Spotlight on 2020 Johnson Fellowship Nominees: Music as the Heart of Equitable Neighborhood Development

Posted by Ms. Pam Korza, Jul 20, 2020 0 comments

This last post in our ARTSblog series featuring nominees for the 2020 Johnson Fellowship for Artists Transforming Communities celebrates Eddy Kwon—musician, educator, program designer, and facilitator of equitable community development. Integrating music as a fundamental component of Price Hill Will, a community development organization in Cincinnati, Kwon’s impacts are many and draw upon their own unique artistry and artistic vision, sustained work in creative youth development, and innovative initiatives in creative citizenship.

This week (July 20-25, 2020) in the Price Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati, the annual Creative Community Festival is taking place without missing a beat. Now in its fifth year, it’s happening virtually with COVID-19 safety measures, but it is none the less a performing arts event that uses collaboration to build a creative and inclusive Price Hill neighborhood. The festival is but one of many programs that Eddy Kwon has conceived and led as artistic director of Price Hill Will, a nonprofit community development organization serving the economic development, housing, and health and wellness concerns of Cincinnati’s most racially, ethnically, and economically diverse neighborhood. With Kwon’s gifted musical leadership, music is learned and shared for its own beauty and rewards, but it is also at the heart of PHW’s community development strategies. Back to the festival in a minute!

Photo by Michael WilsonFirst, Eddy Kwon is a composer, violinist, jazz musician, and improviser. They perform as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and with musicians from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Their own compositions often explore gender, race, and ethnic identity and the ways that large systems like racism and colonialism affect individuals. One example is the in-progress UMMA-YA (Korean: MAMA-YA), a solo feature-length performance work for violin, voice, and body. Connecting Korean Pansori (epic story singing), American vernacular music, and a rich harmonic universe, UMMA-YA tells the story of a young boy who learns he will be a mother. Overwhelmed, ashamed, and unsure of his ability to bring life into the world, he splits himself in two. One half searches the corners of the earth for untouched land, where he will bury himself. The other heads to the occupied city of his ancestors, in search of familial spirits that can guide him.

Click to watch a video of Kwon talk about their relationship to the Price Hill community, their violin, and music as expression of emotional, social, and political power and beauty.

Kwon is equally a community leader who works daily at the intersection of creative youth development, creative citizenship, and equitable community development. In five years, they have grown MYCincinnati (MYC)—an intensive daily youth orchestra program—from 60 students and 5 teachers to 120 students and 18 teachers. This anchor program is entirely free. Personal transformation happens through striving for artistic excellence in studying an instrument and opportunities to practice in ensemble. Kwon’s determination has offered MYC youth more: Students have performed in places like Cincinnati’s Music Hall and Taft Theater, and even on the Walt Disney Hall stage with the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. Kwon nurtures and empowers parents as well, coaching about ways to support their children’s music education and inviting active participation on the MYCincinnati Parent Group and Board of Directors. 

“MYCincinnati has opened so many doors for my children and quite frankly it has changed my family’s story. Eddy is a great example of a musician who is intentional about lifting as they climb. … They are aware that it is more than music. They keep the children abreast on societal issues and how to use their voices, even as young people. … Thanks to Eddy and Price Hill Will staff, my family was identified as a candidate for their homesteading program. We moved into a new house. … This is the story of how music can touch individuals, who then touch their families, and then as a result, impact an entire community. The most beautiful ripple effect ever.” —Tamara Thrasher, parent of two MYCincinnati students

Kwon founded the Ambassador Ensemble for teenagers, a string septet that combines social justice education with collaborative composition and performance. In the spirit of Kwon’s own musical interests, the Ensemble doesn’t shy away from challenging musical expression. It improvises, experiments, and explores racial, ethnic, and gender identity and other social concerns relevant to young participants. “Ziyad’s Story” is one potent musical piece. It tells the story of a MYCincinnati student who, when shopping at a local grocery store, was falsely accused of shoplifting and arrested. Testament to this student and PHW’s advocacy and arts programs, Ziyad entered a prestigious university where he was awarded a full scholarship to study music education. During his school breaks, he mentors younger students at MYCincinnati as a visiting double bass teaching artist.

Price Hill Will’s ambitious infrastructure development includes purchase of a dense block of 10 historic properties to be developed as a creative campus. Kwon is an integral team member on the $10 million restoration of a blighted Masonic Lodge building in the heart of the neighborhood. It will be completed this summer and transformed with two performances spaces. One program Kwon founded to inaugurate the building is the Community-Curated Performance Series. With self-determination as its guiding value, a curatorial board of youth and adults will survey neighborhood residents to identify, research, and engage local, national, and international artists they would like to have perform and be part of other Price Hill arts programs. One of Kwon’s top priorities is developing an equitable system of accountability, so that the campus truly reflects the dreams and wishes of the neighborhood, and that all participating organizations and businesses are continually evolving and responsive to the neighborhood.

Masonic Lodge groundbreaking ceremony. Photo by Nick Swartsell.

Now back to the Creative Community Festival! After months of creation and preparation, a virtual world of music is presented in this one joyous week. The festival presents nine world premieres, including four local groups presenting new works as part of a first-ever Collaborative Commissions program. Price Hill Will’s two national Creative Action Resident Artists showcase community projects coming out of year-long engagements with MYCincinnati students and merging music and social issues and action. For example, you can hear recorded compositions by MYC musicians who worked with Isaac Selya of the Queen City Opera—their work inspired by historical exploration of the Holocaust and how it relates to contemporary events.

“The festival’s mission is embodied in its Artists-in-Residence program,” says Kwon. “Collaborative ensembles, which are intergenerational and diverse beyond any measure, commit to an intensive co-creation process where respect, democracy, accountability, and radical imagination are in dynamic relation to one another.” One of three Artists in Residence, Thanya Iyer, orchestrated community musicians’ creation of a mini Visual Album, a collage of lyrics, chords, and melodies collected into a soundtrack with visuals, stop motion, archival footage. 

Kwon quotes adrienne maree brown, a writer, sci-fi/Octavia Butler scholar, facilitator, and doula living in Detroit: “Small is good, small is all. The small is a reflection of the large.” In this spirit, Kwon values “what we practice on the small scale—day in and day out.” But as Tamara Thrasher points out all too clearly, the “beautiful ripple effect” is large when Eddy Kwon gracefully casts the pebbles in the pond.

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