Musician as Messenger

Ryan (Rion) Liestman
Zooming in on Ryan Liestman

The first time I encountered local recording artist Ryan (Rion) Liestman was at a Morningside After Dark event in 2017 where he closed the show with a few familiar reggae songs that had the audience swaying and singing along. Morningside After Dark is the brainchild of Rebecca Bell Sorensen, Laurie Lindeen and Jim Mahoney, and those winter evening events include a variety of local authors, poets and musicians sharing readings and songs in the basement of Edina Morningside Church. It’s about as cool as it gets in a Twin Cities suburb where the very cool Liestman also resides.

Liestman was every bit as cool when we spoke via Zoom this past January. He was wearing aviators. His dreadlocks gathered in a bundle. He was casually seated on a garden wall under a palm tree someplace in Arizona, riding out a portion of our COVID winter in the desert sun. We talked about how he grew up in Minnesota with parents who enjoyed playing lots of soul and R&B music and how he learned to play keyboards among other instruments. He considers himself lucky, that at age 12, he met Tommy Barbarella, keyboardist for Prince, who became a mentor for Liestman’s budding music career. By the time Liestman was a teenager, he was gigging regularly around the metro and along the way also met Wain Mcfarlane of Ipso Facto, who has Jamaican roots. His relationships within the local Jamaican community grew alongside those in the local music industry. Liestman became a fixture in the Minneapolis music scene where he started making records.

I asked about his gravitation toward and strong connection to reggae music, even though Liestman says he can be a bit of a musical chameleon. “I’m drawn to the rhythms and the melodies [of reggae], a mashup of Africa meets Irish meets American soul. But mostly, it’s the message,” says Liestman. “[Reggae] was one way people got their news in Jamaica,” the musician as messenger on themes of peace, love, unity and truth. (More on that later.)

In his 20s, Liestman started performing with his band, The Rule. He mentions to me that a highlight for the band was opening for Cyndi Lauper’s tour in 2006. But it was in 2007 that Liestman got a call about an up-and-coming music group from New Jersey that was in need of a keyboard player/backup singer. Accepting that gig, with the soon-to-be world famous the Jonas Brothers, would propel Liestman on a six-year whirlwind around the globe.

He sips from his coffee mug, one leg propped on his opposite knee, nods, smiles and says, “It was exhilarating and I credit [the Jonas Brothers] for the exposure and ability to see the world, to be able to play music and to see the whole world.” I could sense the gratitude of someone who’d accomplished a lot and who seemed just as satisfied to enjoy an Arizona escape in winter with his wife (Liestman married a Minnesota girl in 2007) and daughters, ages 6 and 9. They’d soon be returning to the tundra so their girls could head back to in-person classes in Edina.

Liestman has recently been working on a series of singles. Among them was a new song he co-wrote to with Michael Bland, drummer for Soul Asylum. It was released in February and is titled Enough. Remember what I said about musician as messenger? Well, Enough was written as a response to the death of George Floyd last summer and the unrest that occurred in the aftermath of that heartbreakingly painful day nearly a year ago. There are several Minneapolis reggae/world artists featured on the song including Mcfarlane, Lynval Jackson, Singing Tony, Innocent, Carolyne Naomi and Mayda. Some footage from the music video was filmed near the George Floyd memorial. With an irresistible island-infused rhythm and concrete lyrical imagery, Enough calls on listeners to work together for the betterment of everyone. “I want [the song] to be a positive message,” says Liestman. “Racial injustice and unnecessary violence needs to stop.” It is music like Liestman’s that still echoes with those familiar and longed-for themes of peace, love unity and truth … musician as messenger.