In the Old Testament book of Genesis, there’s a story about a man named Abraham. At 75 years of age, God made him an unusual promise:
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you!” (Genesis 12:2/NIV)
For the next 25 years, Abraham faithfully obeyed God’s voice and patiently waited for the promise to come to pass. There were undoubtedly frustrations along the way, but the Lord provided some stirring glimpses of His glory to serve as powerful reminders of what was to come.
Bryan Popin can relate to Abraham’s iconic journey. He experienced the incredible works of God’s hand as a child, received unexplainable blessings as a young adult, but then went through years of painful trials and tests before finally seeing his promise fulfilled.
“I could have been sifted,” Popin says, “I could have been taken out, gone bankrupt, or lost my marriage. My life is really a story of how God’s great love and incredible grace has kept me together through all the ups and downs.”
Born and raised in Middletown, New Jersey, Popin was first introduced to his signature instrument, the piano, at the age of five. He would spend hours every day practicing in his family’s small apartment under the guidance of his mother who was a pianist, choir director and the source of his family’s love of music. Early on, Popin gravitated towards church songs and hymns – he didn’t have an ear for music but became adept at sight-reading.
That all changed when, at the age of 11, Popin was prayed over by a music minister.
“From that point on, I could immediately memorize music and play by ear,” he explains. “The switch was turned on. God touched my life and music became more of a calling than just something I liked and wanted to do.”
At the age of 12, Popin began traveling with a Gospel group. He eventually became well known across the country for his classical piano skills and broke out on his own. Throughout his teen years, Popin performed in a diverse collection of venues alongside an equally diverse cast of characters including Southern Gospel legend Dottie Rambo and internationally known pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes.
A Love Story
Popin experienced many dramatic moments throughout his burgeoning ministry and music career, but perhaps none more life changing than when performing at a conference just outside of Fort Wayne, Indiana. After playing his first song, he scanned the audience and his eyes were instantly drawn to a girl named Susan.
“She just glowed,” Popin says. “I had to focus on my piano playing for a moment because I was stunned. Watching her worship with her hands lifted to God was about the coolest thing I’d ever seen—at least to a 16-year old boy that was in ministry.”
Immediately following service, Popin proclaimed to his mother that this was the girl he was going to marry. Unfortunately, his opportunity to make a lasting first impression didn’t go so well.
“Hi, you’re beautiful,” the shy teenager awkwardly blurted.
“Thank you,” she replied. “And you have nice teeth.”
Two years later, he returned to that church in Indiana, but Susan wasn’t there. Instead, her father informed Popin that she was now living in Los Angeles. Another two years later, Popin visited a different church in the Fort Wayne area and amazingly saw Susan’s parents again. This time, the 20-year old musician took decisive action. He asked the father for her phone number.
“I called her the very next morning,” Popin says. “In fact for four days, she didn’t even call me back. So then I started sending her flowers every day. By the seventh day, she called me and asked me to please stop sending flowers because she wasn’t in a good place. It wasn’t the reaction I was expecting, but at least I’d gotten Susan to talk to me.”
Popin then poured out his heart. He told her how he had missed his opportunity four years earlier and how desperately he wanted the chance to pursue a relationship with her. But then Susan had something important to say.
“Eight months earlier, Susan had gotten married and was now pregnant,” Popin explains. “When her husband found out, he closed their joint bank account and left her. She was moving home to Indiana to be back with her family.
Over the next several months, Popin consistently traveled to Indiana to visit Susan. “When I finally got to hold the newly-born Isabella Grace in my arms and look into her big beautiful brown eyes, I fell deeply in love for a second time,” Popin says.
About 18 months later, Popin married Susan and they have been together ever since.
That relationship would help him navigate the unchartered waters of success he was fast approaching. More importantly, it would give him a divine perspective of God’s character.
“I wasn’t planning on getting married and having an immediate family, but I loved Susan and fell in love with Isabella,” Popin says. “She has totally changed my world. She showed me what true love was. When you’re a Dad with a little girl, it’s pure, innocent love. But as much as I love my children and my wife, even more than that, God loves us. It’s just mind-boggling.”
A Fateful Encounter
By 1999, Popin was living with his young family in a small apartment that doubled as a makeshift songwriting studio. Along with his travels as a concert pianist, he was reaping the benefits of a friendship with R&B producer and fellow songwriter Ira Schickman.
On one noteworthy occasion in 2001, Schickman introduced Popin to *NSYNC vocalist Justin Timberlake. Before he knew it, he was in a writing session that resulted in the *NSYNC song, “Falling.”
