From: Fontana, CA
Job Title: Freelance Musician, Federal Cultural Policy Analyst
Favorite Brewed Drink: Caramel Iced Coffee
"I was 8 years old and had recently joined my first youth orchestra at the Saturday Conservatory of Music at Cal State LA. We were preparing a very simplified version of Dvorak's 9th Symphony, 4th movement. Per my conductor's suggestion, my mom took me to Wherehouse Music (RIP) to purchase a recording of the complete symphony/my first CD ever! I listened to that recording constantly.
On Christmas day, my father – who had been paralyzed for 3 three years - passed away. That night, I realized 1) life would never be the same, 2) my mom was alone in raising her sons, and 3) conquering personal demons and family circumstances wasn't optional if I hoped to stay sane - let alone eventually be successful at anything. A few weeks later, the weight of the situation hit like a brick one late night.. I woke to the sound of my mom crying in her room. Having received a kidney transplant only 4 months before my dad died, she was coping with the physical and mental stress of two traumatic events. After knocking on her door and being told to go back to sleep, I went to my bed only to sit restlessly for hours.
Not knowing where else to turn, I turned on my Dvorak 9 CD. Before that night, I had only listened to the 4th movement to prepare for my youth orchestra concert. Since I knew that movement would be too loud and bother someone at that hour, I decided to (finally) listen to the 2nd movement. I didn’t know what an english horn was then; I definitely couldn't distinguish it from an oboe if asked to. All I knew was listening to that track was the first experience following my dad's death that put me at ease. It cleared my mind and gave me peace. I couldn’t articulate why at the time, but I knew I never wanted to be without music. I listened to that CD for hours every day for nearly one year. I eventually wore out the CD and had to get another one. I became so partial to that recording for all the emotions I had associated to it that I couldn’t listen to any other recording for over a decade. After some years away from it and formal training in orchestral repertoire, I realized it was absolutely terrible performance... I finally found a recording that I liked. Symbolically the original recording (which I won't identify here..) means the world to me; it just frustrates me musically haha. Regardless, those nightly listenings of Dvorak 9 triggered a feeling in me that has never left and that I hope to bring to others forever. That's basically what set me off down this crazy career path.
As with any close relationship, my journey with music has been emotional one. Over the years, there have been times when I've loved it, regretted it, longed for it, embraced it, rejected it, obsessed over it, etc. After my initial 4-year infatuation with music though, things changed. My family was poor, I needed a job, music was my only hope. I was homeschooled until age 12, attended Long Beach City College until age 15, then transferred to USC where I completed my bachelors, grad certificate, and masters degrees. But before then, like many, my brothers and I had to get jobs at a young age to survive. With my mom's health/life in the balance, we had to help pay bills, cover hospital visits, and everything in between. Her physical inability to homeschool us further eventually led to our early enrollment in community college. We needed a place to study and work. College was that place. Little did we think that when we started taking college classes that we could just keep on going! Outside of school, my brothers and I performed together and with some family friends in what we called the Young People's Ensemble. We played gigs at cafes, restaurants, churches, hospitals, and anywhere else that would take us, frankly. So, by age 12, my life-altering relationship with music became my meal ticket. Luckily for me, I liked Top Ramen. Those years taught me that we don't choose the cards we’re dealt - we only decide how to play them. And, sometimes, the only choice is to break down and give up, or break down and move on."
After completing my B.M. In 2008, My musical and professional goals blew up once I discovered arts policy. While studying percussion in London, I grew fascinated to understanding not only how music affects the mind and spirit, but also how it serves as a tangible stimulant of economic growth and social mobility. I began learning how healthy arts programs can contribute to better infrastructure - roads, healthcare, crime prevention, improved environmental conditions, etc. Before I returned home to the states, my 8-year-old realization that music could transform the mind evolved into an understanding that music could also advance society, economy, and government. Undoubtedly, enjoying the present and securing one's future as a musician comes with great challenges. Nonetheless, I still find new reasons everyday to fall more in love with music.
By the time I entered grad school, I knew it was reckless to assume there will always be a path to by destination. Musicians, scientists, doctors, farmers - we all eventually have to adapt to changing times or succumb to marginalization. Unfortunately, when it comes to wielding political and financial capital to support professional endeavors, artists tend to come in last place overall. The more I learned why this was/is – mainly, the expectation that artists shouldn't engage in or be “distracted” by both artistic AND business management - the faster I saw the glass ceiling of my own career approaching. Did this make me feel powerless? Absolutely. Did it cause me to question if even winning a “dream job” in a major orchestra could turn into a nightmare? Without a doubt, yes. The Recession of 2008 and subsequent labor disputes/foreclosures throughout the arts sector didn't help either...
But, going back to that “deck of cards” - rather than changing careers or fatalistically embracing life-long struggle – I decided to use policy to break barriers and build bridges to opportunity and prosperity. Over time, I realized my disposition was simple. I just asked myself:
“If I don’t understand how/where I fit into the infrastructure, how can I change, build, or mold anything for the better?
After a few years of studying policy, interviewing leaders in the field, and an abundance of coffee, I decided the fight for the arts' value needed to end for good. I aimed to make such a strong case for the arts that our government and society treated them as equal to clean air and water. Little did I know that that pursuit would shatter the glass ceiling I once considered unavoidable."
