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Ryan Lewis makes surprise appearance at Gonzaga University

Josh Armstrong admits it wasn’t easy to keep it a secret. It’s not every day that Gonzaga University’s Comprehensive Leadership Program is able to sneak a multi-Grammy winner onto campus.

They did that on Wednesday when Ryan Lewis of the hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis showed up to talk to leadership students as part of the program’s regular Fishbowl series.

“We only told two students who were working it,” said Armstrong, who is the program’s director. “I found myself wanting to tell people, but we kept the surprise.”

The producer, photographer, video director, DJ and videographer who grew up in Spokane spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of 200 students. Keeping the event secret, Armstrong said, helped make sure it would be oriented to questions of leadership, and not be a “fanboy conversation.”

“(Wednesday) was the first day of school, so that helped. It was something we could keep quiet. That part was fun as well,” Armstrong said. “We weren’t wanting it to be where 1,200 students show up to an event with him.”

Armstrong, who met the Lewis family in the 1990s and has stayed in touch, said guests for the once-a-semester Fishbowl talks typically come from the world of nonprofits and business. Guests have been vice presidents at Boeing or Starbucks. They once brought in Bill Gates, Sr., and the next speaker is from Alaska Airlines. This is the first time organizers have brought in a musician.

“We haven’t had anyone who has won Grammys or had number one hits,” Armstrong said. “Thankfully, Ryan has done a lot of thinking about leadership and shaping culture.”

The evening was conversational, Armstrong said. Half of the night was devoted to answering student questions, while the rest centered on a conversation between Armstrong and Lewis.

According to the Gonzaga News Service – the only media invited – the conversation ranged from how to find success in music without a record deal and finding time to learn to play piano to Lewis’ charitable work and social activism.

Lewis talked about the social issues songs that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis release, such as “Same Love,” in support of marriage equality, or “White Privilege II,” which centers on race.

Lewis said he understands that these “heavy” songs aren’t songs people will listen to over and over, as they might the hit songs “Thrift Shop” or “Can’t Hold Us.” The goal of these songs, he said, is to spark conversation.

“Heavy good songs that say something should be made and should be played,” Lewis said. “I hope our fans are able to have fun with songs that are fun and have ears and a willingness to have dialogue they might not have had” over the more “heavy” songs.

When asked about strategies to become a good leader, Lewis suggested people lean into their strengths and know themselves.

“For me, I’m reliable for honesty but I’m not necessarily reliable for making you feel good,” he said. “People are combinations of toolsets and character qualities. It all comes down to ‘how do I say what I need to say but not crush you and at the same time be effective.’”

Lewis was born on the West Side, but moved to Spokane as a toddler. He attended school here, before moving to Seattle, where he finished high school. He and Macklemore made music history with their 2012 album “The Heist”: They were the first duo ever to score number one hits with their first two singles, “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us.” He and Macklemore have been regular visitors to Spokane, playing sold out shows at the Knitting Factory, the Spokane Arena’s Star Theatre and, most recently, the Bing Crosby Theater. He and Macklemore filmed the video for their song “Downtown” here, and performed a free concert for students at Eastern Washington University in 2013.

He graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in the history of comparative ideas – which is analogous to a philosophy degree. Those who meet Lewis often come away impressed by how well-spoken and thoughtful he is. The GU students found that as well.

“We heard from students that they didn’t expect a musician to be that thoughtful,” Armstrong said.

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