Music and Movement: Meet New Orleans Songbird Robin Barnes

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How singer Robin Barnes started a nonprofit that blends music, fitness and joy. Words by Robin Barnes. Photos by Justen Williams.

I’m born and raised in New Orleans. My family has been in New Orleans for probably eight generations. In the culture of New Orleans, everything is about music. Whether it is a celebration or a festival—music is part of the culture, even if it’s just enjoying a show.

My family are musicians. I started playing music in church and in my family’s jazz band. Every weekend I would be with my family either performing for an event, playing at one of the clubs, or performing at a festival. Music has always been a big part of my upbringing.

Robin Barnes explores Louisiana parks.

Robin, her husband Pat Casey, and daughter Riley explore Barataria Preserve in Louisiana.

I like to think of my voice as a beacon—that I do more with my voice than just singing. I feel like I’m unifying people, that I’m making people happy. I am in my element singing in front of a crowd. I recently sang for an audience for the first time since the pandemic and it was just an energy—an energy of love, hope, positivity. When I was singing, I could feel this energy and power exuding from me. I was also receiving it from the people in the crowd—it was very much a connection. I realized how powerful human interactions are, how powerful music is. It was giving me chills. It was like God saying, “This is what you’re destined to do.”

Robin Barnes in her element.

Starting Move Ya Brass

In 2013, I was on tour in Greece and came back with what I thought was jetlag. I ended up in the hospital with a rare strain of a kidney infection. I could have passed away in two days had I not gone to the hospital.

From there, I had to revamp my entire lifestyle. In my early 20s I thought I was invincible and now I was walking with a cane. I was on 8 medications, 4 of which were painkillers. I was out of work because I couldn’t sing. I didn’t have health insurance. My entire life savings was going towards paying these medical bills. It was a dark time in my life.

One morning my mom opened my curtains and said, “Girl, you better get off your ass and move your brass.” I used that saying to motivate me.

Original Universal and Hurricane XLT2.

Casey wears the Original Universal in 90s Multi and Robin wears the Hurricane XLT2 in 90s Multi.

I tried running groups. There wasn’t anyone in the running groups that looked like me. I wasn’t fast. I just felt uncomfortable. I made a Facebook post to tell my fans what’s going on with my illness. I said, “If anyone wants to come run with me, I would just be so appreciative.” From 2013 until now, every Monday, we’ve been having a running and walking group. That’s how the Move Ya Brass fitness program started. A few years later we started the nonprofit Make Your Move Foundation, which provides access to programming. I wanted to cultivate something that was a community—bringing us together on the basis of support and family encouragement—regardless of what pace you run or where you are in your life. You come to our group classes as a stranger, but you leave as family. Our mission is to promote a happy, positive, healthy lifestyle and to encourage celebration of our daily lives by taking you off the sideline and into the New Orleans second line.

Robin Barnes and family.

I understand firsthand how music can change lives, how music can affect someone’s mood mentally. The teachers for Move Ya Brass are professional dancers and choreographers and they curate music for the right rhythm, beat, movement and tempo. It’s all about that celebration of life. The best compliment I ever received was from a woman from New York who told me that she’s done all kinds of fitness groups. She came to our twerking brass class and was like, “Your music made me feel like I could do anything. I felt myself—like I was 16 again.”

Robin Barnes and family go hiking.

Meditation and Movement

During the pandemic, a lot of the community came out and said, “I’m not okay. Are y’all gonna have a class soon? I need this.” I didn’t realize the capacity of what we’re doing, sometimes. It was really emotional for me. I started seeing people wanting fitness or some type of outlet. So, we started meditation and movement virtually. Now we are doing it in-person and it’s called “Stretch the Brass,” focusing on positivity and moving.

I think mental health is normalizing that you may be having a bad day, you may be having a bad week, you might be having a bad month. It’s okay. We’ve all been there. But it’s what you do with that time. It’s what you do when you are that low. We wanted to be a part of that healing process—giving you the tools to understand what to do when you’re sad. That’s why we’ve been very transparent on social media with all of our struggles. For me personally, mental health was finding my voice to be aware of what’s happening in the world and speaking on it and speaking my truth in my way.

Original Universal sandals.
Toddler Hurricane XLT2.

Robin’s daughter Riley in the Toddler Hurricane XLT2 in Unicorn Waterfall.

Rediscovering Nature

My husband is from Colorado and he introduced me to hiking and walking outside. Here in New Orleans, my outdoor activity was going to a festival or going to a second line and dancing. The first time I went to Colorado and hiked, I thought I was gonna die. I have a couple of photos where I actually had little breakdowns. But I stuck with it. It was amazing because every hike ended with the most gorgeous view.

Robin Barnes came from a family of musicians and recently rediscovered her love for nature.

I was like, “How do we do this in New Orleans?” I discovered there’s a whole other side of City Park in New Orleans. It’s almost like we’re walking on our own little hike. It’s flat, but it’s beautiful. My husband, my daughter Riley and I have walked in our neighborhood or in the park every day since the pandemic until now. That changed my life. I became a gardener. When we look out of our window, it’s green outside. We created a butterfly garden and we can show Riley the caterpillars and butterflies. I’m so grateful to be in a place where I can walk around. Not everyone has that privilege and I want to honor that.

I’m a city girl, I didn’t think nature was my thing. Now, it’s like, I can’t have a day without being outside, because that’s my moment of self-reflection. That’s my moment of tranquility and peace. I just feel like this weight has been lifted, mentally, emotionally, and physically. What’s changed is those endorphins kick in, you know? And you’re like, “Oh, everything’s amazing.”

Flatform sandals.

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