What attracted you to arts policy?:
1) Arts advocacy organizations missing the mark ---
"Shortly after Opera Pacific closed down in 2008, I nonchalantly asked Larry Livingston (my orchestra conductor at USC at the time) what the government was doing to protect the arts. I imagine he must have laughed silently at my question; my teenage self just assumed there was a 5-second answer to my question haha. Nonetheless, we discussed the issue at length; he introduced me to Americans for the Arts (AFTA) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and encouraged me to learn as much about them (and several other arts advocacy organizations) as I could. However, the more I learned, the more I felt they were missing the mark. I didn't (and still don't) believe an organization or agency that lobbies solely to fund non-profit arts organizations could ever expand and implement the entire arts sector into all avenues of policy and infrastructure. The impact of most advocacy organizations I studied stopped at annually reinventing the wheel of non-profit arts appraisal. The more problems I uncovered, the more powerful and necessary I realized longterm solutions were."
2) A friend in need---
"With respect for their privacy, suffice it to say that I promised to help a close friend secure an artist visa to return to the United States. Unfortunately, I admittedly had no idea how at the time! After several unanswered phone calls from London to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, I needed answers ASAP. So, I booked a flight on a day's notice to Washington DC for information. I stayed there for a few weeks, attended President Obama’s first inauguration/witnessed Aretha's hat with my own eyes, held interviews with representatives from the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities, NEA, and USCIS, and asked too many questions. Right away, I became aware that many leaders within the highest offices of arts leadership were completely unaware of the work and conditions of artists nationwide. Even more so, I found there was arguably zero support for rank-and-file immigrant artists. Out of the hundreds of impact studies and surveys produced by the NEA and AFTA, none of them contained data on the population or economic impact of immigrants artists. In other words, foreign artists in the U.S., like my friend, possessed zero political leverage for financial or even educational support. I eventually realized the domestic arts situation had to be fixed before anyone I spoke with on Capitol Hill would openly take the foreign arts policy situation seriously. Before I could help my friend, I had to put the “arts debate” to rest for good."
The American Cultural Capital Development & Protection Act (ACCDPA)
"After 6 years of research, I authored and completed ACCDPA – a comprehensive federal arts policy reform bill. If passed, federal funding to arts and cultural organizations will increase by billions - at no additional cost to the tax payers. It will create and preserve domestic arts jobs, prevent crime, improve public education, foster economic growth and social mobility, make artist visas more attainable, and advance America's cultural legacy. For every labor dispute, funding cut, foreclosure, and outsourced film scoring session I analyzed while writing the bill, I identified multiple local, state and federal entities capable of preventing another in the future. One of the provisions in the bill will amend the National Labor Relations Act to give union members the legal authority to establish collective bargaining agreements independently from their elected representatives (under specific conditions) when current contracts are failing to attract work. If passed, the bill could significantly restore film scoring work to Los Angeles. ACCDPA and the lessons it taught me transformed my life as a percussionist. I used to experience debilitating nerve problems during performances, auditions, and even private lessons. The empowerment I gained from understanding the infrastructure that I/musicians work in changed everything. Auditions, performances and recording sessions that once would have had my hands shaking now put me at ease. There are few feelings greater than freedom from anxiety and doubt."
Advice to other musicians:
1) Work, learn, evolve and fight for the people and principles you value.
2) Never let the questions “Why?” or “How?” hold you down. Winston Churchill said “Show me a man with no enemies, and I’ll show you a man who has never taken a stand.” In the same manner, I say - show me a musician who loves every aspect of the industry, and I’ll show you a musician who hasn’t lobbied Congress to support her/his organization, managed an opera company's finances, cleaned the mixing board in the studio, or changed the auditorium lighting gels. Identify every aspect of your career and learn how to sustain and advance them. Once you do, you’ll have an extraordinarily different perspective on practicing, performing, teaching, and your role in the lives of your colleagues, students, and community. Plus, you'll be super-extra versatile and employable!
3) Confront your personal and professional demons yesterday. Ask yourself AND answer the tough questions. This process isn't pretty; don't expect warm fuzzies or trophies for it. Approach it with humility and leave it with clarity.
4) Pay it forward.
Quote/Mantra: "Suck less every day. Everything else is details. But for real. I do and don’t believe in mantras, because everything is situational. If you need to fight to protect something, do it. If you can just relax and chill out, then chill. The key is attentiveness in the moment. To quote Bruce Lee - “Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” To be honest, I read that quote at the dentist while waiting for novocaine to wear off, so I think that's what he said lol... Either way, the point of the lesson is to adapt and respond to situations in a way that achieves stability. As a musician, I try to apply this in one of two ways - when the room is tense, I try to chill to -5 degrees; I smile, have a good time, and channel Bob Marley singing “Three Little Birds” while sitting on a tree branch and drinking a Coke (in a glass / with a lemon / with a crazy straw). If I'm on a team that is moving too lethargically to meet its goals, I'll kick it up a notch and delegate if no one else will. Either way, my goal is to move forward without overcompensation."
Is inspiration important?: "Yes---sometimes, it's all we've got. Logically, I shouldn’t be here right now. Once my father passed away, I was primed to become the next poor black child from a single-parent home to fall deep into the cracks of society and linger there forever. Instead, an abundance of dreams, hope, and mentorship pulled me from that life and inspired me to always strive for more. Simply put, I wouldn't be here without inspiration. Now, if I can help to build a social, political, and economic structure through the arts that inspires others to escape oppressive circumstances and thrive, I will."