Rayvon Owen bounds into the green room backstage at Altria Theatre during rehearsals for SPARC’s Live Art: Love show, held earlier this summer. Grammy award-winning artist Jason Mraz and the show’s choreographer get swept up in the whirlwind and ask the singer if he’ll join in a tap routine. Caught off-guard by the spontaneous request, Rayvon demonstrates a few steps and gets a thumbs-up from the pair.
Dressed casually in a comfy black-on-black ensemble – sans the signature fedora he wore during American Idol – Rayvon plops down
on a couch for our interview.
This is the performer’s first visit to his hometown in a while. His life has been a flurry of activity ever since his top-four run on American Idol in 2015 and his selection as nationally syndicated radio personality Elvis Duran’s artist of the month in January of this year. That came with an appearance on NBC’s Today, where he performed his new song, “Gold.”
Today, the excitement on the 27-year-old’s face is as authentic as it gets. Being a part of Live Art with superstars Mraz, Josh Groban, Sara Bareilles, and Michael McDonald is a dream come true for him. “I am so honored to be sharing the stage with these artists who are legends,” he says, noting this is his second year doing Live Art. “I like how much of a collaborative atmosphere this is. It’s like you are a family. We can use music for good and to spread love.”
Embracing His Talent
Long before music came into play in Rayvon’s life, he wanted to be a preacher. “I would jump in a tree and preach to squirrels and birds,” he says of his early childhood in eastern Henrico. “I would take some teddy bears and set them up and conduct them like a choir.”
Another favorite activity? Interviewing family members and recording them on a tape recorder. “I loved hosting and interviewing,”
he says. “I guess I also had an interest in journalism.”
At six, his passion for music blossomed when he started singing in the Sunbeam Choir at Antioch Baptist Church in Varina. When the choir director Ellen Sailes heard him sing for the first time, she says she thought to herself, This is a child prodigy. “One time, I gave the kids a mission to learn every word of a song,” she recalls. Rayvon not only knew the lyrics, but he also knew “all the parts and he was singing everyone’s part. He went the extra mile. He would take a song and make it his own, even as a young boy.”
Every time there was a solo, Rayvon’s eyes “just popped,” she adds. “The first solo I gave him, he shied away from the mike because it had some lipstick on it. He looked up at me with his little face and said, ‘I don’t want to kiss that lipstick.’ He was a character, and a joy. Everyone wanted to be around him because of his love of music. He soared no matter what came his way.”
Rayvon was joined in the choir by his sister, Chantel [Fitzgerald], who was four years his senior. The two were typical siblings growing up. “When we were young, we would bicker and pick on each other, but at the end of that, we would kiss and make up,” says Chantel.
She describes her brother as loving, compassionate, and very social. “He always made friends wherever he went,” she says. “And he always loved to sing. He would sing around the house and in the shower. When we would watch Disney movies, he and I would sing along.”
As a student at Glen Lea Elementary School, he hosted a talent show, and during his last year there, he got up to sing during a class karaoke party. “I can’t remember, but I think the song I sang may have been Alicia Keys,” he says, adding that everyone liked his rendition. “I thought maybe if I am getting this reaction from people, this is something I could do.”
Music was his comfort zone – even during the rocky middle school years. He joined The Richmond Boys Choir in 2003 when he was at L. Douglas Wilder Middle School.
“Even as a youngster, he was well prepared,” says Billy Dye, who was the choir director at the time and now teaches at Center for the Arts at Henrico High School, Rayvon’s alma mater. “He had a drive that was unique for a youngster his age. At his choir audition, he said he was going to put his own twist on the song. That was courageous for a youngster, and it worked for him. He has great instinct and great talent, plus he’s willing to put in the work.”
During his years with the choir, he was featured on solo and small ensemble work, and he performed with the choir’s Dream Team, a select group of singers. Dye quickly recognized his potential. “When I see a young person on that trajectory of being a professional artist, I try to give as much input as I can,” he says. “He followed up on some of my recommendations. He always listened to his instructors and anyone who was giving him help.”
College and Big Breaks: American Idol Experience
After graduating from Henrico High in 2009, Rayvon went to Belmont University in Nashville – also known as Music City – where he received a bachelor of music degree. He says studying in that market was a good career move. “It was cool to have that exposure and learn from people,” he says. “Nashville opened my eyes to being more of a songwriter and to different genres.”
Rayvon began writing songs when he was thirteen, most of which were urban or gospel. In college, he started penning pop tunes along with rhythm and blues. “It expanded my knowledge of songwriting beyond what I was doing as a kid,” he says about working with other songwriters and DJs in Nashville. “I also developed an appreciation for country music – the power of the song, music, lyrics, the hook.”
After graduating from Belmont in 2013, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment and a couple of months later, he landed an audition for American Idol.
This wasn’t his first audition; it was his fifth attempt. Rayvon first auditioned as a teen in Philadelphia. “It was a long day,” remembers Chantel. “We stood in line for hours. Our mom, one of Rayvon’s friends, and I were there to support him. He got through two audition rounds, and they said his voice wasn’t where they wanted it to be.”
Auditions two, three, and four had similar outcomes, but Rayvon didn’t give up. His fifth and last audition for the show was in San Francisco. “We were there all day long with him for that audition,” says Chantel, noting her son and her mom were there as well. “That day was nerve-racking.”
The family could hear his audition through a partition. “I had goosebumps listening to him sing. His voice was angelic. He came running out the door with the golden ticket. We screamed and yelled. We were so excited for him,” Chantel says.
