WOKE: Music from the Soul to Heal the ‘Ville

Story by Randy Whetstone Jr.

Photos taken by Kathryn Harrington

at 800 Tower City Apartments

Local musical group WOKE (Working On Keeping Equality) is comprised of four men – Lamont Connor, Darius Towns, Dejuan Rainey and James Crawford – who met each other at a young age and are now touching lives with their music. Having already performed on WAVE 3 and “Great Day Live!” on WHAS11, their harmonious gifts have come together to wake up the Louisville community and make a positive impact.

As a young boy, Lamont Connor was immersed in music. He remembers seeing his uncle Jimmy Connor, a Grammy-award winning gospel artist, sing in churches and put out albums. “That’s where the seed was planted,” he says. The seed grew as Connor would hear his dad sing in the kitchen as he washed dishes.

“I would sneak out of bed and I’d sit on the floor in the hallway and listen to my dad sing those songs of Zion,” Connor says. “I would always say, ‘Man, what a powerful, powerful sound.’ Around the age of seven, I realized I had a voice, too.”

When he got older, Connor became a member of the group Touch of Class. He worked with his longtime friend, the late Stephen “Static Major” Garrett and eventually met music producer Darius Towns.

Touch of Class was one of the first groups Towns had the chance to produce for, and each member held a special place in his heart since all of them were close friends that he considered brothers. From there, he had the opportunity to work with names such as Toni Braxton, Garth Brooks and Eric Clapton.

Touch of Class rose to prominence and went on to work with Gerald Levert, the O’Jays, Frankie Beverly & Maze and Boyz II Men, but the success didn’t last long.

“It was some major opportunities that God provided for us,” says Connor. “We always got right there, but the door never opened. As they say, God has a plan for everybody and a season for everybody, and it wasn’t part of our plan at that time and it wasn’t the right season.”

James Crawford, who grew up in Newburgh, Indiana, met Towns in high school through Shon China Lacy and Montre Davis, who are now part of the group Linkin’ Bridge. Crawford’s musical aspirations came about as he shadowed his father, who was a member of the 1950s R&B group the Moonglows and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. The group was famous for their song, “Sincerely,” which went No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and No. 20 on the Billboard Juke Box Chart.

The foursome became the first members of the group Uncut. Connor and Dejuan Rainey contributed to the group in the early days also. Rainey grew up in the gospel era, and his old-school, raspy tone was just the finishing touch that the group needed.

Though the group was on the threshold of stardom, the men were young and lacked direction in finding proper management. Connor says one way or another, the opportunity to “make it big” would always slip through the cracks.

Eventually, the band took a hiatus from music and went their separate ways.

Towns says he got to a point where he sold all of his equipment and was “done with music.” Then, he recalls watching television and seeing the guys he had once worked with now performing as Linkin’ Bridge on the screen.

“I (had been) a part of Linkin’ Bridge for a moment. … Looking back, it was a thing where God lets you know there is a time, and … that God has a plan,” he says.

Connor says he essentially gave up on music and gave up on wanting that side of himself to live.

“We wouldn’t be honest if we didn’t say those missed opportunities didn’t leave a dent in our hearts and in our minds and didn’t cause us to want to take a hiatus, if you will,” he says. “We wouldn’t be honest if we said it didn’t hurt us when we saw others who we were connected with go on and do well.”

Connor continued to sing but battled a drug addiction, and the lifestyle eventually led him to prison in 2009. While away from his family for five years, he experienced an epiphany and realized he was gifted for a reason.   

“I don’t believe I was gifted with that gift (to sing) for it to die and not be heard. Prison wasn’t something God did to me; prison was something God did for me. He saved me from myself. I wouldn’t trade nothing for my journey. I am glad I went through what I went through because it allowed me to be the man I am today, and it afforded me to connect with old friends,” he says.

Although some of the group’s musical dreams died temporarily, what continued to live in their hearts was a song the group wrote in 1995 called, “Gone Away.” In that year, Crawford’s brother Dion was murdered, and out of that tragedy, “Gone Away” was birthed.

In late 2017, the group reunited and became known as WOKE. As they witnessed violent tragedies plague the city of Louisville, they felt something was missing in the music industry.

“We wanted to come in and provide healing. We want to heal the Ville,” says Rainey. “We came together because all of us can relate to someone we have lost. At the end of the day, it created a message for what all of us are going through.”

“What we’ve begun to see is that the music industry is missing something,” Connor adds. “So what we want the community to do is wake up, and we want them to stay woke. That’s why we concentrate on doing music that tells a story – so it leaves an imprint.”

Originally, the group made a music video for “Gone Away” to send a message about combating senseless acts of violence. Little did they know that the project would lead to greater things. Connor – not expecting a response – sent an email to Gill Holland, owner of the record label sonaBLAST!, to see if he would be interested in the video. In a matter of minutes, Holland, who receives over 100 emails weekly from aspiring artists, responded and expressed his interest. He says the email “was beautifully written – poetic, like a sermon” and thought he should take a meeting to learn more.

“WOKE has a deep soul, and they are four incredibly talented musicians, each in his own right,” says Holland. “So when you get that kind of talent coming together with one vision, one sound, one story, one message, along with the revitalization they’re working towards in west Louisville, the cultural impact of the songs that WOKE is putting out can have significant resonance in today’s society.”

The members of WOKE have refined their gifts and again sparked the interest of others around the nation. Holland and the band connected with the filmmakers of the movie “River Runs Red” starring Taye Diggs, George Lopez and John Cusack. Diggs plays an African-American judge whose son is killed by police officers the day he is supposed to start at the law enforcement academy.

“Gone Away” was originally going to be played in the movie during a scene in which Diggs visits his son’s grave, but after negotiations, the group was given the opportunity to perform the song in the movie.

“We didn’t expect to be here,” says Connor. “We did a music video and wanted to dedicate that song to the community, but God opened up some doors for us and he had a different plan.”

When thinking about the future, Holland has high hopes for the band and believes they will be able to garner global attention.

“The challenges facing Louisville are the same challenges facing most cities in America,” he says. “So, it’s a matter of working hard, keeping your head down, keep doing it and at some point, things will start connecting and other people will start seeing this is not just a Louisville band. This is a universal band talking about universal issues.VT