TAMPA — Floridians outside of the music industry — and Amalie Arena — may not immediately recognize the name Vo Williams.
A decade ago, his music career took him from the beaches along Siesta Key to those just outside of Los Angeles. And for the first time in two years, his career has brought him back home.
The singer/songwriter/composer with more than 1,500 projects to his name, including contributions to television shows like Lethal Weapon and Empire, also has more than 250,000 monthly listeners on Spotify.
Williams’ resume is expansive, and he can name drop a few A-list celebrities, but he’s never had an experience like his latest with the Lightning. For the 2021 playoffs, the defending Stanley Cup champs are using his song, Ready Set — released earlier this year — as part of home game hype presentations ahead of puck drop.
Not only has Williams created art that resonates with fans of his beloved hockey team, but the Lightning are allowing him to share his work as a Black artist with a mostly white NHL audience.
When Williams saw himself on the video board for the first time — sitting in the Amalie Arena stands alongside mother Damita Fields and father Emanuel Williams during the second round against the Hurricanes — he called the moment “once in a lifetime.”
“The fact that they put me on that screen is such an authentic move,” said the Sarasota native. “I love this sport. I played this sport and I love the music and the organization and I’m from there, that’s my home. So it’s just all-around powerful and beautiful.”
And a live audience of more than 13,000 certainly adds to the appeal.
“It’s just a different feeling being in the presence of so many people with one goal in mind, pouring that energy into the center of the ice and having my music up there and contributing to that energy feels humbling,” he said. “It’s incredible.”
Destined for arenas
Before Hollywood came calling, hockey did.
As a child, Williams watched The Mighty Ducks and was inspired to pick up street hockey with other neighborhood kids. He loved the stick handling, the focus required, the strategy.
For five years, spanning middle school and high school, he was on the ice. As the only Black player on his team — and often in the rink — he was used to standing out.
It’s why he took notice when the Lightning started an all-Black line — for what is believed to be the first time in the NHL’s 100-plus year history — against the Panthers on May 10 with forwards Mathieu Joseph, Daniel Walcott and Gemel Smith.
“I think it’s a brave step,” Williams said. “When you’re pioneering something, there’s resistance. These things are not being done and highlighted in an environment where we’ve fully transitioned and we fully understand, so it means ruffling some Lightning fans’ feathers. It means educating and going against the grain of people that you love, that you consider family and fans.”
Williams applauds the efforts the Lightning are taking to showcase diversity, including trusting him in such an “epic moment” and making him part of their history.
“(This experience) has been rewarding in a sense that I’ve been represented as myself,” Williams said. “Whereas with other projects, I have the honor of collaborating as a part of the total project — which is amazing. … But with this I’m being shown on that screen and represented on that screen. That’s a big deal, especially in hockey.”
Believe the hype
This is a lift-off energy
Got a date with destiny, and she feeling my chemistry
Manifestation, dreams to delivery
Mind over matter, faith over disbelief
When Williams wrote these lyrics to Ready Set, he envisioned performing it in front of thousands, inciting energy within a crowd he’d yet to experience as an artist pioneering epic hip-hop, which focuses on vivid, emotional tonality, and gravity and weight.
The artist had never performed in this way.
“I wrote Ready Set as an expression of energy, as an expression of wanting to manifest dreams into a reality,” Williams said. “So that explosion through my performance is just something that’s natural that I can’t even hide. That song is meant to drive us forward. That song is meant to push us through to the next level, to elevate us.”
In other words, the perfect playoff song.
His collaboration with the Lightning is not his first in the sports arena. Williams’ music has been used for NFL and NBA promotions, as well as in commercials during the past five Super Bowls. His song Leave ‘Em with Nothing was the main music for the 2018 Madden NFL Championship.
But Ready Set is a personal favorite.
When the Lightning reached out to Williams — whose song Finisher already was used in some of the team’s in-game presentations — and pitched their pre-game idea, he knew this was a chance to take the project to a different level.
He recorded numerous takes from California before sending them off to the team. The first time Williams saw the finished product — the video interspersed with clips from Lightning games and his lyrics projected across the ice — was via a recording from Game 3 against the Panthers on May 20, the Lightning’s first home game of these playoffs.
“To see it in that space and fulfill its purpose, to stand up in that kind of arena,” he said, “it was affirming to me that we’re on the right path.”
And for a franchise that didn’t get to celebrate its last Stanley Cup run with fans, the music is the perfect bridge between passion and play.
“I feel like I’ve been able to give something back to the city, give the energy back to the city at this time, which is so important. We’re able to come out and experience hockey again. Hockey fans can come out and have fun during this playoff run. ...
“And I can help lead people to that positive energy and that explosive energy, just that hope.”
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.