Local artists inspire Philadelphia's youth at Aspiring Young Artists - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Aspiring Young Artist | photo by Richard Sanders | courtesy of Aspiring Young Artists

The city of Philadelphia has a very incredibly vibrant music scene and a rich music history that spans genres. But imagine if those two intangible things could become more of a direct resource for the adolescents of the city who are in school and have a passion for creating music. That’s where Aspiring Young Artists steps in.

While most schools can only advocate for more funding so they don’t have to make really hard choices, like cutting out art programs because of lack of funds, AYA cuts out the middle man and connects North Philadelphia students from schools like Youth Build Philadelphia, Kensington CAPA and Olney Charter High School with local artists who teach them how to compose their own music and expose them to the beautiful things that are happening in their hometown’s music scene.

Recently I was able to sit with AYA’s founder Ricky Strickler about how the music programs and the local artists that lead them have made an impact on its students.

The Key: What sparked the idea of AYA, and when?

Ricky Strickler: So, I work for an alternative school, Youth Build Philadelphia, which is a school for students or young people between the ages of 18 to 21 who have left whatever their traditional high school was and have made a decision to come back and get their diploma. As a music lover, and as someone who lives and breathes and strongly believes in the power of music, what would catch me off guard working there was just how much incredible, out-of-this-world talent students had. It really made me wonder, “So what is happening in these other schools that no one is noticing this talent? No one is saying ‘You have a gift, and this is something we should be supporting and encouraging and finding was for you to flourish with.'” Around the same time I was working there, I was getting more and more involved with the music and poetry scene in Philly, and I was meeting all of these incredible local artists and simultaneously working with these incredible students. I felt like there had to be a way for these communities could come together and support each other, and that was in 2016.

Aspiring Young Artist | photo by Richard Sanders | courtesy of Aspiring Young Artists

TK: What was it about the platform that AYA provides that you felt public schools lacked?

RS: Two things. First and foremost, originality is a really tough thing to come by in public school curriculum because of the nature of standardized testing. Standardized testing makes it very difficult for teachers I think to craft curricula that is truly about original creation. And teachers do, don’t get me wrong, an amazing job, but I think it’s very challenging, and even within school music programs the focus tends to be on learning other people’s songs. And those could be any number of genres, I feel like there’s often a lot of traditional classical jazz stuff that’s done. I mean that stuff is really cool, but I think for young people who really see themselves as performing artists, especially in genres like hip hop, genres like pop, genres like R&B or soul, there isn’t a lot there in that school programming to support them explicitly in that.

So I think that’s one thing, focusing on the song you want to create, in the style you want to create it in, and [asking] “how do we help you figure out that process? If creating original music is what you want to do, how can provide support for you to do that?” I think the second thing is having exposure to working artists. It’s really important to visualize yourself making music as a career and there are so many different ways to do that. There’s so many different ways that people make music a part of their lives, and not everyone who does it is a international superstar. There’s a lot of value in young people seeing that, seeing the many ways people make music a part of their lives that they don’t get caught in the idea of, like, “well I will never be, fill in the blank of your favorite artist, so therefore it’s not worth it for me to pursue a career in music.” If you can see how many different ways people are doing this, I think students then can see themselves doing it in ways they couldn’t do it before. That exposure to working artists, to people who are making a living off of their music in all these different capacities, I think is really valuable.

TK: There always seems to be a similarity between schools that seem to show a disinterest in the arts that most tend to cut it out of their programs. What do you think is the cause of this disinterest?

RS: I don’t even know how much of it is disinterests on the part of schools, I think its a choice that schools are forced to make that they shouldn’t have to make. When you have to choose between having a music teacher or having a counselor, or having a nurse because you only have the budget for one, it’s hard for me to fault you because you chose the nurse, nurses are really important. So I don’t think that comes from a disinterest in the arts, I think it’s more that when budgets are really limited and when a good portion of your budget is dependent on you reaching test scores in subjects other than art, it’s hard for you as a decision-maker in that to say “Well I’m going to put a lot of my money towards the arts,” because you just don’t have that money to do it. You’re hoping to make more money so that you can do it, but in order to do that, you are then putting more money into the traditional subjects that are being tested. I think all of it occurs in a context that is unnatural and oppressive in many ways.

Aspiring Young Artist | photo by Richard Sanders | courtesy of Aspiring Young Artists

TK: Describe AYA in its beginning stage.

RS: The original idea for AYA was for it to be a hip-hop program, to be honest. I think that was a genre that I was more familiar with, I knew more hip-hop artists that i felt like would make really good mentors. The students that I had worked with in the past were primarily hip-hop artists, so I thought it would be a really cool idea. Through a series of connections, we eventually had gotten in contact with Kensington CAPA, which is a performing arts school, but as I was speaking about earlier, has a pretty dope vocal music program, but it’s not based in the creation of original music. So we set up the program with them, and I showed up the first day in January to meet students. There were six students the first year and all of them were singers. No one wanted to make a hip-hop song, everyone wanted to sing and make R&B, pop or soul songs. On one hand, I’m really excited, and on the other, I’m totally panicking because now I need to go out and find singers that can mentor them. So I just started making calls, shooting out messages to people that I did know and from there building a second layer of a network of people who were interested. I ended up bringing on six people to work with those six students and the first year was really really beautiful.

