When Alex Stone entered his Lyft ride in May 2019 to go to Drexel University, he had no idea he would hear a song that would provide a moment of major inspiration.
“When you hear the song, you feel the energy more so than anything,” said Alex Stone, a senior business marketing major at Drexel University.
In 2018, Fred Brown, 64, wrote “Congratulations,” a song intended to inspire students to be proud of their accomplishments, whether big, like graduating, or small, like getting up and going to class, Brown said. On June 3, Brown debuted his song at the Blockson Collection’s virtual event celebrating songwriter, producer and musician, Alfie Pollitt.
Brown wrote and produced “Congratulations” in 2019 with the help of Douglas Grigsby, a producer who died in February 2021 who previously worked with artists like Teddy Pendergrass and Michael Jackson, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. The song was planned to be to released for the 2020 graduation season but progress came to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brown fell in love with music at an early age and began performing at age 14. He spent most of his life singing and performing with multiple bands and artists at weddings, funerals and other events until deciding to become a Lyft driver in 2015, per a friend’s recommendation. Brown used this job to his advantage by sampling the lyrics and melody of “Congratulations” to passengers during rides to gain inspiration and feedback for the song.
While driving passengers in the Philadelphia area, Brown listened to students discuss their stress about life and school.
In 2017, Brown picked up a student at Temple’s Main Campus who, during the ride, expressed her anxiety about final exams, he said. Wanting to ease her worries, Brown reminded her that making it to the end of the semester already made her a winner.
This conversation, as well as many others, inspired Brown to write “Congratulations” to encourage students that making it through high school, college, a semester or even a day, makes them a winner, he said.
Brown utilized the technology he had available to begin producing the song.
“I had an iPad in my car, and I created a beat and I had this melody,” Brown said. “And I started singing, ‘Congratulations, it wasn’t easy, you’re a winner.’”
After creating the melody, Brown began expanding on his lyrics and crafting a song based on additional interactions and conversations with other passengers. Brown played his song to his riders, who encouraged him to release it to the public, he said.
Although the song is still not released, Diane Turner, curator at the Blockson Collection, invited Brown to perform “Congratulations” on June 3, during the Blockson Collection’s virtual event honoring artist Alfie Pollitt.
The event was part of the Black Lives Always Mattered! Program, a continuing series at the Blockson Collection that celebrates notable African Americans in Philadelphia from the 20th Century, and kicked off Black Music Appreciation Month.
Brown sang at the Blockson Collection twice before and Turner was eager to have him return, she said.
“We had an event at the Blockson Collection and he came to the event and sang and he had such a beautiful, powerful voice and I was like, we have to get to know him,” Turner said.
Tarik Richardson, who worked at the Blockson Collection from 2017 to 2019 as an archivist assistant, enjoyed listening to Brown’s song debut.
“I grew up in a household that was big on jazz and nowadays I don’t really get to hear too much jazz, so I thought it was very refreshing,” said Richardson, a third-year Africology student. “When I heard the performances and I heard the music it was something familiar and something new so I really appreciated both of those two aspects.”
Although Brown was initially upset that the song could not be released in time for the 2020 graduating class due to the pandemic, his mindset quickly changed after speaking with one of his passengers.
When Brown picked up Alex Stone for a Lyft ride, Stone expressed his anxiety over a test score that was lower than he hoped. Brown reminded Stone that making it this far was something to be proud of and not to over-stress about it, he said.
Brown played “Congratulations” as they drove to Drexel’s campus, and when Brown looked in his rearview mirror, he saw Stone crying, he said. The song lifted Stone’s spirits and allowed him to realize this test result was nothing to stress about, Stone said.
“The song not only allowed me to, you know, build the confidence in me but allowed me to understand, you know, sometimes we may fall short, and things may not go as planned,” Stone said. “But that doesn’t mean that you quit, give up, or throw in the towel.”
Although Brown has no current plans to release the song to the public, seeing the impact his song had on Stone made him grateful for choosing this unusual path, Brown said.
“My journey took me in another direction,” Brown said. “And it gets me very excited––the fact that the direction that God placed me on was to inspire others and cause them to excel.”