Being on American Idol was an intense experience for Rayvon. “You get thrown onto a national platform. I am used to performing, but suddenly, everyone knows who you are,” he says. “It was amazing. I learned so much. It was like years of music industry experience jam-packed into months. I got so close with everybody. You become a family.”
He jokes about being known as the comeback kid at American Idol, but still ending up as one of the top four singers at the end of season fourteen. “I hold the record of being in the bottom the most amount of times and continuing to make it to the end,” he says with a sly grin. “I fought my way through that entire competition. I did my best work under pressure.”
Out of the three judges (Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick, Jr.), Connick had the toughest critiques for Rayvon. “Once the show was over, he became one of my favorites,” Rayvon says. “He said he saw a lot of himself in me. I think he was tough on me because he saw potential.”
Being on the show was challenging both physically and emotionally. For Rayvon, the fun came with a price. “The schedule was demanding, and I didn’t know how to manage my time,” he says. He was grateful for the support he received from family and fans, but at times, it could become overwhelming with texts, emails, and phone messages being sent anytime of day or night. “I had to turn off my phone in order to sleep,” he says.
The stress of social media comments about what he wore, what he looked like, and his performances pushed him out of his “comfort zone,” he says. “I hit a gamut of emotions. It was challenging to perform under those conditions.”
Being one of American Idol’s top four meant coming back to his hometown for a visit for filming. “We were right by his side,” says Chantel. “We got to ride in the limo and through the parade. He did several different shows, and he would call us up to introduce us. For one day, we all felt like celebrities. It was so much fun.”
In many ways, American Idol was a learning experience for Rayvon. “The biggest lesson was the importance of being authentic, being yourself when you step on stage,” he says. “I felt like I was stepping into a new skin. You can’t hide when you are in front of millions of people. It made me a stronger artist and a stronger person.”
Opening Up to the World
Rayvon’s need to be authentic took on new meaning after American Idol, when in 2016 he came out publicly as gay; he had already come out to family members. “Being gay is something I always struggled with since I was a kid,” he says. “It was an internal struggle about accepting myself. Growing up in church, the environment is not necessarily LGBT-friendly. I tried to pray the gay away as a kid because the church preached against it. It took a while to come to terms with it and accept myself.”
In college, he finally accepted the fact that being gay was part of who he was and it wasn’t changing. “It was tough for some of my family and close friends. It’s been tough on some of my relationships with people at home [in Richmond],” he says. “But my family is loving and accepting of me, and I am thankful for that. For every negative comment, there are a hundred positive ones.”
He shared the news with Chantel before he told the world. “I was not surprised at all. The moment he told me, I already knew in my heart,” she says. “I am totally supportive, not judgmental at all. It wasn’t an easy thing for him to do. He held it in for so long. I am so proud of him that he could build the courage to share it with the world.”
A Proposal to Remember
In 2015, Rayvon met his fiancé Shane Bitney Crone, a filmmaker, writer, and LGBT rights advocate, when Crone was in Detroit volunteering for a World AIDS Day show in which Rayvon was performing. It was around the time when Rayvon was considering coming out. The two hit it off immediately. “He helped me through the process,” Rayvon says. Rayvon released his song, “Can’t Fight It,” in 2016 when he came out, and Crone was in the video. “The song wasn’t originally about coming out, but it wrote itself to be that,” Rayvon says. “It’s mostly about how you can’t fight being in love with someone. I think anybody can apply that to the fear of dating or being in
This past March, Rayvon got the surprise of his life when Crone proposed. And what a proposal it was – at a Demi Lovato concert at The Forum in Los Angeles (Lovato is a friend of the couple) with about 17,000 other fans. The singer’s dancers went out into the crowd to randomly select someone to come on stage. When one of the dancers picked Rayvon out of the crowd, he tried to decline, saying he knew the singer. Once on stage, a trap door in the floor of the stage opened, a platform rose up, and on it was Crone, kneeling on one knee with a ring in his hand. “I was confused as to what was going on,” Rayvon says. “It wasn’t until I looked at his face that I realized, This is happening, and this is a proposal! When I said yes, everyone went crazy. They were screaming, and then Demi sang ‘Yes’ from her latest album. It was the best day of my life!”
What’s Next Professionally?
Elvis Duran was familiar with Rayvon from his American Idol run. “I didn’t know it at the time that our paths would intersect down the road,” Duran says.
When he heard Rayvon’s music on YouTube, he thought the young singer had “something special,” he says. “He has so much talent. He has a sparkle in his eye.”
Duran has been selecting an artist of the month with Today for five years, and in January 2018, it was Rayvon. “We don’t throw just anyone on The Today Show stage. We consult with them. They are very choosy, just as we are,” he says. “To get an artist on Today means there is definitely something there, they are blue ribbon,” says Duran. “We knew Rayvon would kill it on the show. He has the look, the sound, the energy and the ‘it’ quality.”
Duran learned a lot about Rayvon. “When you get to hear the personal story, it makes his music make sense. You see the struggles he went through, and you understand the passion in his music,” he says. “That is what attracted us to him.”
Rayvon released his newest single “Sweet Obsession” last month. He has momentum with each new project, Duran says. “The planets seem to be aligning for Rayvon. I see great things for his future. So far, he is making all the right moves, and I hope he continues to do that.”
Duran and Rayvon’s publicist, Steven Levine, both love helping the underdog, especially if the artist has an inspiring story like Rayvon. “He is now surrounding himself with people who are more connected and can see the talent we see in him,” Duran says.
The two also gravitate toward artists who have a heart. “Rayvon is the sweetest guy ever,” Levine says. “He was over the moon doing that SPARC: Live Art show in Richmond, and that’s someone we want to root for.”
Photos: Michael Becker, Jim Hale, Preston Mack, Today Show