Brown Bags: Discovering The Stars Of Tomorrow

They assemble at the gym as if the playoff of a sports match is about to take place. The school mascot romps among spectators. Music blares from loudspeakers as students fill the bleachers. Anticipation is high. Excitement reigns.

Soon parents arrive with cameras and flowers in hand. This is no ordinary school assembly.

Welcome to Brown Bags to Stardom. It’s show-time!

On campuses across the state, this scene plays out several times a year in Hawaii’s best-known talent showcase.

Before there was America’s Got Talent, there was Brown Bags to Stardom. The local search for young talent has been the launching pad for performers who went on to fame.

Among the “graduates” of Brown Bags to Stardom are Na Leo Pilimehana, Kapena, Glenn Medeiros, Jake Shimabukuro and Tia Carrere.

Showing her two most-coveted awards – Grammy and Brown Bags to Stardom – singer-actress Carrere says, “It’s amazing to see them side by side and think back to when we were teenagers performing in talent contests. It truly surpasses my wildest dreams.”

Singer Nalani Choy of Na Leo recalls, “We were seniors in high school at the time (1985) and playing music as a trio for the hula dancers with the Kamehameha Concert Glee Club. Brown Bags sounded like fun, and Robert Kekaula’s group won the year before, so we thought, why not?

“When we entered the contest, we had no idea that we might actually win and that it would even launch a career. But it did.

“The grand prize was the opportunity to record a single of the winning song Local Boys,” she says. “KIKI (radio station) released it on a 45 (RPM disc). Radio airplay followed, and the song went quickly to No. 1. The recording became one of the biggest-selling singles in Hawaii music history.”

For aspiring performers, this would be a dream scenario.

But that path to stardom must begin somewhere. In 1980 when Brown Bags was launched by radio station KIKI (I-94) program director Jeff Coelho and DJ Kamasami Kong, it rallied high-schoolers.

The popular promotion had a 20-year run and become the established venue for showcasing undiscovered talent. After a five-year hiatus, music producer-promoter Johnny Kai revived Brown Bags as a music video challenge in conjunction with Oceanic Cable station OC-16.

Today, the talent search spans elementary, middle and high school levels. It is currently in its seventh year and seeks ongoing support from schools and sponsors to sustain it for the future.

“We are committed to creating a new generation in Hawaii entertainment,” Kai says.

The proliferation of nationally televised shows such as The Voice, So You Think You Can Dance and The X Factor demonstrates the vast appeal of talent programs. Audience voting through phones and computers makes it an interactive experience.

Brown Bags executive director-producer Kai has incorporated these contemporary components into a multimedia program and embellished it even further.

With teachers’ and legislators’ encouragement, Brown Bags has joined the anti-bullying campaign in schools. Kids of all ages are asked to submit a video message that’s aired on OC-16.

“While attending a Children and Youth Day meeting at the state Capitol, I learned that Hawaii’s rate of teen suicides is among the highest in the U.S.,” Kai says.

The rate at which Hawaii teens and young adults are taking their own lives has more than doubled over the past five years, confirms the state Department of Health. The number of suicides for youths ages 15 to 24 surged from 15 in 2007 to 36 in 2011, according to its data. Bullying is frequently cited as a contributing factor in suicides among youths, Kai points out.

What does this serious issue have to do with the mission of Brown Bags?

Kai knows that peer-to-peer regard and respect have everything to do with a young person’s development and sense of worth. Programs that allow them to express themselves creatively (music, arts, athletics) give students positive pursuits. More than ever, educators are taking a holistic approach to educating young people. Yet Kai has witnessed the sacrifice of performing arts in the schools, where financial and other resources are stretched thin. Where once 75 to 100 schools staged Brown Bags to Stardom auditions, the number has dwindled to about 25 today.

Granted, it does take time and personnel to stage a student body assembly, such as the one we attended recently at Radford High School.

As student body president Rachel Abellera says, “The No. 1 thing is promoting the event. With promotion, you get people to be involved … We want to bring back the tradition.”

Seven singers performed at the Radford auditions, each claiming weeks of practice and preparation.

Freshman Nicole Villejo stole the spotlight and judges’ points with a soulful rendition of the Whitney Houston hit One Moment in Time.

The lyrics were poetic and prophetic as the winner sang, “I want one moment in time. When I’m more than I thought I could be. When all of my dreams are a heartbeat away. And the answers are all up to me.”

Many others with the same dream will be at the 2013 Brown Bags to Stardom statewide finals at Hard Rock Café Waikiki: Elementary

Schools: Saturday, April 20, 2-5 p.m.

Middle Schools: Sunday, April 21, 2-5 p.m.

High Schools: Sunday, April 28, 2-5 p.m.

Entry deadline is April 10. Email or call 951-6699.