Joyful Work: Music in the Community

Posted by Vijay Gupta, May 07, 2018 0 comments

“God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create, and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations. Jazz speaks for life. The blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.” —Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” —Lilla Watson

As artists, it’s our job to tell stories and to ask questions.

The great “masterpieces” I play as a symphonic musician were written to tell the stories of communities, as much as they were written for what we might perceive as some grandiose idea of individual expression: Vivaldi’s panoply of concertos were for his students—often orphaned, teenage girls—at L’Ospedale della Pieta. Bach, a church bureaucrat in Leipzig, had to figure out how many musicians he could afford to pay before he wrote his glorious Cantatas. Schubert wrote chamber music for intimate gatherings where he could wholly be himself among his dearest friends. Handel wrote the beloved “Messiah” in 1742, the first performance raising funds to release 142 men from debtor’s prison.

I have dedicated my life to studying and performing the works of these great masters, largely in part because I will always be humbled by their craft and their music. We will always be humbled by the opportunity to hear—and play—something new in the music we love. But we have to ask the question—do we truly reflect the vibrancy and power of our communities just by playing the music of old, dead, white men? What’s our modern day “Messiah”? What is the sound of America, today, now?

America is the sound of vulnerable, brave questions.

We, as artists, have before us a “joyful work”: to heal and inspire, but also to disrupt and provoke. It’s our job to disrupt the patterns which, while working for some, create and demonize the “other.” It’s our job to provoke meaningful, often painful, conversations which lead to meaningful policy changes for our communities, while joining in the “joyful work” of giving voice to that gorgeous multiplicity of American cultures and identities.

We, as artists immersed in “joyful work,” can create new, restorative cultures which belong to all people.

In my own “joyful work,” I split my soul between two places. Most mornings and evenings, I play with the LA Philharmonic, one of America’s most forward-thinking and progressive orchestras—an institution which, through asking “the questions,” is dedicated to producing art of the highest quality. Most of my afternoons are spent just a few blocks away from Disney Hall, in Skid Row, immersed in the work of Street Symphony, a non-profit organization I formed in 2011 to engage people experiencing homelessness and incarceration through musical performances, dialogue, and storytelling.

The epicenter of homelessness in America today, Skid Row is a community of thousands upon thousands of people—too often thrown away or ignored by the bright lights of our world. Often, the Skid Row community is described as an “emergency, a disgrace, a crisis”: people—often poor people of color—face the revolving door of mass incarceration in the largest county jail system on the planet, as well as the trauma of continuously navigating systems of structural violence and racism.

However, the Skid Row community is one of the most vibrant, resilient—and yes, artistic—communities of people in America today. They are people who, as Dr. King said, have taken “the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.”

The work of Street Symphony is to engage people experiencing homelessness and incarceration in Los Angeles through musical performance, dialogue, and teaching artistry. In the last seven years, we’ve presented nearly 400 free programs of jazz, choral music, and classical string quartets—recently adding Klezmer and Mariachi ensembles—to audiences in clinics, shelters, and county jails across LA County.

In forming Street Symphony, I decided that we should stay small, stay local, stay intentional: our impact had to be about showing up, even without answers or “concrete ways to fix or help.” We showed up because we had to—for ourselves. There was something about making music in Skid Row which reminded us why we ever became musicians in the first place. There was something about making music in Skid Row which healed us. We found home. We found community.

In 2015, in collaboration with partners in the Skid Row community, we presented the first “Messiah Project,” a collaborative singalong performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” The goal of the Messiah Project, an annual event at The Midnight Mission, is to share our stage with the Skid Row community. The orchestra and chorus is comprised of professional musicians—my colleagues from the LA Phil and LA Master Chorale—but the stars, the soloists, the storytellers are members of the Skid Row community. Our wider community and donors from across the city of Los Angeles make the pilgrimage to Skid Row—walking through city blocks filled with tents, often stepping over people huddled in sleeping bags—and when they make it to the Mission, everyone sings Handel.

The real work of the Messiah Project, however, happens off stage, after the performance. Hundreds of cloth bags filled with amenities like shampoo and soap, feminine hygiene products, socks, and toothbrushes are provided to the community. These are kits that are painstakingly assembled, often by the musicians themselves during a rehearsal for the Messiah Project. This is our way of holding conversations with our audience—saying thank you, saying hello, promising that we will keep showing up.

As artists, we are natural organizers. We have the power to convene, hold spaces, and move audiences. When we do this with intention, every aspect of our music making is better. In Skid Row, I play with more focus and expression—because it matters. I speak to our audiences with respect and invite their musical and human responses—because their lives and stories matter. I walk in Skid Row as an invited guest—because their neighborhood matters.

And when I vote—I vote with the Skid Row community in my heart, because my liberation is bound up in theirs.

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