Finding connection and inspiration through music with radio host, guitarist, and activist DeBraun Thomas

by Caroline Pecore on April 14, 2023

This is from Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni which originally appeared in the M-A Chronicle; used with permission.

“I don’t know where I would be without music. During the times in my life when I’ve dealt with challenging situations and struggled with mental health, listening to music has been such an important outlet for me. Music is a universal language—it’s a bridge that connects people through space and time, and it has been a core element to almost all of the social movements throughout history,” said musician and radio host DeBraun Thomas, Menlo-Atherton High School class of ‘07.

Thomas got his first guitar in eighth grade, and has been playing music professionally since he was 15. He released his first solo album in 2015, and currently works as a radio host for a local NPR affiliate in Kentucky called WUKY. “There are few feelings that are better than being live on the radio,” he explained. “In today’s fast-paced world, it’s easy for human connections to get lost, but the radio is still a place where that happens every day. We are a very local, community-focused station. There’s always somebody in the community on the other end of the show.”

From a young age, Thomas has been curious to learn about places, events, and people—especially musicians—of the past. “I’ve always been really fascinated by history. I was definitely a kid who always asked a lot of questions,” he said.

Thomas attended James B. Flood Elementary school in the Ravenswood City School District until the end of second grade, when his family moved from East Palo Alto to the Willows. He finished elementary school at Encinal, and then went to Hillview Middle School, which fed into M-A.

At Encinal and Hillview, he remembered: “The student population looked much different than it did at Flood. I was one of only a few Black students in my class. I remember in my third grade history class we spent pretty much the entire month of February—Black History Month—learning about slavery. One other girl in the class and I discussed how we’d like to learn some more positive Black history as well, especially during that particular month—about music, art, culture, or the Civil Rights movement. We stayed after school one day to talk to the teacher about it, and, I’ll never forget, she made direct eye contact with me and told me, ‘It’s not in the curriculum.’”

“At M-A, it was fun to reconnect with a lot of my old friends from elementary school,” he remembered. “I was always bouncing around at lunch—I would go hang out with kids in the G-wing, then walk around to The Green, then head up to the front of campus, and then circle back to pop into teachers’ classrooms or hang out in the band room. I loved how diverse M-A was—there were so many people with so many different points of view, and I bopped around at lunch because I just wanted to get to know as many of them as I could.”

Although he was never officially part of the M-A band, Thomas remembers spending many hours jamming with fellow student musicians in the band classroom. He said, “I am extremely grateful to band teacher Frank Moura. Although I never officially had him for band, he never made me feel like I wasn’t welcome, and that, to me, is really what it’s all about.”

“My guitar teacher Garrick Davis is another one of my heroes,” Thomas continued. “I had a lesson with him every Friday after school. If I had a rough week, I always knew that I had that Friday session to look forward to. It gave me a sense of structure, and the ability to express myself.”

Thomas’s parents had been separated since he was in seventh grade. His mother lived with him in Menlo Park, and his father, who is also a musician, lived in Santa Rosa. Thomas remembered: “Sometimes on Wednesdays after school, I would grab my guitar and take the bus up to Santa Rosa, play music with my dad until about midnight, take the last bus back, and then my mom would take me home.”

“I have to give major props to Ms. Angelone, my creative writing teacher, because there were many times when I was trying to be present in class but was just so tired, and she was very patient with me. I barely got any sleep on those nights I went up to Santa Rosa,” he added.

Thomas best remembers Angelica Rodriguez’s Spanish course, Rachel Andres’s algebra course, Doss Welch’s history course, Lisa Otsuka’s sophomore English course, and John Florio’s Western Civilization course. “I failed Mr. Florio’s history class and had to take World Studies in summer school to make up the credits,” Thomas remembered. “But, I still learned so much from the class. Mr. Florio would give these brilliant lectures—I remember learning all about the Hapsburgs, the Holy Roman Empire, and the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Even though I was failing the class, he never treated me any differently than other students. He always treated me with respect, answered all my questions, and was very patient and helpful. Like Mr. Moura, he made me feel welcome, and that meant a lot to me.”

