Former ‘American Idol’ contestant, R&B musician performs for Hofstra
By Casey Clark
Blind from birth, Danny Kean, former “American Idol” contestant and R&B and jazz musician from Farmingdale, took over the screens of the Hofstra University and Northwell Health communities on Feb. 9 for an intimate 90-minute concert and talkback.
Presented by the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine’s Osler Society, ZSOM’s Ophthalmology Special Interest student group, Northwell Health’s Department of Ophthalmology, Northwell Health’s Eye Institute, and Hofstra University’s Disability Studies Program and Student Access Services, the special event provided attendees with a live performance by Kean, a student-led question-and-answer session, and a discussion with two prominent Northwell Health ophthalmologists.
With more 17,000 followers on Twitter, and the youngest inductee into the New York Blues Hall of Fame, Kean is a force to be reckoned with, but it was not always easy for him.
The singer was born with Leber congenital amaurosis — a rare genetic eye disorder that primarily affects the retina. Those with this condition usually experience severe visual impairment, involuntary movement of the eyes and extreme farsightedness. Despite his condition, Kean has aggressively pursued his natural musical talents.
At 2 years old, Kean started to play music and began lessons when he was 5 years old. While he did not read music, he did have perfect pitch, so he could hear the notes. It wasn’t until he was around 11 years old that the music bug really hit him. Jazz, soul and R&B struck a chord.
“The raw emotion, paired with the elegance and sophistication, resonated with me and inspired me,” he said.
As his talent developed, so did his popularity, as evidenced by the turnout at the event, with a virtual audience of 89 people.
“Sharing my music and my story with the Hofstra community means a lot to me for several reasons. Any opportunity to perform for people is something I take very seriously,” Kean said. “I put a lot of work into making sure that the material comes across as well as possible in a virtual setting.”
To begin the program, Kean performed his biggest hit to date, “You Love Me.” The song tells the story of a lover who is surprised that someone else has reciprocal feelings for them. Between each song, Kean interacted with audience members and shared brief stories about his experiences performing live and reactions from fans.
“Music has helped me to heal and cope by giving me an outlet for my feelings, giving me a passion and purpose in life, and helping me to connect with people in ways that would most likely have been off limits to me otherwise,” Kean said.
The program continued with more of Kean’s soulful, early Motown and jazz music, including performances of “Soul Provider,” “I See You” and “I Can’t Wait.” Attendees said they admired his unique voice and talent.
Kean answered questions from attendees of the performance and shared his story of living without sight.
After the live performance, Kean took part in a Q&A, led by two ZSOM medical students, Vasiliki Gliagias and Brittany Kwait.
During the Q&A, Gliagias, an incoming fourth-year medical student, and Kwait, a second-year medical student interested in the medical humanities and preventive health, were both interested in learning from Kean about his experiences with medical professionals and how they could better care for people with disabilities going forward.
Kean said that when he sees doctors, they often address their questions to the person who accompanies him, even though he is the best person to answer questions about his own health.
“Try to have experiences with visually impaired and hearing impaired people so that it is not confusing to talk to us and address us,” Kean said. “My name is right there on the paper. They know my name. They can say, ‘Why are you here, Dan?’ but they don’t nine times out of 10.”
In addition to questions by the students, audience members were invited to ask questions in the chat. Kean talked about his time on “American Idol” and his musical inspirations.
“As a 22-year-old, I happened to watch Danny on “American Idol,”” Katie Pearlman, former Hofstra University student, said. “I remembered how talented he was, but he proved it even more in his performance yesterday.”
Kean was a contestant on Season 1 of “American Idol,” and he played piano behind Kelly Clarkson for a couple of practices. The singer was young at the time, but he said lightheartedly, “It made me a big deal around New York for one hot minute.”
While his time on the show did not last long, Kean took his experience as an early sign of encouragement that was only the beginning of his successful career.
When discussing musical inspirations, his list was long.
“My influences range from jazz artists such as Keith Jarrett, Joe Sample and Jimmy Smith, to blues greats like Lucky Peterson, Otis Spann and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, to classic soul giants like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. I could go on and on.”
One of the musician’s elementary school teachers even made a special appearance that brought back nostalgia for this unique singer.
During the Q&A, the singer and audience received information about Leber congenital amaurosis from two renowned doctors in attendance, Dr. Arnie Prywes and Dr. Richard Braunstein.
“There are three companies that are working on different modalities for treating Lebers,” Prywes said. “One is a company called GenSight Biologics, which I believe is in Phase Two or Phase Three trials of an injection of an adenovirus that carries the point mutation for the gene that is thought to cause Lebers in most patients who have it.”
In addition, other doctors in attendance also shared news of new technologies currently being developed that might be able to improve his condition at some point in his lifetime.
Not only was the event important for Kean to showcase his talent, but also to provide awareness and education.
“Sharing my story with both doctors and medical students is equally important to me, as I think it’s easy to look at people like me as cases, rather than people,” Kean said. “If I can bring some humanity to my various conditions, I will have served yet another purpose.”