Courtney Orlando survived 2 near-death experiences to live through 2 deaths which inspired 1st song in 5 years
Courtney Orlando released a music video on Friday for the first song he recorded in nearly five years, “Brother,” which was birthed out of the most painful eight months of his life this past year.
“I’m not one of those super deep, spiritual guys who talks about the attacks of the enemy, but if I didn’t believe God had a purpose for me, I knew that year because he literally kept me from death twice,” Orlando, a St. Louis-based singer-songwriter and Grammy Award-winning producer formerly known as J.R., said.
On May 5, 2014, Orlando’s head slammed off the steering wheel as someone who had overlooked that traffic had stopped drove their vehicle about 50 mph into Orlando’s car. Orlando awoke to notice his head cracked open in the rear-view mirror, but he remained alert enough to call his wife and use his gym towel to impede the bleeding before an ambulance rushed him to the hospital.
“If I didn’t have my seatbelt on,” he said, “somebody would have been writing a song about me.”
Two months later in July, Orlando’s whole family traveled to Miami for vacation. Their second day there, Orlando felt himself pull a muscle as he worked out. However, what he thought was a pulled muscle was a heart attack.
Eight percent of an artery was blocked. He needed surgery and spent the rest of vacation in the hospital. As agonizing as these life-threatening events were, Orlando walked away grateful for his survival.
But just weeks later, 18-year-old Michael Brown did not. Orlando was still in rehab for his heart attack when police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Brown on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Miss., a five-minute drive from Orlando’s home.
Despite not being full strength, Orlando joined those — like St. Louis artists Thi’sl and Cho’zyn Boy — who attempted to keep the peace among frustrated protesters. The tragic aftermath of Brown’s death and Wilson’s Nov. 24 acquittal partially inspired Orlando’s new song “Brother.”
“I was able to see just how divided the city was,” he said. “You’re out here in these streets, and you’re seeing white and black people with signs saying black lives matter and justice, and so you saw a lot of unity. But what I saw mostly, though, sadly, was a lot of segregation. I saw a lot of hate — from my people and also from people outside of my race, so I was able to see how people drew lines in the sand.
“You saw it from Christians. You saw it from non-Christians. You saw it from all walks of life, all colors and all ages. I saw for the first time: It was really black against white, and that scared me. … I was just like, ‘Wow, we really got a lot of work to do.’”
Orlando lost followers on social media over that time. He wasn’t controversial — just vocal about what he witnessed over those few grief-filled months, and some people were simply annoyed by any reference to racism or police brutality.
Please pray for our city. These kids are destroying everything and don't even know why. #HEALTHELANDGOD
— Courtney Orlando (@courtneylando) November 25, 2014
On Jan. 6, 2015, Orlando was given yet another reason to grieve. One of his best friends, Eric Brown, died of a heart attack. He was 35 years old.
When Thi’sl asked Orlando to make a song for his mixtape, Heavy is the Head, this summer, Orlando hadn’t recorded a new solo track in five years. He had released several singles, but they were songs written years prior. He had kept busy with production and features as he grew as an artist.
“I was a process of really finding where I wanted to be philosophically,” Orlando said. “As a Christian, [your faith] never changes. My life as a believer, an elder at my church and a leader in my community, that stuff is ongoing. But for me as an artist, you enter into different [phases]. … I wanted to find out, what did I want to say, how did I want to say it and who did I want to say it to?”
At age 36, Orlando now knows those three things. He plans to write about his experiences in life, transparently, to an audience not limited to the church.
“I’ve always had a heart for God’s people, but I’ve also always had a heart for the lost,” he said. “I really love my Christian brothers and sisters, but I don’t know if I want to be the guy who’s singing in churches every weekend. If I had my choice, I would have 50 percent churches, 50 percent secular venues — [performing] in front of unbelieving people who have never heard the gospel, never heard the truth. That was where my heart was at.”
When Orlando sat down at his home to write for Heavy is the Head, he had more sources of inspiration than he would’ve liked to have for the song that became “Brother.”
“I was looking at my city, looking at the toils that have come from wrestling with injustice and the evils my own city,” Orlando said, “and then looking at the death of my brother Eric Brown, and then looking at other things around my circle of life, I wanted to write a song that showed how I felt. In the midst of all this craziness going on in our country, in my life and my friend’s life, I wanted to make a song that helped others championing brotherhood, being your brother’s keeper.
“That’s really what the song is about. It’s really just about being there, sympathizing, emphasizing with your brother and your sister no matter what color they are, no matter what walk of life. If there’s going to be change, it has to come from the resolve to love. Love helps you empathize and sympathize. Love helps you to take action on the part of those who are experiencing injustice.
“I had a lot of weight on me as an artist, as a writer, as a father, as a friend, as a brother, and I wanted to let my fans know, and I wanted to let my family know and myself know … just like yo, I got you. We’re going to get through this together.”