Keenan Bristol wasn’t due on stage for another hour but already the 38 year old was putting on a show for the crowd gathered at Restoration Plaza. The Crown Heights native had joined the small crowd of people who dared following along with an outdoor fitness dance instruction set to Rihanna’s “Work.” Bristol immediately picked up the choreography and proceeded to share some of his own moves and his infectious energy. All eyes were on him as he joined the instructor on stage, now leading the others through the rest of the workout. Bristol seemed to belong on the stage.
Bristol, who goes by the stage name “Special,” describes himself as “the greatest entertainer of all time” and his repertoire as an actor, dancer and rapper backs him up.
“It really called me,” Bristol said of being an entertainer. “There was a point of my life going into college where I had aspirations of playing professional basketball. But when I was in college I would do talent shows and these talent shows would be a success. I was known as the school’s entertainer. At some point, I would find myself in class daydreaming about performing on stage. Failing all my classes and having a low GPA, I came to a realization that ‘Hey, I think this what I’m supposed to be doing here.”
Bristol believes that there is more to his mission than entertaining others with his Michael Jackson-esque moves and high-energy raps. Therefore in 2009 he also founded Music Brings Life, an organization that uses entertainment to educate young people in Black, Latino and Caribbean communities about the importance of donating blood.
Bristol has firsthand awareness of how crucial a blood donation could be in saving someone’s life. It was a blood transfusion from a Latino woman that helped save his mother’s life fifteen years ago. According to Bristol, “I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to allow another person to face this reality or a worse reality by them losing their mom because the blood is not available. I have to do something about it.”
For Bristol, getting involved in Music Brings Life was the perfect way to do this. “I answered the universe’s call,” he said. “I was told, ‘You have to take your genius and your time and your energy and this is what I want you to do. This is how you’re going to utilize your genius to make better for other people.'”
To get his message across, Bristol plays into what he sees as a celebrity-driven world to break down the fears and misconceptions people may have about donating blood. “Whatever celebrities are doing, people will follow,” Bristol said. “So if you can muscle up some of your [celebrity] friends and put together musical concerts and speak about donating blood people will be more likely to donate blood.”
So far, Bristol has been able to get musicians like Shaggy, Olivia and Mavado to share his message. In the process he also has earned the backing of the American Red Cross, the Sickle Cell Thalassemia Patients Network and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. “After seven years the response has been epic. I’m hearing a lot ‘Wow! There’s no one that’s doing this. I hear that often because the universe placed [Music Brings Life] in my arms. I was supposed to do this. This is my calling,” said Bristol.
Music Brings Life has been able to collect over 3,000 pints of blood to date and just this year alone it has educated over 5,000 students in Brooklyn on its “Heroes Donate Blood” Tour. Bristol aims for the organization to reach 10,000 more students in the city once the tour starts up again this fall. Bristol is also working on the release of his first album “The Book of the One Called Special.” Fifty percent of the album’s proceeds will go towards Music Brings Life, while the other earnings will go towards redeveloping Guyana, his mother’s home country.
However, Bristol believes there is a lot of work left for him to do. “I’m not satisfied with where I am yet,” he said. “I’m great, but I’m not satisfied. There’s a lot more work, there’s a lot more growing for me.”
“We have our talents but it’s not only for us,” Bristol said. “Our talents are to make better for other people. If you’re not utilizing your genius to make someone’s life better, you’re wasting your time. You’re not doing fully what you are supposed to be doing. My genius and my talents are not only mine; it is to share and make better for everyone here.”