FEATURE: Singer-Songwriter Ken Newman Strives For Positive Change With New Album Out Today
ABOUT KEN NEWMAN:
San Francisco based singer/songwriter Ken Newman has been involved in the
entertainment business in one form or another since the age of 17. With a career that’s
shifted between acting, comedy, magic, and music, Newman strives to make positive
change with his talents.
His background in corporate entertainment, and years of running a successful
production company, gave Ken the necessary tools to take his love of performing music
and do something meaningful with it. Based on an idea from his friend, Bronica de
Carlo, Ken started a charity Blanket the Homeless, a Bay-Area based organization
that tries to improve the lives of people living on the streets. In the last seven years, this
organization has distributed over 9,000 ‘care packs’ containing emergency blankets,
socks, hats, first-aid kits, and other essential items, as well as a resource directory
listing free food, shelter, and other services. It has also partnered with a large number
of other San Francisco organizations to support the houseless community.
“I am deeply committed to using my music to effect change.” Ken says about Blanket
The Homeless. “In fact, the decision to do this years ago has opened more doors to me
as a musician than I ever could have anticipated.” Indeed, it allowed him to collaborate
with his producer, Scott Mickelson, and produce a compilation album entitled ‘Blanket
the Homeless,’ featuring some of the top talent in the San Francisco Bay Area, all of
whom donated their time and talent to this cause.
Ken also shares that he would love to see Blanket the Homeless expand to the National
Another notable example of Ken intertwining his passion for music with his penchant for
change, is his single “I Can’t Breathe” . The song, dedicated to Eric Garner, happened
to reach the ears of Erica Garner, his daughter. She and the rest of the family were so
moved by the heartfelt track, that she asked Ken to perform the song at a family
Shortly after the release of the single, the phrase “I can’t breathe” again forced itself into
the public consciousness with the death of George Floyd. This inspired Ken to release
a music video based on the song, with the hopeful title, “It Stops Today” .
Ken’s upcoming album, What Am I Afraid Of? which releases April 22nd, is an invitation
to overcome challenges and soar to new heights. With its catchy guitar riffs, motivating
lyrics and melodic vocals. Ken reveals his love for a wide range of music styles, while
remaining true to his signature political-pop sound.
“I want to write music that makes people want to listen over and over, that helps them
deal with fear and loss, yet still gives them cause to celebrate and opens their minds to
the possibility of change...
Follow Ken Newman:
“Turning Compassion Up to 11” How $60 became $400
I’m often asked how and why I started “Blanket the Homeless,” and what made me decide to donate all the money I make as a musician to that organization.
First of all, I’m lucky enough to run a successful corporate event production company which gives me the freedom to not have to make my living as a musician.
As to ‘how’ it started: I was walking to a cafe the morning after a gig with a cover band I was fronting (Last Bastion) I reached into my jeans pocket and found, I think, about $15. This was my ‘take’ from the contents of the tip jar. Clearly, performing in a cover band wasn’t to be my pathway to fortune, I reached out to the other members of the band and asked them if, from now on, we could donate whatever money we made at gigs to a charity in San Francisco supporting the homeless population.
As a bunch of guys with well-paying ‘day jobs,’ they were fine with it.
An hour later, I was on the phone with Compass Family Services in San Francisco telling them that I wanted them to be the beneficiary of any money we might make at our next musical outing. They were thrilled and sent a representative to the show to talk about their work.
That day, the tip jar went from about $60 to close to $400. And someone at the bar asked me how much was in there and then, handing me a check, doubled it.
Robin Williams, Margaret Cho, and Free Haircuts
I was shocked. But I also realized that maybe we were onto something.
I continued doing this for a year or so, with the band and then with another band I formed, “Berkeley Bronx,’ and then was lucky enough to hook up with the comedian Margaret Cho who had started a program called “Be Robin,” honoring the philanthropic work of her friend, Robin Williams. I became part of her ‘traveling road show’ performing on the streets and in SF clubs, with some other amazing musicians and comedians. With a scrawled note,
“If you have, give. If you need, take”
sitting in Margaret’s guitar case, we began taking money in and distributing it to people on the streets; the simplest mechanism imaginable. Before long, we were performing to huge crowds, and raising a substantial amount of money. We also had people showing up with clothes, food and other essential items. A hairdresser came by with her supplies offering free haircuts to any of the homeless folks who wanted one. Another offering mobile phones so people could call their families. And on and on. This grass roots program became the subject of an award-winning documentary, “Be Robin – The Movie.”
