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Kara DioGuardi's New Singing Competition Puts Mental Health in Focus

Kara DioGuardi
Rachel Deeb

Kara DioGuardi

The former "American Idol" judge's latest foray into mentorship is about more than minting new stars.

At 12 p.m. ET today, the winner of Sing It Forward – a virtual singing competition created by Grammy-nominated songwriter and former American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi and presented by her non-profit, Inspired Nation – will be revealed during a livestream hosted on the Warner Music-owned platform Cover Nation by YouTube music creator Kurt Hugo Schneider.

For DioGuardi, Sing It Forward isn’t merely a competition; it's also a way to pair the mentorship of burgeoning artists with charitable causes. In addition to giving the eight semi-finalists a platform from which to launch their careers, Sing It Forward will act as a vehicle to spread awareness and raise funds for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) -- specifically, its formation of a Youth Ambassador Academy, which will help young people advocate for their mental health and well-being. It's an issue that dovetails nicely with Mental Health Awareness Month and also, Dioguardi stresses, one that speaks to the plight of young artists making their way in a difficult industry.

“Some of the greatest songs out there were born of our artists' struggles,” DioGuardi tells Billboard. “So as an industry, I think it's really important that we look forward [to] helping our artists with their mental health and their wellness -- that that becomes something that is on the forefront of all of these record companies' minds when they're signing talent today.”

Sing It Forward’s eight semi-finalists (Jay Alan, Conor, Sydney Sherwood, Cameron Lane, Alexander Hensley, Jessa Pontier, Govan and Janie) were chosen from around 1,000 entrants who posted an original or cover song to YouTube, TikTok or Instagram with the hashtag #SingItForwardChallenge while explaining why the song was important to them. The winner will receive a raft of prizes, including a summer scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music; an A&R advisory session with Atlantic Records A&R president Pete Ganbarg (also one of the competition’s judges, along with DioGuardi and Berklee songwriting department chair Bonnie Hayes); a $1,000 cash gift card; one year of free music distribution on Level; and the opportunity to host a livestream session on Cover Nation, the Warner Music-owned YouTube creator community which is hosting the competition.

Importantly, semi-finalists are also receiving virtual guidance from artist mentors including Alex Gaskarth and Jack Barakat of All Time Low, Charlotte Lawrence, Grandson, Ingrid Andress, Lzzy Hale, Pink Sweat$, Tayla Parx and Corbyn Besson and Jack Avery of the pop band Why Don’t We.

Sing It Forward is a re-branded version of New England Sings, an in-person competition and charity fundraiser DioGuardi launched via Inspired Nation in 2016. Held annually at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, New England Sings was designed to inspire young people living in the region (ages 12 to 21) to follow their dreams while also using their voices for good by getting involved with youth-focused charities.

After the pandemic forced the cancelation of New England Sings' 2020 iteration, Ganbarg came to the rescue by introducing DioGuardi to Cover Nation, which helped her reframe it as a virtual (and national) event. In addition, Cover Nation’s parent company, WMG, put $25,000 toward the competition, lent several of its artists as mentors and made a donation to NAMI alongside Inspired Nation (Cover Nation also encourages viewers to give by hosting a donation button for the organization on its website).

“We’re happy to host Kara and Inspired Nation’s event to shine a light on mental health and the benefits of mentorship and guidance within the creative community,” said Scott Cherkin, senior vp, global consumer acquisition & retention at Warner Music Group in a statement. “Cover Nation brings together some of the most talented and creative people across social media and provides a space for community and connection. We’re excited to foster that support network and help these incredible artists move their careers forward.”

DioGuardi’s work in the non-profit sphere highlights her belief in the power of music to forge connections and change lives. "Music is even more important than it ever has been, because when you connect to an artist's experience...it almost becomes a form of therapy feeling like someone else out there has gone through what you've gone through," she says. In 2016, she founded Inspired Nation to help aspiring artists connect with music industry mentors while encouraging them to use their gifts in meaningful ways. She also created and funded the Phoenix Rising Music Program at Phoenix House, an “expressive arts therapy program” through which she oversaw the construction of five recording studios designed specifically for individuals, families and communities affected by addiction.

Through Sing It Forward, DioGuardi is doing her part not only to lift up the next generation of artists, but to encourage them to similarly focus their talents and energies on the things they believe in.

"I've always been in awe of youth,” she says. “I think they have so much more to say and so many great ideas, and we don't...turn towards them and say 'What do you think?' We don't give them a say [and] we don't give them a platform to voice what they believe in. And I think we should."

The Sing It Forward finale airs at 12pm ET today on Cover Nation. Donations to NAMI can be made here.