Justin Garner had big plans for 2020.
In March, the local rhythm-and-blues artist was scheduled to sing the national anthem at the New Orleans Pelicans vs. Sacramento Kings basketball game at the Smoothie King Center. In April, Garner was set to headline the Ebb & Flow Festival in Baton Rouge.
Neither the Pelicans-Kings game nor his Ebb & Flow performance happened. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the spring festival season, sports and social events went on indefinite hiatus.
The loss of the high-profile gigs was a major blow for Garner. It also stalled the momentum the singer-songwriter gained with his 2019 debuts at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Essence Festival.
“COVID threw a lot of things for a loop,” Garner said. “The Ebb & Flow Festival would have been my first headlining concert in my hometown. I was really looking forward to it.”
Garner anticipates that the Pelicans game anthem performance eventually will happen, albeit virtually. Even better, Garner filmed a half-hour set for the rescheduled, virtual Ebb & Flow Festival. Debuting online a few weeks ago, his and the festival’s other performances are available for streaming at ebbandflowbr.org/virtual-performances.
About three weeks after Ebb & Flow’s postponement, festival coordinator Mysti Byrnes invited Garner to participate in the event’s online configuration. That was an exciting moment.
“Because, at that point, we had all been under serious quarantine,” Garner said. “Creatively, I was going crazy. Stuck in the house, I couldn’t perform any shows, couldn’t record music, couldn’t do anything.”
Garner filmed his Ebb & Flow concert in a resonant fourth-floor hallway at the Shaw Center for the Arts. He opens with a stirring take on “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song often referred to as the Black national anthem.
Garner usually sings only songs he’s written at his performances. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, he saw an opportunity to send a timely message by singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
“That song was heavy on my heart,” he said. “I wanted to open that performance with that song to show my stance.”
Garner followed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” with another nonoriginal song, Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain.”
“Which is my way of saying that, in the midst of everything that’s going on, I still have love on my mind,” he said. “Love for my community, love for humanity.”
Garner sang his remarkably expressive Ebb & Flow concert in front of an audience of two, his film crew.
“I had to envision the audience,” he explained. “I had to envision the people from around the world who follow me. I imagined singing directly to each person, individually.”
“Justin is a wonderful performer, producer and musician,” said Jonathan Grimes, director of facilities and music programming at the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge. “He easily adapted to the situation and knocked it out of the park.”
Following the helplessness Garner felt during the early weeks of the pandemic, his virtual Ebb & Flow Festival performance inspired him to create again.
“I’m thankful for that moment,” he said. “That kick-started everything that’s going up to now.”
Garner will release a new EP on Aug. 21. He’s already released two new songs, “Make a Scene” and “Melanin.”
Like “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” his new original song, “Melanin,” has a message. Melanin, of course, is the pigment that colors skin, hair and eyes in humans and animals.
“While we’re dealing with the pandemic and social inequality, I wanted to create a sense of unity,” Garner said. “The song is based on the pigmentation that we all have in common.”
Garner’s other news includes his first TV placement. In May, MTV used his song, “Rush,” in season 8, episode 19 of “Teen Mom OG.” Having recently begun working with a music publisher, he anticipates it’s the first of many more placements this year.
Although Garner misses singing for audiences, he’s using these pandemic times to further develop his singing and writing.
“It’s given way to a new sound, even more of the soulful R&B vocals than I’m used to,” he said.
Garner’s new songs include “Bloom,” an intimate, soulful ballad inspired by his relationship with his wife, Haley.
“We experienced so much growth in our love for each other while being in quarantine,” he said.