How Musician Robert Randolph is Steering Kids Toward High-Paying Jobs

The Family Band guitarist talks philanthropy, education and life in Livingston.

Robert Randolph performs onstage.
Musician Robert Randolph is also passionate about improving education at the community level. Courtesy of Dino Perrucci

Pedal-steel guitar hero Robert Randolph is a four-time Grammy nominee who’s been named one of Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest guitarists of all time. Through his foundation, the Livingston resident, 43, hosted Unityfest, a Juneteenth celebration with acts including Earth, Wind & Fire and Dave Matthews, this past summer. He also established the Cre8 Your Future program, launched this August in Newark (with plans for expansion) to help city kids train for high-paying jobs in fields like technology.

Tell us about the Cre8 Your Future program and why you started it.
I was born and raised in Irvington. All my family is in East Orange, Newark and Irvington. I wanted to step up and see how we could help the community, especially the existing school model. It’s about, how do we move forward as a community?

Why not focus on helping kids follow in your footsteps and get into music or the arts?
Since I started traveling all over playing music, I’ve gotten to see where the world is going and what jobs are being created. We’re moving way too slowly on the education front when it comes to tech jobs. I’ve been doing music programs the better part of 12 years with the Robert Randolph Foundation. We provide opportunities through existing YMCAs and community centers. Also, with music, there’s already a lot of that in Newark. There’s 12 or 13 high schools in the city, and all of them have basketball, football and music. Why can’t they have skills training in this day and age? In New Jersey, in every Black or minority town, tech is missing.

You started playing pedal steel guitar at the House of God Church in Irvington as a kid. Do you still go to church there, and do you ever play?
I still play there every once in a while for fun. And there’s still a lot of good happening there music-wise, with young kids playing the pedal steel like I do. … But I bounce around to a lot of different churches, because I like to help them out. My brother-in-law is the pastor at Solid Rock Baptist Church in Irvington. And Reverend DeForest Blake “Buster” Soaries, who’s very well-known around the streets of New Jersey, has become a partner and a mentor for my foundation.

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What’s your life like in Livingston? Do you get recognized a lot?
It happens every now and then. Like I’ll be at the gym and someone will notice me. But not that much. There’s so many celebrities between South Orange and West Orange and Montclair: Whoopi Goldberg, Jets and Giants players, hockey players, Kool & the Gang, Kyrie Irving, Wyclef [Jean], Lauryn Hill.

Do you hang out with them?
I don’t think I’d need any more of that kind of attention. I’ve already been in the studio with all the biggest rock stars, like Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, the Eagles. My latest thing is I created the music for a TV show on CBS called the United States of Al, produced by Chuck Lorre, who did Big Bang Theory.

Are you still making music with the Family Band, your original New Jersey crew?
Yeah. My grandmother is kind of in charge. She decides who’s going to be in the band, whether we have to add a member or subtract a member. And you’ve got to listen to her, because you either listen to her or you don’t get no apple pie. We’re going to start recording two albums soon in Nashville. Nashville’s become how New York City used to be. It’s sort of the mecca for music.

But you’re sticking around the Garden State, right?
The only place I’d move to would be Florida in the winters. Other than that, give me Jersey.

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