Popin’s relationship with Schickman also yielded a surreal co-writing session with legendary soul singer Chaka Khan and a song called “Believe” for her album ClassiKhan. But it was a fateful encounter with one of Popin’s greatest musical influences that gave him a boost of confidence that would carry him through the rough years to come.
“You never knew who it was going to be with this guy,” Popin laughs as he recounts receiving a call from Schickman to meet him for a special birthday celebration.
Popin and friends spent the next several hours in a jam session and dinner with none other than Stevie Wonder. On the limo ride back to the apartment, Schickman bragged about Popin’s talent and played Wonder a clip from a song they’d been writing together from his phone. Wonder was clearly impressed and responded by giving Popin a new and lasting nickname:
“He’s the Little Boy Wonder!’
The nickname stuck and would eventually become the name of Popin’s publishing company & future record label, Little Boy Wonder Music. But more importantly, those moments with Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan and *NSYNC proved to be like the parting of the Red Sea—monumental events that would later serve as reminders to what God can do.
“This was just a way God was showing me, ‘Look what I can do at the snap of my fingers. I can take you from your little apartment and your little keyboard in the basement and I can do this,’” Popin says.
For the next six years, Popin tried to write the next hit song, but could never attain the same level of success. In 2007, Popin and his family migrated to Nashville in a move that would trigger a series of trying events. He struggled to sell his house in New Jersey and then dealt with the credit crunch that made it nearly impossible to build a new home in Tennessee.
In the meantime, Popin and his wife and daughter were living in a small apartment surrounded by illicit drug activity, frequent visits from police helicopters, car break-ins and train tracks that brought ground-shaking freight in the middle of the night.
“There was a lot of testing and getting on my knees and crying out to God,” Popin says. “I wasn’t questioning God, but I was questioning life’s circumstances.”
At the same time, he was in the middle of a drought as a songwriter that would ultimately last a painful eight years. It didn’t help that his ministry invitations had slowed due to the economic downturn. He finally got to the point where he could do nothing but get on his knees and cry out to God:
What do you want from me?
“God began speaking specifically to my wife and He was telling us, ‘I’ve given you melodies. I’ve given you songs. You’re trying to write them for other people when I’ve told you to do it.’ Obviously I had a job to do, and I wasn’t doing it.”
Although still reluctant to step into the unfamiliar role of worship leader and vocalist, Popin obeyed the call and went on a three-year journey to write songs for his new project. Every time he tried to sit down and write, however, nothing would come. Instead, Popin would wake up in the middle of the night or receive inspiration while out and about.
In 2012, Popin received a call from Bishop Dale Bronner, pastor of Word of Faith Family Worship Cathedral in Austell, Georgia. The church had been given a brand new Steinway piano and they wanted him to play it at a special dedication.
While there, he met the man who donated the piano – an entertainment attorney who had previously worked with megastars such as James Brown, The Rolling Stones and Usher. After the event, the attorney gave Popin his business card and an open invitation to call him if he ever needed his services.
But Popin was convinced there wasn’t anything the man could do to help him. In his mind, he was nowhere near the level of talent to which the attorney was accustomed. Back home, Popin’s search for a label partner for his worship music led to frustration.
“I remember praying and crying and saying, ‘I need a breakthrough. I need help. What do you want me to do?’” Popin says. “I’ll never forget that God showed me that man’s card on my desk, and He said, ‘You didn’t even call who I just introduced you to.’”
Popin immediately sent his EP for overnight delivery. The man called the next day and promised to give the record to some friends. Within a matter of weeks, Popin had his first major record deal.
“You can either get burnt out or bitter or you can get your knees on the ground and cry out even harder,” Popin says. “That’s what I did. eOne was truly an answer from God.”
Along the way, Popin found significant opportunities sharing the stage with notable artists such as Tye Tribbett, Israel Houghton, Deitrick Haddon, Donnie McClurkin, Marvin Sapp, Vickie Winans and even “American Idol” alum Danny Gokey. He also developed friendships and professional partnerships with Martha Munizzi, “The Voice” finalist Jesse Campbell, and most recently with film, TV and music superstar couple, David and Tamela Mann.
These high profile vocalists appear on Popin’s worldwide debut project, You Can Make It, a full-length album that he co-produced with Ira Schickman (Chaka Khan) and Bryan Lenox (Michael W. Smith, TobyMac, Marvin Winans).
“This record is my life song and my story because I’ve lived it,” Popin says. “Every song, I’ve lived, breathed and I’ve walked. It’s been my testimony. Jesus helped me keep it together during the process. He put the right people in my path, but I had to learn a few things along the way. So trust, if I can make it, you better believe you can make it.”