The song was originally about his struggles hiding his queer identity while growing up on Minneapolis' North Side.
When Wyn Starks sang "Who I Am" to millions of TV viewers and a tearful Sofia Vergara on "America's Got Talent" this past June, though, the tune garnered new meaning as a tribute to his twin brother, who died a year earlier.
"It took on a whole new life," the 39-year-old soul-pop singer said. "I'm just happy it's touching people one way or another, and hopefully helping them."
His song's rave reception on "AGT" has certainly helped Starks' already budding music career. As Simon Cowell told him from behind the judge's table, "This could be a life-changing moment for you."
Now based in Nashville, Starks remains thankful for the boost from "AGT," and he hopes to add to the momentum on his first headlining tour, which includes a return home to Minneapolis to perform Sunday at 7th St. Entry.
Talking by phone from Nashville before hitting the road, the 2001 North High School grad said he is also grateful for the exposure the TV show brought to his late brother, Caine Starks.
"I want people to know his story, too," Wyn said of his twin, who struggled with addiction and a heart condition. He died in Minneapolis in 2020 shortly after getting out of prison on drug-trafficking and weapons charges.
"It was really hard for him to get acclimated back into society."
Wyn said his brother was there with him in spirit when he sang "Who I Am" in the "AGT" TV studio — and that was the big reason his performance did not suffer from nervousness, despite the song being both personally and musically challenging.
"I could hear in my head being like, 'You got this [expletive]!'" Starks recalled with a laugh.
While he later lost in fan votes during the "AGT" finals after singing Benson Boone's "In the Stars," Starks said he has still felt his brother egging him on during subsequent performances — including another hometown gig during halftime at the Vikings-Bears game at U.S. Bank Stadium in October.
"He was one of my biggest supporters. Even when someone was upset with him, he'd be saying, 'Have you heard Wyn's EP yet?'"
As was recounted to the "AGT" audience, Caine's favorite song was purportedly "Who I Am," a dramatic piano ballad that's equal parts John Legend and Adele. Wyn had first issued the song in 2021 on "Black Is Golden," his debut album for reputable Nashville label Curb Records.
"I gotta be me / Gotta be who I know I am inside," Starks sings in it.
"Lookin' back, back on a little boy / Never gave him a chance to ever be more / I didn't love him but I'm gonna love him right now and forever / It's time to push open the door."
Starks said the tender, high-pitched voice that adds to the song's emotional impact is ironically one of the personal traits he used to hide while growing up in north Minneapolis.
"I grew up in church, I'm queer, and I had a high voice when I was young, so I got made fun of a lot and went through a lot of self-discovery," he recounted. "I put on a mask and tried to be somebody else to avoid the hate.
"Now, though, I embrace all of it."
Starks grew up with four other siblings and a single mom, Cheryl, who worked at Honeywell. She was the one who first pushed him into singing in his early teens at Berean Missionary Baptist Church.
Wyn moved to Dallas for a while to pursue a gospel music career. When he relocated to Nashville in 2017, he said, "I finally started to find myself."
"It was all about finding my own path, and then saying, 'This is the kind of music I want to create,'" he explained.
Alongside a couple more "Who I Am"-style ballads, the other kind of music on "Black Is Golden" ranges from the Sam Cooke-style retro-soul groover "Circles" to more disco-y, Chic-meets-the Weeknd tunes such as "Perfect" and the title track. Starks said the latter song partially sums up the statement he wanted to make with the record.
"I want to pay homage to all the Black creatives, and the idea that Black is beautiful," he said.
Taking that idea even further, Starks revisited his Minneapolis gospel roots and recently re-recorded four of his songs with Nashville's Fisk Jubilee Singers, a historic vocal group that dates back to the Reconstruction era. One of those songs, "Sparrow," he said he co-wrote in reaction to George Floyd's murder.
Starks also returns to his gospel upbringing in "At the End of the River," which is the song he actually wrote about his late brother. But he also now sees "Who I Am" as a tribute to Caine after hearing widespread response to his "AGT" performance of it.
"I've heard from a lot of other people who've been through similar pain, including people who've also lost a twin sibling," he said, tying those connections back to the song's original meaning.
"It's all about healing."
When: 8 p.m. Sun.
Where: 7th St. Entry, 701 1st Av. N., Mpls.
Tickets: $15, axs.com.