Growing up in a Christian household with a father who was a minister, Bryant Paul Mills was never allowed to listen to secular music.
In high school, he would hear “For Your Love” play on the radio and always asked himself “who sings this song?”
“My parents wouldn’t allow me to listen to R&B music…we listened to Maranatha, Sandy Patti … it was beautiful, it was great music, but we (he and his sisters) wanted to listen to Jodeci, Boys II Men, and Hi-Five,” Mills said.
It wasn’t until Mills came to CSUN that he was introduced to Stevie Wonder’s music through a friend.
Now Mills is a semifinalist for Stevie Wonder’s KJLH LA Young Star Competition.
KJLH radio, 102.3 FM plays mostly on R&B and gospel music. The radio station along with BET, Time Warner Cable and Stevie Wonder, are looking for LA’s next young talent.
The winner of the competition will be invited to sing at Stevie Wonder’s House Full of Toys benefit concert Dec. 12 at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles.
The concert is a fundraising event that encourages concert-goers to bring unwrapped toys that will be donated to children and families in need.
The Jonas Brothers are also scheduled to perform. However, the highlight of the concert will be the winner from competition singing onstage with Stevie Wonder.
“I learned that there was nothing wrong with listening to secular music,” he said with a laugh.
Mills, a 30-year-old singer/songwriter, radiates life. His dark eyes sparkled, while his foot grew restless and shook his long limbs as he talked about the competition.
“Stevie Wonder is definitely one of my inspirations as far as music and writing and just his morale, his ethics, his humanitarian spirit … I aspire to be like that. I aspire to write music that helps people, and that revives the spirit of life and humanity.”
Mills auditioned for the competition at the Comedy Store in Hollywood and sang “Ribbon in the Sky”.
“I’m really excited to be a part of it and to be a semifinalist … this is why I came to LA. I came to LA to go to school here at CSUN, to fulfill my dream and get a performing arts degree and hopefully perform here in the city,” Mills said.
However, Mills stopped short of completing his goal of finishing school.
Just five units shy of finishing his degree, Mills dropped out because he could no longer afford to pay tuition.
In order to make ends meet, Mills works two jobs.
At one job, Mills is a singer and host at Romano’s Macaroni Grill in Northridge. There, Mills sings Italian folk songs, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole for tips.
His other job is at a concession stand in Pershing Square.
Mills has a positive outlook on working two jobs.
“I really have to have my priorities straight, it’s great because I don’t have time for foolishness,” he said.
Mills said he more than anything he wants to go back to school and finish his degree. In the meantime, he’s singing, writing songs, and auditioning. .
“Whatever happens, happens. I’m still going back to school,” Mills said, “A lot of people had to fall for me to be in the position I’m in right now. I would have never had that right if those people didn’t fight.”
“Even if I’m 40 years old, I’m still going to go get that degree. It’s that important.”
Mills’ laugh comes easily, as he recalled singing in a group as a child, comprised of his sisters and mother, with his mother as the lead singer.
“We would sing background for her and all her original songs,” he said with a smile.
Mills said that his journey to songwriting was not something he considered as a career when he was younger.
As a boy, he believed he would go to college on a basketball scholarship. That dream was shattered as his childhood was taken away from him at an early age.
“As a young child, I was dealt some pretty hard cards as a kid,” Mills said.
He was molested at eight. At 14, he was raped by a minister at church.
“I felt a helplessness that I’ve never felt in my life … it was just the worst feeling, I was frozen. I couldn’t do anything, I wanted to run but I was still there,” he said.
“It was vulnerability I have never experienced … it’s like those dreams where you feel like someone is trying to take your soul or something. But this wasn’t a dream, this was real life.”
Mills stopped playing basketball and started withdrawing from social activities.
It was then Mills started writing songs. His first song was to Jesus.
“I was trying to find out why it happened”, he said, “I would take walks and talk to God and sing songs to God.”
When Mills was 16, he met a choral director would saw potential in him. Not wanting to be involved choir, he refused to join.
Mills instead tried to get involved in basketball again, thinking that would be his ticket to a college education.
The choral director was persistent, Mills said.
Mills made the director promise him a scholarship to get into school if he quit the basketball team and joined the choir.
“He didn’t really get me a scholarship, but he taught me in the choir how to sing the classical music that let me come here to CSUN, and audition and get a scholarship.”
That scholarship covered his first few years of tuition, while he paid for all his living expenses through grants and working odd jobs.
Being away from home for the first time, with his family over 400 miles away, Mills was very lonely.
“I would go into the practice rooms here and write music. That loneliness began my songwriting process, and I would write songs about people who were probably feeling the same way I am,” he said.
“Then one of my friends introduced me to Stevie Wonder … and when I heard Stevie Wonder, my eyes opened to the beauty and the healing process of music.”
Songs like “Overjoyed”, “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer,” and “Lately” inspired Mills to write songs about love, heartbreak and being strong in the face of adversity.
“And then he would sing about politics…he made me be proud to be African American,” he said.
Mills said that he had a hard time with his identity growing up.
“I mean, my identity was so obscured. I’ve been raised as a Christian… and you were either Christian or you weren’t,” he said.
“Listening to Stevie was a cultural awakening for me. Even though I learned about culture through school, I never really identified with myself as an African American, really. I identified with the struggle… I didn’t want to identify with it, in a way.”
By taking courses in the Pan African studies program at CSUN to compliment his performing arts degree, “it really let me see the beauty in the struggle, that’s why I’m here,” Mills said.
“It just really helped me and shaped me to be who I am today, and the songwriter that I am today. That’s why I want to write what I write, songs that really help humanity.”
Mills is critical of today’s music.
“It’s just whatever goes here, there’s no caliber of musicians and musical tastes here, in this country. It’s just going down the drain with the infiltration of pop,” he said.
Even though he said he likes some pop music and likes to dance, he said his lyrics would never be commercial.
“I for one am staying true to my roots. I am going to write songs about meaning and life and about conflicts,” he said.
“The two topics that people don’t like to discuss are politics and religion, and I am going to sing about that stuff, and make it known that things are happening in the world.”
Mills said that his uses his past as inspiration to provide hope for the future.
“You can say that’s my disability… my disability is what I went through as a child. I’ve survived it, so I have a story to tell,” he said.
“It takes a recognition of that disability first, and then you get strength from it. That’s the beauty in it and then you grow, until then you can’t grow.”
Mills wants to share his experiences and his love of life through his music.
“There are evil people in the world, and the people who are being victims of these evil people need to know that there’s hope…if no one speaks out that’s been a victim, there’s no hope,” he said.
“I want to be a catalyst for change in my generation, and so I’m writing music.”
To hear Mills’ music visit www.myspace.com/bryantpaul.