media coverage and general discourse around, whatever it's being called now, "alternative practices."
And that's why it's such a huge mission for me to change the iconography. With the images and photos in the book too, I'm changing the image of what we see as meditation. On the last stop, I was in a community that's 40 percent Latino, 35 percent African-American, 25 percent Filipino and Asian. And there were 3,500 kids that I spoke in front of. It's so huge, to hundreds and hundreds of them now engaging with this practice.
Before my first presentation, I typed in "meditation" on Google—I wanted to see how long it would take me to find a picture of a black man meditating. And before I saw a picture of a black man meditating in the Google search results, I found a picture that someone made of a dog meditating. Of course, we also relate to this stuff, but the current image is not actually what's true. What's true is we are waking up, we are stepping up and we are claiming this movement, all people, not just black people, but queer people, trans people, everybody. We're stepping into it.
I would love to hear more about the book tour and the idea behind it, as you're directly reaching out to the communities you think will really benefit from the tools it offers. And then, about some of your experiences from your first stops.
The tour has been so fascinating. So, my publisher, Sounds True, is the biggest spirituality and mind/body publisher, so obviously, they're very white. I finished the book and they introduced me to the press tour team, and they're like, "We're going to go on a national book tour to the Upper West Side in New York and to Colorado." I'm like, "Ya'll, that's not why I wrote this book. We can go there, but that can't be the only thing." And they were like, "What do you want to do?"
I actually had this idea that I can't even say I had. You know when you're meditating and you have an idea just plugged into your brain like a flash drive? I don't know if that's happened to you, but that was my experience. And I had the idea that we go to high schools and we go to colleges in underprivileged communities all around the country, South Side Chicago, Atlanta, Oakland, Flint, with the water crisis, Miami. We go to these communities that aren't getting access to this and we give them all a free book, but most importantly, we do an event that brings this content into their context and reaches the kids in a way they feel is fun and accessible, and they can relate to. Some of these practices we take so damn seriously, it's so damn somber and still and kids are not going to jump into that.
So, the events are kind of like a TED Talk meets a concert, and I really incorporated music throughout. "I Am Enough" is a huge theme throughout it. We had 1,800 kids in each assembly, in total silence with their hands over their heart, saying, "I am enough." They create their own mantra they then can take and use in their lives and they're being taught by somebody who looks like them, who relates to them because I've gone through what they've gone through. After the event, kids were coming up to me, 14-year-olds, saying, "Can you give me advice on coming out to my parents?" Really opening up.
Anyway, what we're doing with the Sounds True Foundation, we've been raising money and we built a little website, staywokegiveback.org. It's like a Kickstarter website, but they're a 501(c)(3), and people can donate as little as $8 or like, as big as $15,000—with that I can come to whatever city they want. It started with three cities and now we're [going to be] in 15, with more getting added every week. We added three cities last week. That's how much this movement has been moving.
It's been really cool. The kids are thinking they're coming to an empowerment assembly, we don't really tell them they're getting free books or that it's about meditation. It's kind of a surprise to them. And they're kind of just in some hokey talk. Instead, I'm down in the audience and they're screaming and singing along. It's like a huge party. It ranges from being hands-over-the-heart and soft, to kids up and dancing, singing "I Am Enough."
It's never been done. We've ditched the traditional book tour model altogether. I go to a school during the day and then have an event at night that's open to the public for anyone to come. All the events are totally free and the schools don't pay for anything. We come in, give all the books, and we do sound, lighting, everything covered.
It's cool that it's already growing so fast. I'm sure it's one of those things that's going to keep morphing and expanding in ways you can't predict right now.
And this is the tie-together too, the music piece is really important. Because if it's just me up there talking, then I'm just another lecturer, one of their teachers. Music is the thing, over anything, over any language, throughout all of human history that gets us to feel something. Before I can get these kids to commit to trying a practice, to commit to believing in themselves, I need them to feel inside that they are enough. I need them to get to that place, and the easiest way in is through music. That's why I use that as a gateway in and then they're open to going into the practice. It's kind of like the sugar that makes the medicine go down.
I want to zoom out a bit and learn more about your journey. When did you first start making or getting curious about making music? Do you have a point where you remember envisioning yourself as a recording artist?
Yeah, it's a really interesting story and I think something a lot of people share. I always wanted to do music ever since I was a little boy. When I present, I show a slide up on the screen of me at four with a guitar and a microphone over my ear. But I grew up getting teased and bullied really bad at school. I had to switch schools, kids jumped out of trees choking me, because I was a little black boy who was clearly feminine and gay, even before I knew what gay meant, growing up in the hood. When that happens and you're different, it's not safe.
