WESTERLY — Kevin "Big Lux" Lowther — a hip-hop violinist, storyteller, West Point graduate and combat veteran — has witnessed some extraordinary sights in his worldwide travels, but the one that's surprised him the most is the one he witnessed right here in his hometown a couple of weeks ago ... on the steps of the Westerly Post Office.
"I never in my life thought I would see a Black Lives Matter protest here in Westerly, Rhode Island," said Lowther, 37, who is Black. "It really gives me so much hope."
Lowther — a 2000 Westerly High School graduate who studied engineering and computer science and majored in Chinese and Spanish at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and has lived in Baghdad, Germany, Afghanistan, Korea and Missouri — said he believes the time is right for change in the country and around the world.
"I have reserved optimism," Lowther continued. "For the fist time, I am seeing so many allies ... so many white people ... the people we need for the necessary changes."
Lowther, the son of Diane and Kevin Lowther of Westerly — and one of only a few Black students in the Westerly Public Schools — said the massive wave of "Black Lives Matter" protests across the globe since the death of George Floyd feels different than protests of the past.
Protests of the past are a topic familiar to Lowther, who recently released a powerful "protest music video" on YouTube and Facebook Live that includes footage of civil rights leaders, riots and notable marches, beginning with the famous Selma marches in 1965.
"Red March" includes vignettes of Emmett Till, Colin Kaepernick, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously stating: "I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard."
"Red March," set to Lowther's pulsing original music mixing the steady sound of marching feet with his innovative violin and haunting lyrics, also includes more-current Black Lives Matter protest footage, and the photos of more than a dozen Black women and men whose lives were cut short due to violence or police brutality, including Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Lowther's cousin, Jason Lowther, is also included in the section, along with the bright, red flashing words, "Say Their Names."
"It's close to me," he said.
Lowther, who has been playing the violin since he was 7, said he was initially — and profoundly — influenced by civil rights icon John Lewis, the U.S. representative from Georgia's fifth congressional district.
After reading "March," the three-part, graphic-novel series Lewis wrote with author Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, Lowther said he was inspired to write his own protest song, "Red March."
"There are issues that have not changed in a hundred years," Lowther said.
Lewis' "March" series, according to one reviewer, was "designed to help new generations of readers visualize the possibilities of political engagement."
The books recount the major events of the civil rights movement from Lewis’s position as a leader of — and later the chairman of — the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, as it was called.
Volume one is a "vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation," according to Penguin Random House, the book's publisher. "Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement, encompasses his childhood in rural Alabama, his religious education and his involvement with the sit-ins protesting Nashville’s segregated businesses."
Book two shows how Lewis and his fellow Freedom Riders boarded a bus headed into the heart of the deep South, where they were faced with beatings, police brutality, imprisonment, arson, and murder.
Their courage attracts the attention of powerful allies, from Martin Luther King Jr. to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy … and once Lewis is elected chairman of SNCC at age 23, he is thrust into the national spotlight, becoming one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement and a central figure in the landmark 1963 "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."
Book three tells how Lewis and fellow members of SNCC carry out their nonviolent revolution by launching "a series of innovative campaigns, including the Freedom Vote, Mississippi Freedom Summer, and an all-out battle for the soul of the Democratic Party waged live on national television," according to the publisher.
The books prompted Lowther to dig deep, he said, and to think more about race and protests and the reasons for protesting.
As a Black artist, he said, you have to ask yourself questions about what you're performing, what message you're sending out and why.
"You wonder, am I ... or can I ... use my platform to do more good," he mused. "But, then, look what happened with Colin Kaepernick ... you get blacklisted."
Each and every day, he said, every Black person has to think about the color of her or his skin.
People are often uncomfortable talking about race, Lowther added, which is one of the reasons he wrote "Red March," which he recorded last year in Los Angeles with a friend in the music industry, fellow Rhode Islander Phil Beaudreau. Beaudreau produced and mixed the EP, called "Major."
Lowther performed "Red March" live at the Knickerbocker last October before a crowd of about 300 people. It was well-received, he said, but he wanted to do more with the song. He contacted a friend from Miami and started making plans to create a music video. A protest music video. His friend, Ruby Tesla, a producer, said she wanted to be part of the project.
"I started collecting footage from old protests and sending them to her, and she'd edit them a bit at a time," he said.
And then came the killing of George Floyd ... and the world changed.
Earlier this month, Lowther released "Red March," to coincide with Floyd's funeral.
The violin virtuoso received accolades from fans, and a few days earlier, when he had given a sneak preview of the video on Facebook Live, they were inspired to comment.
"Your powerful words and music were meant for this time in history," said one writer.
"Wow, Kevin, this is extraordinary, please let me help this go viral," said another.
"Hauntingly beautiful," added another. "Thank you to you sir, and to your editor, Ruby Tesla."
"I'm really happy with the response so far," Lowther said. "Everyone seems to be affected by it."
Lowther said while the video's release has prompted some "great discussion of some of the issues and complexities that come with being Black in America," it's just a beginning.
"There is so much more that needs to be done," he said, beginning with a look at how many musicians and artists of color are booked at local venues.
"One thing I've noticed about coming back to Westerly," he said, "is that there's not as much diversity as I think there needs to be."
"We have the opportunity to change," he added, "I think we can be more forward-thinking ... I think there's a hunger for it now."
Current events have also inspired Lowther to think about what it means to be an active member of a community.
"I want to be a better member of the community," said Lowther, who recently performed the National Anthem from the bucket of a Rocky's Tree Service crane prior to the start of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce's 63rd annual dinner meeting in Misquamicut. "I don't want to just be promoting myself."
Lowther, who was selected for the All-State Orchestra several times during his high school years, and played for former Westerly High jazz band director Ted Collins, for the West Point Pep Band and the University of Missouri Jazz Band, also makes his living as a deejay and playing music for weddings, said while the spring was challenging during the stay-at-home months of March, April and May, the summer holds promise and the return to live shows.
Lowther said he hopes to perform "Red March" at one of his upcoming concerts, which he's already lining up. Big Lux is on tap to sing July 16 at the Midtown Oyster Bar in Newport; July 17 at Angie's in Mystic; July 19 at Circe in Providence; July 26 at the Phoenix in Pawcatuck; and Aug. 8 at the Tapped Apple in Westerly.