Brian and Katie Ernst aren’t just musicians.
Sure, they’ve recorded six albums released under Brian’s name (he’s the primary songwriter and instrumentalist) and toured extensively around the country and globe since 2007. But music isn’t the endgame for the couple. It’s both an outlet and an engine for change.
In the years since Brian and Katie Ernst started making music and traveling, they’ve witnessed a lot of hardship, whether through meeting a Kenyan girl dying from malaria because she couldn’t afford treatment or a Syrian friend who had to pay $1,000 to be smuggled to Greece to escape civil war. Those were the sort of experiences Brian Ernst couldn’t forget.
“I’ve been forced to reckon with them,” he said, “and the best way I’ve been able to cope with that is through my music in trying to find a way to bring the stories and bring the struggle to our fellow Americans in a way that meets people where they are.”
For Ernst and his wife that has meant embarking on 10 years of nontraditional touring, traveling in planes and conventional buses, as well as buses running on vegetable oil. This week that tour will bring the duo to Jackson, where they’ll play a series of shows at the Summer People’s Market, the Jackson Hole Farmers Market and Pinky G’s.
It’s not the typical lineup for a band stopping over in Jackson; there’s no stop at the Silver Dollar Showroom, no JacksonHoleLive, no Pink Garter Theatre. Then again, the Ernsts aren’t your average band. They’re preaching a message of love and tolerance and then putting their money where their mouths are, donating 10% of their gross income from their music careers to a nonprofit they started in 2010, Journey4Youth.
Now, almost a decade later, the Ernsts have raised over $160,000 to provide rain water-harvesting tanks and scholarships for the women and children in a community in Rusinga Island, Kenya, among other causes.
Brian and Katie Ernst don’t take salaries from Journey4Youth — there’s only one salaried employee, Salmon Osogo, a native Kenyan who serves as the nonprofit’s ground coordinator. Instead they manage finance, accounting and fundraising, playing music and speaking across the globe. And while the Ernsts are technically at the helm of the organization, they rely heavily on locals like Osogo to coordinate efforts on the ground.
“The youth and local leadership being empowered and self organizing and taking ownership of this is a method that we believe in,” Brian Ernst said. “We want to give a hand up, not a handout.”
Journey4Youth puts about 100 kids a year through school, paying for scholarships that cost $35 annually for primary school, $250 for secondary school and $3,000 for college, amounts that cover new uniforms, new shoes and all associated school fees, he said.
Those costs might seem nominal, but he illustrated the harsh differences between living in the United States and Africa in how the countries treat and prevent malaria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that while 10,700 people die from the disease in Kenya annually, five people die a year in the United States. Most of those are returning travelers like the Ernsts, who have been treated five times since beginning their travels.
Brian Ernst’s point was simple: A dollar goes a long way in other countries.
“I grew up privileged,” he said, “and when you travel to Africa and Asia, you have to reckon with that. You either choose to reckon with it or you choose to ignore it, you know?”
Ernst has chosen to reckon with it, dedicating his work, musical and otherwise, to bettering the lives of people in one small village in a far away place. He hopes to reach people in the United States to show them that they too can make a difference, however small.
“I want people to feel empowered, to see that, ‘Wow, here’s a couple of artists living in a van or a bus and they’re doing something they believe in and trying to do their part,’” he said. “I want people to be empowered so that they can make a difference in their community, in their family, so that they can make a difference in this world.” ￼