North Mpls. music program offers youth refuge and opportunity

Courtesy of Courtland Pickens. Known at Minneapolis Urban League Gala

Courtland Pickens is a local singer-songwriter with a powerful presence in the local community. In 2017, he released his gospel EP entitled “The Manifest Promise,” and he was also a top audition finalist on NBC’s “The Voice” in 2016.

Since then, Pickens has used his powerful gift of music not only to inspire audiences throughout the country but also to give back to the next generation of musicians and influencers. In 2019, he was motivated to create a program that would allow him to mentor and teach music to a group of phenomenally gifted young people ranging in age from 13 to 23. “I had auditioned about 160 youth … My vision was to create an afterschool choir,” Pickens said.

The name of his choir is Known, which is also established as a non-profit. Pickens serves as both the founder and choir director.

Composed primarily of youth from the North Minneapolis area, Known, in its infancy, has already opened up for a number of noteworthy names in gospel music including PJ Morton and Jonathan McReynolds. “For me growing up in North Minneapolis and going to Patrick Henry High School, I was like, listen, there’s no place I’d rather do this at then at Patrick Henry High School.”

While the group was fortunate to celebrate their one-year anniversary just this past summer, things undoubtedly changed drastically when the world shut down in March of 2020. “[The pandemic] made me realize how much community meant to these kids. So, pandemic or not, it was important for us to start meeting on a regular basis, and we just had to find a way to work around everything that is going on,” he said.

To mark their one-year anniversary, the choir also released an online virtual concert that received more than 100 individual logins.

While Known is commonly regarded as a gospel choir, Pickens describes how it has evolved into so much more. Pickens shares a heartfelt moment that occurred during one of the choir’s out-of-town concerts this past year. “We decided on Sunday morning that we’d set up in the conference room at the hotel, a small service where we could just like sing and maybe read some scriptures or something.

“We did that, and it was beautiful,” shared Pickens. “One of the girls stood up and she told us all that there was a time where she would come to school just to come to my choir class. She was going through a rough time in her life; her grandma had just passed and she was dealing with some illnesses…She said it was her coming to choir class that was the thing that helped her get through that hard time in her life.”

Moments like these have allowed Pickens to realize his responsibility as a leader for this group of immensely talented youth, “There are so many stories like that, that I could share about what it’s done to these kids individually,” he said.

And while Known is often called on to be performers and ministers of music to lead audiences, Pickens beamed about the impact that the group has had on the youth themselves. “Music is just a tool. The space, and what we do is not just a choir for me. This is life skills and helping them to discover what they want to do in life,” Pickens said.

With COVID-19 spiking in Minnesota in late 2020 and continuing to negatively impact arts and performance industries, there is no honest prediction for how Known will perform and operate post-quarantine.

Still, Pickens considers it a necessity to keep the organization accessible for the youth, especially in this trying time. “When you have all this idle time, your mind just goes all over the place and you’re just not settled. This is what the kids have been longing for, they desire community, familiarity; something that is consistent.”

To view their virtual concert and learn more about Known, go to