Bronica DeCarlo, Crystal Lee Poteet & the inspiration for Blanket the Homeless
Around this time, two things happened. I started writing songs. And I happened upon a Facebook post by a friend of mine, Bronica DeCarlo. She had posted that she was raising funds to buy mylar emergency blankets to distribute to people on the streets during a particularly cold SF winter. I offered to help and bought 1000 or so. Gave her half and I took the other half and started handing them out at my band and solo shows, telling the audience to give them to people who needed them. I would also take the opportunity to talk about the importance of ‘seeing’ the people who were living on the streets, acknowledging their humanity, even if you didn’t have money to give them. And it turned out, being able to hand them a small package with a foil blanket that could literally save their lives was a damn good way to do that. I would often make my case for doing just that before playing a song I had written called, “We Should Do This Again.”
Several months later, I happened to be walking down Market St. and heard this velvety, ethereal voice coming from around the corner. I followed it to find a young street musician named Crystal Lee Poteet. With her ukulele, mic and a battery-powered amp, she held a crowd of people spellbound. I asked her her story. She had been homeless, but music helped get her off the street and to a shared apartment with her boyfriend, shyly standing ten feet behind her. I invited her to the next gig we had coming up. Told her I would pay her for her ‘set’ and would she feel comfortable telling her story.
She came to the show, sang her songs and told her story. And you could hear a pin drop. The audience cried. She cried. And there was more money in the tip jar than I ever could have imagined. She also offered a suggestion, based on her time living on the streets, that we expand our offerings to include a few more items. So, I purchased enough gloves, winter caps, condoms, tampons, antiseptic creams, t-shirts, and Ziplock bags to make a thousand packages. I also commissioned someone to design and do the research to create a resource directory (printed on waterproof paper) listing free food, shelter, counseling, hygiene and other services in San Francisco Bay Area.
And ‘Blanket The Homeless’ was born: http://blanketthehomeless.org
Since then, I have had the privilege of working with dozens of musicians who have donated their time and talent as well to do live shows throughout the Bay Area. and to benefit a community desperately in need of our help.
You can do this too…
Since 2016 or so, with the help of a lot of rock and roll fans, as well as San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Compass Family Services, Coalition on Homelessness, Harm Reduction Therapy and St. Vincent de Paul Society of SF, we’ve distributed about 9,000 of these packs to our friends and neighbors living on the streets. In fact, we are now part of St. Vincent de Paul which allows donations to Blanket the Homeless to be made through a 501c3 Non Profit organization.
Most of the money we use to buy supplies for our care packs comes from donations. We’ve run several successful ones on Facebook. And, at least prior to the pandemic, any money made from my band or solo shows, would also support our effort. Additionally, I executive produced a compilation album, produced by Scott Mickelson which featured performances by Scott and myself as well as The Stone Foxes, Tim Bluhm, Fantastic Negrito, Goodnight Texas, John Craigie, The Brothers Comatose, King Dream, Whiskerman, Tobias The Owl, Marty O’Reilly & The Old Soul Orchestra, Rainbow Girls, Coffis Brothers, and Con Brio. These artists came to my producer’s studio in Mill Valley, donating their time and talent. From that, came a double vinyl LP and a corresponding album release show at The Independent in San Francisco. Again, all proceeds went to our organization.
I have always believed, and I still do, that this Blanket the Homeless program could work ANYWHERE. All it takes is a community of musicians, or indeed artists of ANY type to get together and map out a strategy. Schedule weekly meetings to do just that. Plan events, publicize them, get in touch with media, research local facilities offering support to the homeless community. Design a simple ‘Z-fold’ document and have it printed on waterproof paper. Use any and all fundraising platforms to get the money necessary to buy needed supplies. Schedule ‘Assembly Line Parties’ to put them together. Bring these items to your gigs. Admittedly, it’s unusual ‘merch,’ but, in my experience, I’ve never brought enough of them.
Using their gifts as comedians, Robin Williams, Whoopie Goldberg, and Billy Crystal were able to raise over $80 million dollars with ‘Comic Relief’.
I firmly believe that while we might not hit those stratospheric figures, we could all do some life-changing work if we use the gifts we have as musicians.
“Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.” - Kahlil Gibran