During his senior year, Thomas’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I had to grow up a lot in a very short amount of time, and the pressure of having to do everything I could to support my mom, to visit her in the hospital and be available to help her, along with managing the uncertainty of what my life would look like after high school, was very hard. Considering the situation, I did the best I could in school, but my grades dropped off,” he said. “Throughout my senior year, I came to M-A at 5:30 am every day and did homework before school, because it was just hard to be home.”

“I had Human Biology with Mr. Roisen senior year, and he was also one of the teachers who had a lot of patience with me and always tried to check in,” Thomas continued. “Teachers have so much on their plates, and to go the extra mile for students is something I really appreciated and have never forgotten.”

“Ms. Otsuka was also very kind to me when I was having a hard time,” he addded. “I remember one day, someone stole our family’s recycling bin and I came to school very upset. I had so much going on and the recycling bin was just one more thing I had to deal with. Ms. Otsuka was like, ‘I got you, no problem!’ and gave me a basket to replace the bin. That kindness and empathy is something that I will always remember.”

After leaving M-A, Thomas attended the Community College of San Mateo for a year before transferring to the University of Kentucky. “I thought I wanted to become a doctor, and that would be my pathway to be able to help other people, but ultimately, I decided that route wasn’t the right fit for me,” he remembered. “I reconsidered my love of radio and ended up studying broadcasting at CSM, and then journalism at the University of Kentucky.”

In 2008, Thomas got involved in radio at WRFL, the University of Kentucky student station, began interning at WUKY in 2013, and was hired full-time in 2019.

In 2012, Thomas produced a show for WUKY called The Unghosting of Medgar Evers, based on a poetry book by Frank X Walker, Kentucky’s first Black poet laureate.

In 2014, he produced a documentary for WUKY about the 50th anniversary of the March on Frankfort, a 1964 demonstration where an estimated 10,000 people, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson, gathered at the Kentucky state capitol to call for legislation to end discrimination and segregation in the Commonwealth. “I think it’s important that people know about that story because it can continue to inspire other folks,” he said.

In 2017, Thomas led a movement called Take Back Cheapside, petitioning the local government to remove two Confederate monuments from Lexington’s downtown Cheapside Park square and re-imagine the square as a place of inclusion, edification, and healing. On October 17th, 2017, after many protests and petitions, they succeeded in getting the monuments removed from the square. In a unanimous city council vote, the square was renamed Henry A. Tandy Centennial Park after a freed Black man who helped build the bricks of the city courthouse. “It’s a great feeling to have really worked and succeeded at improving the community,” Thomas reflected. “Sometimes, people can’t see what is possible until it’s done.”

These days, Thomas hosts and produces Rock & Roots, a daytime music program on WUKY, The Crunkadelic Funk Show, The Ricochet Effect Podcast, and Say It Loud by the Kentucky Black Writers Collaborative.

Thomas works on the Kentucky Oral History Commission advisory council, a statewide commision of the Kentucky Historical Society that funds historical research projects and programs in schools, and is also involved in a nonprofit organization, the Lexington Black Prosperity Initiative, which gives grants to organizations and community organizers who help support the Black community in Lexington.

On his favorite books, Thomas said, “Kindred by Octavia Butler and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry are both great—I’m a Pisces and kind of a sucker for anything emotional. Some more favorites are Dr. King’s Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?—the impetus of the Poor People’s Campaign, which he was working on at the time he was assassinated—and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. And I’m a pretty big comic book nerd. My dad used to read comic books to me and that was how I got into Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman, and all those guys.”

In his free time, Thomas enjoys exploring local restaurants and new places. “There’s a lot of good food in Lexington,” he explained. “In general, I like to get out and explore places I haven’t been before—that kind of ties into my passion for history.”

At the bottom of Thomas’s email signature is a quote from Fred Hampton, the leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, who created the Rainbow Coalition, a group focused on bringing people from several backgrounds together to march for peace in Chicago. Thomas explained, “Hampton was assassinated in a police raid at age 21, and I learned about him when I was 22. The fact that someone so young could have such a lasting positive impact on the world inspires me to continue to try to do what I do every day—it’s a reminder to myself of what I’m here for.”

“If you walk through life and don’t help anybody, you haven’t had much of a life.” — Fred Hampton

Top photo by Mick Jeffries; second photo shows Thomas performing on the M-A campus in 2007 alongside classmates Gilbert Fix on bass and Justin Happ on drums

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