TK: What caught my attention about AYA was how it had talented local names such as Jacqueline Constance, Jeidi Eighttrack from No Headliner, Kingsley Ibeneche, Normal Gene and Little Strike as the mentors for its students. What was it about these artists and other AYA mentors that made them a great fit for the program?

RS: I think there’s a few things we look for in mentors. One obviously is a degree of sort of experience in the local music scene that they can bring to students and they can show them things to look out for and things that are really wonderful. Having some time working in Philly is really valuable and then I think this honestly applies to more artists than not, which is why I think artists make really good educators. Even if they aren’t super experienced with education, there’s an understanding that you don’t need to create the song for the young person or instill anything in them. There’s a song within that young person, you’re job is to just help them get that out of them and maybe do some arranging and some polishing. When we are asking them questions beforehand before we bring them on, that’s what we really look for, do you have that understanding of the soul of an artist? Everything that young person needs is already there and our job is to let flow and flourish a little bit. Even two of our first mentors from our beginning stage, Vessna Scheff and Natasha Jovan, went on to take leadership roles in the organization. Together, the three of us work to make decisions about programming, fundraising and so on for AYA.

Aspiring Young Artist | photo by Richard Sanders | courtesy of Aspiring Young Artists

TK: The website talks about building confidence in your students and pushing them out of their comfort zone, and I always felt that it’s important for artists, especially performing artists, to show confidence in order to control their crowd. How does music help strengthen an artist’s confidence?

RS: That’s a really good question, and a couple things that come to mind. One, I think what our program does well is that we put students at the center of it and we really value what they’re bringing to the table. When a student writes a song, that student is telling some sort of story about their life and I think that there’s a lot of insecurity for any new artist that comes to that of “Well do people care about this? Does this even matter enough for me to pour my soul out like this?” So I think being able to be there with a young artist and say “Yes this does matter, what you’re saying is really important and other people need to hear it,” is important. And I think that adds a lot of confidence to a person to just get the feedback that says “You’re doing it. You’re doing it well and doing it right and more than that it matters.” So I think that is really important and it’s also connected in community. At the end of every session, the students are working with their mentor for an hour and a half, but at the end of those sessions we’re coming back together and students are sharing what they’ve created. So not every student is ready their first week to sing, but they’re at least going to show what they did today and we always start with a strong network of support whether snapping or clapping and follow up with feedback.

TK: Where do you see AYA when it reaches its 5 year mark in 2021?

RS: That’s a really good question, too. So, full transparency, the first year we started we had six students, we were really excited about it and wanted to try to bring the program to another school, which we did. Then we had 12 students the second year, and that felt really good so we tried to add one more school because we really felt that this program had value. We did that last year and started with a really big group of twenty students, but by the end only fifteen ended up recording, and some of that was a function us growing faster than we were ready to grow. We didn’t have all the infrastructure in place to do that well. I think what we realized last year was we got a little bit lucky the first year with how amazing our students were being consistent and supportive outside of school, which made it easy for them to show up consistently and do their thing with us. As we’ve grown, what we’ve realized is that there are a lot of students with passion, but they also have a lot going on in their lives and sometimes things get in the way. I don’t think we built the infrastructure well enough to catch all of that, and to be supportive of every type of student that comes to us and that’s what we’re focusing on now.

So we’re actually scaling back the program this year, like we’re going to target 15-16 students as opposed to trying to get bigger, and we’re going to make what we think are some tangible changes that are hopefully going to make the program better for those 16 students. Changing a little bit of our on-boarding process to give the students a clear idea of what the expectation is, changing the way we on-board mentors so that they’re more prepared for what a student might need and adding more studio time in hopes that students — who, it is their first time recording and are anxious or nervous — can have time to ease into it and not feel rushed. I would rather run a program for 10 students that’s amazing for those 10 students than run a program for 50 students that’s only good for 20 of them. I think what makes are program special is that it’s really supportive and is really hands on. We want it to feel like you’re getting a private lesson, especially because the process of songwriting is really vulnerable. It’s not something you would want to do in a class full of 20 people, you want to do it in a really safe space with someone that you trust.

TK: From the schools, students and even the funds, AYA has continued to grow with each year. What do you think has played a major part in this growth?

RS: I think honestly it’s the talent and the passion of young people. I don’t think there’s a high-school or any school in Philadelphia you can walk into and not find 20 students that have incredible gifts for music. Every student is going to be super passionate and gifted in something, but I really feel like there’s so much talent, so much passion in these students who have stories to tell that just need an opportunity to tell those stories. To have an avenue they can walk down and that’s all we’re trying to do. Our growth is because there’s so many of those incredible young people and our job is to set a path for them to walk down.

Below you can check out music from Aspiring Young Artists students. For more information about AYA, click here.

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