So I hid that part of me forever. I always wanted to do music but I let the kids who teased me, make me think I sucked at everything. I stopped myself because of the bullying. I decided, because I grew up—I wouldn't say we were poor, but if somebody missed a paycheck, we'd be in big trouble. My coping mechanism was, "I'm going to be really successful, really smart, make a lot of money and get out of here and show everybody." That kind of was my driving force.
I got a full-ride scholarship to go to UCLA. I wanted to do musical theater, but I decided to do marketing because I wanted to do something, "safe and successful." I literally let the music dream completely die until several years ago. My grandma, who I was super close to, got diagnosed with stage four cancer. It was a shock to our family. Doctors told her she had two months to live. She was pretty young, 67, and seemingly healthy.
When I got to her house, she asked me a question that changed my life. She said, "I'm watching your life. I'm going to ask you a question. If you were in my shoes and you knew you were going to die in two months, what would you do?" I was living, what most people would say was the dream. I had my own marketing company at 23 years old, driving a BMW, living within two blocks from the beach in Venice, making six figures with five employees and an office in Santa Monica. Someone who grew up in the hood.
I told my grandma, "I would drop every single thing that I've built. And I would record an album, I would do music." And she said, "I know. That's what you would do, because that's what you've always wanted since you were a little kid. I see you climbing up this marketing mountain and I'm afraid sometime later in your life, you're going to get to the top and be like, 'Damn it, I spent all this time climbing to the top of this mountain.' This is what's been placed inside of you and I just don't want it to die. You don't need to quit your whole life, you just need to incorporate music. This is your gift and I know how important this is to you."
So even though my grandma's death was the hardest thing I went through, it gave me the greatest gift because it actually helped me live. I promised her I would do an album. It took me years. I started taking voice, piano and guitar lessons and then writing and recording my first album. When I put it out [2016's Metamorphosis], it charted on the Top 20 of the iTunes pop charts, which was amazing. Because of my marketing background and speaking business, I was able to get it to chart. So that's what got me back into music. My first time in the studio ever was when I walked in to record the first song from my album.
And everybody said I couldn't do it. Everybody was telling me, even some people in my family, "Why are you doing this? You've spent all this time building up this marketing business." And I was like, "I didn't come here to just live. I want to be alive. I want to live this life fully." It was hard, but now seeing where I'm at now I could have never even dreamed it would get this cool.
Wow. What a beautiful gift your grandmother gave you.
Yeah, it was so hard but such a such an amazing gift. And she didn't get to see any of it; she only lived for nine months after that, but she's always with me.
When did you first get into meditation and at what point did you feel like you needed to share this practice with others?
It's like the perfect segue, because after I went to college, everything in my life, on the external, changed when I got to college. I was out of the closet, I had a full-ride scholarship so I had money for the first time. I went from living in the hood to living in Westwood. I was getting good grades, and I had done everything by the book. I was like, "I did everything. Now I'm supposed to be happy, right?" My whole life looked exactly like I had dreamed, if not better. But inside I still felt like that little boy who was on the outside of it. I couldn't be my authentic self, I didn't know how. I felt miserable inside. I think we all have this experience. It's like you mentioned at the beginning, trying to change the external to hopefully make the internal feel better.
I felt like I had been cheated. I was like, "I worked my whole life to do this and I'm not happy." When I was 18 or 19, in 2007, one of my mentors recommended I try meditation. You have to remember, Oprah had not done a meditation challenge yet. I was like, "Medi—what? Isn't that a cult?" I did not know what he was talking about.
I started first with yoga and got into meditation soon after. Then I met a teacher named Lorin Roche, who took me under his wing as a mentee and taught me everything he knew. He's a world-renowned meditation teacher and has written books that have been in print for like 30 years. Back then when I was 20, I was asking him, "Why are you doing this?" He charges $1,000 an hour to teach private meditation at big companies and literally I had him on like speed dial, talking multiple times a week.
He said, "In all my 30 years of teaching, I've never seen someone your age who looks like you and who's gone through what you've gone through and is interested in this practice. I think one day, there's going to be people who need to hear your voice who don't need to hear mine." So I apprenticed with him for three years and traveled and helped him build his teacher training program. And when that started taking off in the online world, I used my marketing to help take his business online. Then he was like, "I think you need to start teaching." And I said, "I don't need to teach meditation." To which he said, "It's just such a shame because so many people could use your voice."
