From the outside, a beige-colored warehouse resembles many of the manufacturing buildings lined along Adelaid Street in Thousand Palms.
But inside the nondescript building on a Saturday morning earlier this month, the headquarters for Music Changing Lives was hosting the group’s first gallery event "Art Speaks" in the Coachella Valley.
The brainchild of Josiah Bruny, a 42-year-old who grew up in Los Angeles and later the Inland Empire, Music Changing Lives is an organization dedicated to providing music, art and mentorship programs in California's public schools and community centers while raising awareness about the importance of enrichment programs as part of each child’s comprehensive education and lifestyle.
With music from a DJ echoing in the background during the gallery showing, a presenting artist who had brought her mom along caught Bruny’s eye.
As they walked throughout the gallery observing small pieces of art surrounded by a dozen mural boards, Bruny noticed as the mom held back tears seeing her daughter’s work prominently displayed, realizing that by some measure she’d achieved a dream. She had been given a chance to pursue her passion in a big way.
“You really have a person breaking generational curses right in front of you,” Bruny said, reflecting on the experience.
In that moment, he saw a bit of himself, and everything his mom, who raised him as a single parent, battled to get him everything she had wanted.
From a young age, Bruny dreamed of a way into the music industry. At 13, he was passing out fliers for shows, and by the time he graduated high school, he had made strong enough connections to work for big names like Ice Cube and Master P.
It looked like he’d made it, but he’d just started to catch a glimpse of how the industry really looked. He started seeing artists mistreated by major labels and executives encouraging harmful themes and stereotypes in hip hop, and he knew he had to get out.
Bruny had seen an imbalance in power early on and says it was his tenacity which allowed him to escape and find success in music in his own way. From that moment, his perspective shifted, and he knew he needed to make a difference.
“It’s called the upside-down kingdom,” Bruny said, speaking about the art world broadly, “where you’re praising the wrong individuals and most of these individuals that are ‘winning’ are a part of the problem that they’re asking us to solve. Because they’ve benefited from racial inequalities shutting people down. It’s barriers across the board even as far as arts and music in the schools.”
His belief has always been rooted in the importance of creative expression in youth development. Seeing his world around him, Bruny grew up believing you were either a talented athlete, rapper or you were involved in gangs. He refused to be boxed in by that in his life, and now he’s making sure kids and young adults know they aren’t either.
“If you don't have a kid doing something creative, I guarantee you somebody that's negative is going find that kid and get them to do some negative,” Bruny said.
Bruny founded Music Changing Lives in 1998 when he graduated from Fontana High School and started selling CDs of his own music with a promise that money from each sale would go toward helping him build a studio to teach kids how to work in the music industry.
A few years later he’d built a studio in his basement but quickly outgrew it, and with the help of a mentor, he found a way to take his work into local community centers starting in the City of Redlands. Between school programs, community center programs, events and even a community garden in San Bernardino, he’s made his mark on the Inland Empire. And now, he’s finally reached the desert, a goal he always kept.
The COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns kept Bruny from reaching in community centers and schools. There was a new need to be less reliant on public spaces and to find a home base.
Seeing that moment and that need, Elliot Lewis, founder and CEO of Catalyst Cares (a self-described policy and philanthropic arm of cannabis retailer, Catalyst Cannabis Co.), offered warehouse space that had been vacant for a few years in Thousand Palms. On Dec. 24, 2021, Music Changing Lives received the keys to a new headquarters and officially moved into the Coachella Valley.
Over a decade ago, after seeing how kids reacted to a mural he commissioned to be painted at the community center in Redlands, Bruny made another pivot. While the name hasn’t officially changed, Music Changing Lives started to morph into ‘Art Changing Lives.’ Film, fashion, web design, painting and writing -- any creative expression can be life changing for the better in Bruny’s eyes.
Growth through art
This is an important point for Jessica ‘Oaks’ Lopez, an Indio-based aerosol artist.
Lopez, 35, grew up in the Inland Empire and found art as a kid. She started with sketches and cartoons from a young age but got into aerosol painting at the age of 15 when a cousin showed her around the world of graffiti art.
For her it goes beyond creative expression. She, like many artists, found a new sense of confidence as she progressed.
“It was a battle for me,” Lopez said of her balance between her own creative freedom and perfectionism. But she says she walks taller now having really found herself as an artist.
“The power of art, it comes from within,” Lopez said. "It comes from self. It comes from experience. It comes from what’s around you and who supports you.”
While Lopez feels blessed in her life with her wife and 10-year-old twin daughters, she says she can’t imagine the difference it could have made for her growing up to have had the guidance that Music Changing Lives aims to provide.
“But I’ve met him now so it all happened for a reason,” she said. “Maybe I wasn’t ready then, maybe I was meant to be ready as an adult.”
Lopez became involved with Music Changing Lives a few months back and is ready to offer guidance and to help artists be their best selves. Lopez is happy to be working with what she sees as a tight-knit team built on community and love.
