“I saw somebody being treated so inhumanely and unfairly, and I got that sick feeling in my stomach. I had to put it into words,” says singer-songwriter Brandon Jenner, explaining how he felt compelled to write “Say My Name” after seeing the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder. All proceeds from the song, which also features vocalist Emi Secrest, will go to the Color of Change organization.
In an unusual move, Jenner and Secrest initially released “Say My Name” in mid-June to their friends and family, which generated $15,000 in donations to Color of Change – and now, with the song’s release to the wider world, they hope that amount will grow significantly. They chose Color of Change after they did research and decided that it is “an organization that’s actually giving back to the black community to help end all of this [racism],” Secrest says.
While launching “Say My Name” has gone smoothly, actually writing it was an emotionally wrenching experience. “I basically wanted to write it from Ahmad’s perspective, now being gone, if he could write a letter to humanity – looking back on the short life that he lived,” Jenner says. “So I spent some time crying and writing and playing piano, and that’s how the song came to be.”
Jenner sent a demo of the song to Secrest (best known for her work with Kanye West’s Sunday Service Choir). “I wanted to run it by her, take her temperature on it, and see if she felt like it was something that made sense and applied to what we were going through as a society right now,” Jenner says.
When Secrest listened to the track, she says she, too, was moved to tears. “Everything that he wrote, it was so beautifully put and it needed to be said,” she says. “It touched my heart and it did make me cry because I know we, as black people, have been begging for an ally, and for someone to speak on our behalf, because we’ve been talking and we’ve not been heard. So I knew that with this collaboration, for the first time, people that never heard my voice, they never heard my message, they would finally listen because of him. So that was powerful for me.
“I think with me being a black woman, it’s one thing for [Jenner] to amplify my voice – but it’s another thing for him to use his voice,” continues Secrest, explaining why she and Jenner take turns singing the song’s verses.
Secrest is also pleased that she gets to add her own powerful vocals alongside Jenner’s, because “This is something that I’ve lived – the lyrics that he wrote, I can sing them because I’ve seen this happen,” she says of situations like what happened to Arbery. And, she adds, this has been the case “Not just this year, but from way, way back when I was young.”
Still, some lyrical changes were needed before Secrest and Jenner felt that “Say My Name” was ready for release. “I let my village hear the song,” Secrest says, “and my village consists of black men and black women, beautiful souls that are all amazing. I knew that they would be honest with me. And so after getting [their] feedback, I felt that we could move differently with it.”
Jenner actually met with Secrest’s friends to discuss their thoughts on the song and, based on those talks, he and Secrest reworked the second verse. Going through this process, Jenner says, made him feel “really good because I feel like we’ve had the conversations that we needed to have with people whose opinions we respect.”
Jenner says this updated version of the song “has been so well embraced by people whose opinion I really care about, and especially people whose opinions I care about in the black community.” Now, he says, “Hopefully, [the song] can be some form of healing and empowerment and it can be a little piece of that change that so many of us are desperately looking for.”
With the song’s empathetic and emotional lyrics, Jenner says, he hopes to really reach people. “It is important to me that when people hear the song, they understand that we’re talking about a human being that had all the same traits and all the same life experiences every one of us has,” he says. “They have dreams of becoming a parent one day, and they have a family. By no means did they ever expect they would be in this position [of being victims]. I hope that people can really tap into the humanistic element of it, which is: that should never happen to anybody. And just try to put yourself in his shoes.”
Although “Say My Name” addresses incredibly serious subject matter, both Secrest and Jenner agree that working on it was an immensely enjoyable experience. They’ve been friends for a couple of years (introduced by Secrest’s brother, a fellow L.A.-based musician), and they are clearly thrilled to get this chance to work together.
“She’s been so unbelievably generous and encouraging and has embraced and supported me in a way that is very unique and very rare,” Jenner says of Secrest. “There’s not a lot of people that I meet that has her spirit and generosity, her energy, her talents, her connection to people. It was a no-brainer for me that I wanted her to be a part of this because I wanted that kind of energy and spirit to be associated with what we are trying to do.”
Secrest is equally admiring and respectful of Jenner: “He’s pushed me to be better in the studio – he’s teaching me,” she says, adding that this is especially helpful because, with this song, “I believe in it so strongly that I wanted it to be the best that it can be. So I’m just honored to be a part of this. This is a beautiful experience. It’s been absolutely life-changing.”
And, Jenner is certain, it’s just the first of many projects that he and Secrest will do together: “We’re friends and kindred spirits for life,” he says, “and we will happily be making plenty of music together.”