So I just started hosting little classes which turned into big classes. That turned into 1,500 people livestreaming online, me going on tour with Wanderlust and Yoga Journal and all that kind of stuff. It just kind of happened. And I never intended to write a meditation book. If you had told me four years ago I would've done this, I would have said no way that's happening. But it just was one of those moments where I anchored into letting myself be of service. I let myself be a vessel to be used by the universe for the highest good and this is what came all the way through, and then music came along with it fully. And that's the thing I feel so grateful for. It feels like a privilege but also a responsibility to me. People are shocked that I've been teaching meditation for a decade. I'm only 32. I'm lucky enough to have the experience and the knowledge of somebody who's like double my age but I'm young enough that kids can still relate to me.
As we've been discussing, your work is such cool intersection of music, mindfulness and activism. What are your beliefs and hopes around music bringing forward important messages of change and social justice?
Yeah. That's really the whole message. What I know is the revolution we all want actually starts inside. And my mission and my message with music is even a song like "I Am Enough" is revolutionary—when you're a trans person singing that song, when you are a person who's grown up in poverty singing that song or a disabled person singing that song. Today, one of the schools' administrators sent me video from of one of their special-needs students, a young Latina girl, who went to one of the administrators singing "I Am Enough."
And that first step of stepping into your power inside is necessary for us to start creating change in the world. As we look at the past, I think what we've all learned now, our generation and the generations after us, is if we don't take care of ourselves, we are internalizing the same oppression that we're trying to fight against.
And it's not self-care like get a massage every week. That's great, but I'm talking about really focusing on the internal and really empowering ourselves. My mission and my commitment with music moving forward is to make music that connects us to that something greater that lives inside of each and every one of us. That isn't limited by your religion, race, gender, who you love or your identity. That connects us into that power of something greater so that we can see and make the change that we want in the world. That's the kind of music I want to make and it doesn't mean that I'm going to just make motivation music always. But I want it to have a message, even if it is about mourning or loss or whatever, that connects us into this space of possibility. That's really my mission.
What advice do you have for young people who feel at odds with the world and want to make a difference but don't know where to start?
So many of us feel like we don't get involved because we don't know what to do or how to do it or we feel like beginners or we're not sure where we would make an impact. And I think the most important thing we have to first do is unapologetically decide what causes or missions we authentically care about most. In the book I call this your justice values. It's a practice on page 264 [called "Become A Better Activist (A How-To Guide)"]. It's your values, we all have them. And it's not saying you don't care about other things. But if you spread yourself too thin, it's just like, "Well, I don't know what to do, because there's so much going on." We're all getting overwhelmed with that because in the media right now there's so much going on.
When you know your values, or what really fires you up, what makes you feel angry, what makes you feel like you want to fight towards something, then the question is, "How do you use your talents, gifts, skills and these things that you believe in and care about to help serve the world and other people?" Sometimes people think the only way to be involved in activism is by organizing and protesting, but it's not. I am an example of that, my form of activism is teaching meditation and using music. So what is it that the you have? Do you write? Do you have poetry? Do you want to volunteer somewhere? Is there anything that you can do that would help use your voice on the right side of this movement, the movement for change?
I ask people to look inside themselves, and the book really guides people. I have a whole section on meditation for social justice. The book guides people through processes of how to go in to see and discover "What is the way that I can authentically get involved in the movement?" And the most important thing is just to try. And there are thousands of organizations out in the world that are fighting for the same mission you care about. A quick Google search will lead you to one of them and you can see how to get involved. The most important thing is just start by doing something, don't get overwhelmed by the options, take the thing that really fires you up the most and take action towards it.
"The most important thing is just start by doing something, don't get overwhelmed by the options, take the thing that really fires you up the most and take action towards it."
I think that's such a good reminder that all you need to do is take that first step. I feel it's so easy for us to think of what's out of our control, but if we just do one thing tomorrow, we have no idea what the year-from-now version of that thing will be.
Yeah, absolutely. And that's the big thing, what are your gifts and talents and skills? And I have marketing as a skill of mine and some people have drawing or whatever, contribute that. If they work at a bank and they're good at accounting, how many nonprofits need help with accounting? You know what I mean? We think of our professional lives and our passions as separate things from our political and activism lives. What we actually need, and what really meditation and yoga and all of it helps us remember, is that it's all about integration and union and when we do that, we can all really help.
I think it comes back to what I was saying in the beginning, that ultimately what I want with this book, and what I believe meditation is calling us to do right now, is to not just sit our asses on our meditation cushion and send love and light. That's important. But more importantly, what it's calling us to do right now is to do something. The reason why meditation is such an important precursor to doing is because we first drop into our hearts and do it from that space versus doing from our heads and ego.
What I keep finding, like you said, especially with this book and not expecting it to be this way, is when you drop into this heart space and you show up, the universe has a plan that's bigger for your life than you could have ever dreamed of. We just have to take the step and let it lead us forward, and remember we're enough.
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