In her view, Bruny is a natural leader and organizer. He keeps busy, he knows what he wants and he makes it happen, but he isn’t in it for the recognition.
“He has a whole army of people who will let you know his image, who he is,” Lopez says. “But he’s not ever flexing, he’s an action man.”
That’s another key piece of what seems to make Music Changing Lives work, and a skill Bruny has to find talent, volunteers and a way to serve them as they serve their communities.
“If you can teach a person how to take what they have, and turn it into a profitable scenario, you are that golden arch for them,” Bruny said. “So, Music Changing Lives is that wellness center that wants to first heal, then we want to teach health, fitness, self-actualization and most importantly, sustainability.”
An early success
This was exactly the case for Franklin ‘FaBz’ Barnes.
Barnes, 28, was born in Riverside and moved around the Inland Empire. He grew up with a love for R&B passed to him from his dad. Names such as The Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye and Al Green were a big part of his childhood dreams of becoming a musician. But his biggest opportunity came from a time of struggle.
Around the age of 16, he was going through hard times at home compounded by years of depression and found help through mental health care services. A case worker introduced Barnes to Bruny, and he quickly joined one of Music Changing Lives’ first classes of students.
“As a performer, Music Changing Lives helped me tremendously,” Barnes said. “It was a whole bunch of different elements that influenced who I wanted to become.”
While Barnes said the program helped him grow as an R&B performer, the real help came with his personal growth. It helped him calm down and focus on himself at a time in his life when he didn’t believe he’d live past 18. Bruny had become like a brother to him, guiding him in much more than just music.
“The way life kind of molds youth now is to make them believe that they can do everything by themselves,” Barnes said. “Music Changing Lives, other than God, is what helped me come back to reality and realize that I did need help.”
And it worked.
Now living in Phoenix, Barnes is the founder of his own independent label FaBz Productions LLC, and is making music blending R&B and gospel influences together for his own sound. He also is working with his pastor to develop another label and media company.
“He’s still my biggest mentor,” Barnes said of Bruny. “The sky is the limit with him.”
Bruny wants an even playing field for everyone. He’s a big believer in the idea of a hand up rather than a handout and giving people opportunities to take control of their own creative vision.
”As a board member for Californians for the Arts, my hope is to ensure that all 40 million of our residents have some form of arts available to them, especially communities that are underserved,” Bruny said.
Accessibility to art is crucial in Bruny’s world. He recognizes the disparity in who gets the freedom to learn, experience and even profit from art compared to those who often do not.
In the 2019-20 school year, an SRI Education study found that only 14% of lower-income high schools in California offered at least one course in each of the four required arts disciplines laid out by state policy (dance, music, theater and visual arts) compared to 32% in more affluent schools.
For Bruny, this is a major part of the struggle. Not only does this keep kids from finding their love for the arts, but it contributes to a struggle for lower income communities to be represented in the arts and as Bruny believes to take back the narrative and to tell their own story.
Bruny aims not only to introduce kids to the arts and foster their creative expression, but to make sure they leave knowing how they can use that to make money or otherwise enrich their communities and their own lives.
The creative economy, according to a 2022 study by the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, provided 1.37 million jobs in the state of California in 2020 and made up a $687.6 billion market accounting for nearly 12% of the state’s gross regional product.
“So how do I tap into that?” Bruny asks. “I’m fighting for a crumb of a crumb.”
Part of the frustration for Bruny and for artists he works with is the feeling that they are fighting against a system that they feel doesn’t want to fund them.
A 2021 study by L.A. County Department of Arts and Culture with the Center for Business and Management of the Arts at Claremont Graduate University found that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) arts administrators in Los Angeles County were paid 35% less than their white counterparts.
If a venture capitalist can find hundreds of millions of dollars for an idea, what is an artist worth, Bruny asks.
While many art galleries charge artists for exhibitions, Bruny wants to hand his space over to artists to use for free so they can get their work seen and sell it to the public.
“The rental fee is waived to those who can’t afford it,” Bruny says, explaining the difference between his new headquarters and other art spaces or even community centers. He envisions the space being used for teen nights, car shows, art galleries, drag performances and a wide range of events as long as it is safe and not degrading to the community.
For Bruny, the space is a headquarters, a training center, a storage location for equipment as well as an event space. It’s a hub for Music Changing Lives to grow.
“I’m blown away and flabbergasted by what we’ve created,” Bruny says, when asked how he feels about opening his doors in the Coachella Valley. “It’s beyond me and it’s beyond the artists — it’s the community […] the people are what we’ve been waiting on to really work together, and that is what is decolonizing wealth.”
While the organization still needs more volunteers, financial donors, office furniture and production equipment, Bruny is proud of what his team has helped him put together so far and thankful for the support from community members as well as his own family.
“This is how you become the Boys and Girls Club of hip hop and art,” Bruny adds with a smile.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Josiah Bruny launches Music Changing Lives to spark creativity in today's youth