Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the August 2019 issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version, click here.
Story by Mike Kilen
Photos contributed by NBC
Joseph Allen’s mom told him there was no way. He was not going to bring his motorbike from Texas to Grand Canyon University. He’d already broken an arm, wrist and collarbone (twice) in motorbike competitions. It didn’t matter that Allen enrolled in engineering at GCU because of his mechanical interest in his bike.
Mom said no.
Her son’s reaction was not to sulk or rage. He wrote her a song, a thank you for all the years of raising him in Killeen, Texas.
“I’m gonna make it in this world,” he rapped into the camera, which Allen posted on YouTube for her before leaving for college. “… I hope you look up and say, ‘That’s my boy.’ ”
The moment tells a lot about Allen’s character, a sweetness that surfaced on national television and led to viral internet fame in June after he earned the Golden Buzzer on “America’s Got Talent.”
The magical TV moment shined a light on Allen’s heart – and his talent honed as a GCU student, when he ditched the bike to write songs.
“To use your slogan, he found his purpose,” said his mother, Karen Allen-Smith, who will be watching closely to see if her son advances on the AGT competition when it continues Aug. 13 on NBC.
It was part of a phenomenal summer for student veterans of the GCU Recording Studio – Jason Henshaw’s song was played on a reality TV show. Studio managers say it gave the Worship Arts program nice attention, not just for TV stars but for “unsung heroes” who go on to work for local churches and have an even wider impact.
Allen wanted to talk more about impact – and life purpose – during a phone conversation this summer from his home in Los Angeles, where he moved after walking the stage at GCU graduation in April for his newfound study in digital production.
He called his mom’s motorbike decision a turning point in his career path.
“It was kind of an identity crisis that led me to find music as my escape,” he said. When students loved his performances, he began to think, “Maybe I can do this.”
It wasn’t totally out of the blue. From an early age, Allen-Smith said, he gravitated to music and performing. As one of 12 siblings in a mixed family – many who were a decade or more older – he had the attention of an only child and a crowd to impress.
He wore his Spider-Man costume constantly from ages 4 to 7 and sat with his mom at least once a day and twice on Saturdays to watch the entire VHS tape of “The Lion King,” singing along to the songs.
“He was always performing,” Allen-Smith said. “One day in third grade he got put out of class for being silly. He thought he was a comedian. I taught at the same school, so the music teacher talked to him. He told him, ‘You have personality and talent, but you need to channel it.’ ”
Allen started to sing in school choirs and even gained the only child’s part in a local theater production in sixth grade. But his passion turned to bikes – and to his spiritual beliefs.
“From 10th to 12th grade, he was my Jesus freak. Everything was about Jesus and living correctly. For a mother, I’m perfectly fine with that,” Allen-Smith said.
Allen went to a Christian concert and the performer told the audience about GCU. Allen was sold, even without his bike. When he arrived at GCU, it reminded him of “a resort.” He also had a song.
“Joseph Allen came to us the first day and didn’t know much about recording. He had a song,” Recording Studio Manager Eric Johnson said. “We helped him through the hurdles and speed bumps when you are working through a craft.”
Johnson suggested recording in his dorm room closet because clothes act as a sound absorber.
“I could hear my friend talking in the living room, so I would stuff towels on the bottom of the door so the microphones wouldn’t pick up the conversation,” Allen said.
He wrote more songs that turned into an entire LP called “The College Lifestyle.” Johnson said Allen stayed positive through the learning process: “He was able to push through that first year and see the light in everything he was doing. He was a humble character, and that part of his character shined through on the AGT special.”
Allen said the spotlight was comfortable because of experience in front of a microphone at GCU, but an extra touch of “divine intervention” sealed it that night. He had no idea a contingent of GCU students on spring break had tickets, and their energy created a special television moment as Allen responded with a kind of innocent glee to the surprise.
“It’s genuine,” said John McJunkin, who worked with him as GCU’s Recording Studio Coordinator and knew he often stayed up all hours of the night to get better. “I’ve worked with a lot of show business people, and they can turn it on and off for the camera. He’s not like that.”
Allen said being at GCU, “inside those gates with a feeling of community,” led him to a happiness onstage that couldn’t be scripted. The students, his mother said, gathered around him after the show and prayed with him.
“When I watched the video, the Joseph I know is the Joseph I saw on the stage,” Johnson said. “That’s what happens when Joseph walks into a room. People want to know this light shining on them. We all know Jesus’ light is shining.
“This kid can change the world for the better, and people need to take note.”
Allen said he hopes he can use his moment of fame, which includes a big increase in his social media following and YouTube views, to spread the message of the song he wrote for judges: Chase your dream with determination – and have a purpose.
“My purpose is to be a public figure to help reverse engineer the thought process of the current generation. I want to be a role model and help show a different type of approach to life than the status quo,” he said. “You don’t live on Earth forever, so I want to make sure I use my time wisely, encouraging the next generation to follow their heart.”
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