Former 'American Idol' contestant croons along Oakland's Lakeshore Avenue

On any given day, you might find 38-year-old Donnie Williams along Oakland’s Lakeshore Avenue, amid the hustle and bustle of the neighborhood and lost in the moment of his music.

Performing has been something the East Bay musician has long loved to do, and his talents as a singer even carried him as far as becoming a finalist in the uber popular television singing competition "American Idol" in 2004. 

His dream of becoming an Idol, however, got abruptly derailed when the then 21-year-old got pulled over and arrested for driving under the influence after a night of celebrating his selection in the competition. He was kicked off the show and never got a chance to compete in Season 3, which culminated with Fantasia Barrino winning it all, though the biggest name to come out of that season was Grammy and Academy award-winning performer Jennifer Hudson. 

It was an extremely painful and difficult lesson Williams had to learned. But it’s also one that the Oakland resident has described as the most important lesson he could have ever asked for in life.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me considering," the singer told KTVU. "Because from that moment up until now it changed a lot of things. From that moment, people can look at it as a failure, as ten steps back. I'm looking at it because I was able to go through even more challenges in life," he said.

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Williams said over the years, he’s thought about what would have happened if he didn’t go through that life altering event, saying he believed it forced him to take a hard look at his decisions. And without going through that experience, he could have had potentially bigger successes at stake, which could have led to a bigger and a much more detrimental downfall, he explained. 

"What if I could’ve been the Jennifer Hudson, and I was still drinking and still clouded in my thinking?" he asked. "If that didn't happen, it could be a different outcome." 

And he noted that he probably wouldn’t have been able to fully appreciate his love and passion for his music.

"I couldn’t have found as much joy as I do," Williams said, as he explained that as a younger musician, he was chasing after something and trying to prove himself. After all that he’s gone through, he said, being out along Lakeshore, just singing from the heart, that’s where he’s truly discovered the pure joy of performing.

He said, something pulls him to that spot, where’s set up for the past year or so, toward the end of Lakeshore, across from Peet’s Coffee. A "sense of knowing," he called it. 

"Someone is calling, and I've gotta go and sing," Williams explained. And then in that moment, the real gift has been when people have stopped to tell him that his singing has made their day or that’s been a bright spot in a rough week.  

"That’s the gift... That’s the magic. That’s the moment," he shared. "It’s that oneness. It’s you and that other person."

He said with his music he’s able to make connections with complete strangers on the street and perhaps from time to time have an impact on someone’s life.

"Someone came up to me the other day, a teenager," he recalled, "and he’s like, ‘Man, you inspire me. You're amazing.’ It’s like wow. This kid I don't know what he’s going through. How it motivates him to see me out there. Just bare. Just signing out on the streets with no care," he said, adding, he hoped that in some way, his music, his authenticity and vulnerability might have a positive effect on that teen’s life.  

And then it was that gift he experienced when parents brought their young kids to listen to him. 

"It’s amazing to see. They’re so full of joy and happy," the singer said.

Williams also told KTVU that he’s been five years sober. 

He said he clearly remembered that moment he decided to stop drinking and that it was through his music that he came upon the revelation that he didn't need alcohol in his life.

"I just sang and sang and sang, and the next morning I felt different. Something changed," he said. "I have stopped drinking and how I did it was not because I had to do the program. It was because I’d done it enough to the point where I had enough… that whole moment in life happened, and it just went away," he shared.

And during the difficult times in his life, he said it's clear that it hasn’t been alcohol he’s wanted, but it's been the music that has served as a healing agent.

It was no more true than when his mother passed away one year ago. He said he had a very close bond with her and the loss has been difficult.

"Normally I would be consumed in alcohol, but music is what I found that helps for me," he said, adding that it’s also the people with whom he can share that music, those he’s come across, in his crooning spot on an Oakland street. "I don’t go expecting much. I just go to let it out, just to sing because I love to sing." 

Williams said that his last steady job was as a delivery worker. But he said because of the pandemic, he lost that job. And using a skill he's learned to exercise well, he’s turned that negative into a positive, as he’s used the misfortune of a job loss as an opportunity to put all his focus into his music. 

These days when he's not along Lakeshore, he’s working musical gigs. On Thursdays, he said he's a regular at SP2 bar and restaurant in San Jose. And he’s also spent his time writing and creating his own music. 

When asked about where he hoped his journey as a musician would take him, Williams said his goal was to just continue to evolve in his craft and has a person, appreciating all that’s happened, both good and bad.  

"Being open and allowing things to happen, allowing life to be," the musican said, "to keep growing internally and stay in the moment and stay present. Anything farther than today, it’s too far for me."

KTVU's Mona Fox contributed to this story.