Son of a Preacher Man: Justin Matthew's Journey to R&B

Though he never made it to the NFL, Justin Holmes is living out his dreams.
Though he never made it to the NFL, Justin Holmes is living out his dreams. Chris Davis

Reginald Holmes was in his office, struggling to focus on his work. At what was then called Park Hill Christian Church and is now the New Covenant Christian Church, the pastor and civil rights leader had plenty to do and plenty of motivation to be efficient about it. Those weren't the issues at hand.

What was distracting him was his six-year-old son, Justin Holmes, banging relentlessly on the drums in the sanctuary. Much to Reginald’s frustration, bringing his son with him to work proved to be more than he had bargained for.

“He would often come to work with me, and I could get no studying done in my office, because he was in the sanctuary, beating on the drums and just driving me nuts,” says Reginald.

But as disruptive as his son was being, Reginald decided to let him continue playing.

“I was on the verge once of really being disturbed by it and was going to go tell him to get off the drums, but something told me to let him continue to do it," Reginald says. "This is how oftentimes kids begin to develop an interest.”

Roughly thirty years later, Justin has refined his musical talents and made a career for himself as the R&B artist Justin Matthew.

Justin now recalls three big musical influences in his childhood: Michael Jackson, MC Hammer, and the power of his father’s sermons.

“At five and six years old, I was memorizing my dad’s sermons,” says Justin. “That was the first thing I was passionate about, with the exception of 1987-to-’88 Michael and early-’90s Hammer. Most kids were falling asleep during the service. I was staying up through the whole sermon, because I wanted to get to the end. That’s when it gets juicy: black folks getting happy and hollering.”

Much like his father, Justin was a naturally gifted athlete, capable of running through and around other players on the football field. While growing up in the Park Hill neighborhood, he won a state championship playing for the football powerhouse Mullen High School in southwest Denver. He went on to play for Alabama State on a full scholarship.

Justin almost got as far as a person can in the football world. He immediately played well on the collegiate level, and eventually transferred to New Mexico Highlands University in hopes of maximizing his role on the field and catching a professional team’s eye. For the most part, the decision worked out, and he was invited to participate in NFL combines after college.

But while in New Mexico, a curious thing happened: Justin ended up in a homemade recording booth in a friend’s closet, laying down vocals over a beat.

Music had always been a part of his life, but he had never tried to do much more with it beyond singing and playing the drums in church. The recordings in the closet never amounted to much, but Justin knew he was on to something.

“I found out I had the gift of writing towards the latter part of my college years, but I never had a producer to work with, really,” he says.

While figuring out his own identity after deciding not to continue his football career, Justin leaned fully into the life of an artist. He created melodies in his head while working at Home Depot and jotted down notes on a piece of paper between calls while working at Sprint.

Justin also worked in schools and with an outreach program for at-risk youth called Rite of Passage; even if he wasn’t living his new dream just yet, he could still invest in the community and younger generations, much the way his father taught him to.

Now, more than a decade into his music career, Justin finally has a debut record to show for all of his hard work, and it is stellar.

The album, Before the Beginning, is a reflection of all it took to make his dream a reality. Starting with a recording of one of his childhood heroes, basketball hall-of-famer Chauncey Billups, proclaiming on national television that he was from Park Hill, the tone is set; from there, Justin lets loose, demonstrating an explosive voice and powerful, inspiring songwriting.

Now about fifteen years from his college football days, Justin can candidly look back on his own personal journey. It wasn’t until he pursued a career in music that he developed a work ethic that matched his natural gifts. Today he's seeing the results.

“I’m not really apologetic for how long it has taken me to get where I’m at with my music; I really had no plans,” he admits. “I was a natural athlete, man. I got to school based off just getting by. I didn’t really develop that work ethic until I got older and pushed myself a little bit, then figured out that God has blessed me with another talent and ability.”

Now that he’s finally reached his goal of dropping a record, Justin is already thinking about what he can do with his platform to help others. He remains involved in his community and at his father’s church, and hopes to organize a back-to-school drive for the people of Park Hill.

Though he’s well past his days of banging on a drum in the sanctuary for all in the building to hear, Justin is hoping that people will take notice of the noise he’s making.

“I think the common thread for Justin has always been his love,” says Reginald. “It’s his love for family. It’s his love for God, the church, his community, for people. To me, that is not only the common thread, but I think it’s the one thing as a parent — it makes you proud to know that your children are loving people.

“I’ve definitely enjoyed the journey, and now I’m prideful about the work, because I’ve never put this amount of work in,” says Justin. “It’s about just being content with understanding that everybody’s journey ain’t the same, man. Stop looking at pictures or the stuff of other people, man. That ain’t your journey. You’re doing it. You’re moving.

Justin Matthew, with JABTUNE, Brandon Landrum and Tone Atlanta, 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 3, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street.
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Ben Wiese is a writer in Denver. He covers music for Westword.
Contact: Ben Wiese