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Local musicians work to promote supplemental education programs

Local musicians will be performing at The Avenue for the Arts event, First Fridays: The Market, working to promote supplemental education programs in Grand Rapids neighborhoods such as East Hills, Heartside and Roosevelt Park.
Local performer, A Rose In December

Local performer, A Rose In December /Mike Saunders

Underwriting support from:

Catch these artists and more at Avenue for the Arts First Fridays: The Market at 6pm on Friday, August 7th

Solo sets showcasing brand new music from Janga (Theo Ndawillie of Vox Vidorra), Jacob Bullard (of CARE and Strawberry Heritage), and Eric Andrei (formerly Filmloom); Musical and dance performances from students at the Cook Arts Center and WMCAT’s Teens Art + Tech program, and the adorably face-melting rock group Flushed

Hugo Claudin in his space, Mexicains Sans Frontieres

Hugo Claudin in his space, Mexicains Sans Frontieres /Tim Motley

Local musican and educator, Theo Ndawillie

Local musican and educator, Theo Ndawillie /Levi Beach

As Hugo Claudin, proprietor of multi-dimensional creative space Mexicains Sans Frontieres, painter, musician and veteran of Grand Rapids art scene puts it, “While we promote the arts and education, little effort is made to promote individual expression, free thought or questioning of the status quo. The way things are going for the arts in Grand Rapids, things are good for stay-at-home moms that like to paint, and drink wine, while copying a work of art once famous, made most likely, by a dead white male.”

What does the cult of the dead white male artist mean for the rest of us? My name is Benjamin Davey, working and writing from the privileged perspective of an able-bodied cis-white male whose activities center around the creative community. It can be easy to use my privilege to dismiss issues of race and inequality as someone else’s problem. Which is a perfect illustration of what privilege looks like, and therefore is the problem.

Recognizing that privilege, and my role in the community, my first question was “what do I do now?”

"It’s important for the arts community to always have fresh new voices, and to be leaders in ending the racial segregation in Grand Rapids,” says local artist and educator Mike Saunders. 

In a time when the news and social media are filled to with story after story of tensions between peers, police, and political figures over race/gender/ability issues, citizens are trying to understand the deep reaching, complicated and nuanced nature of these well established power imbalances. I can start by celebrating intervention where it exists. As a music organizer I wanted to begin to understand and explore some of the art programs that address underlying social disadvantages and find ways to support the educators and young artists involved in those programs.

Theo Ndawillie II is an instructor and head of the Composition department at the Triumph Music Academy, located in the East Hills neighborhood, and a classically trained pianist, composer and drummer in local favorite Vox Vidorra. When asked about his experience as an African American performer and educator, he shared “This year a Forbes contributor ranked Grand Rapids 51st out of the 52 largest cities in America where blacks are doing well economically. So our city is one of the least economically friendly to blacks.”

“If you want to talk about disparities,” Heartside/Avenue of the Arts resident Hugo Claudin adds, “I invite any reader to look at a Google map of the city and see where the trees are. The concentration of foliage will show you where the money is. Those brown areas are where the poor people in Grand Rapids live. More than likely there are no art programs in those areas and coincidentally policing there is very different than in East Hills or East Grand Rapids.”

Access to educational programming and resources are one of the most instrumental factors in continuing this cycle of social disparity. In 2008, Harvard Family Research Project published After School Programs in the 21st Century: Their Potential and What It Takes to Achieve It (Little, Wimer, & Weiss). According to this brief, “A decade of research and evaluation studies, as well as large-scale, rigorously conducted syntheses looking across many research and evaluation studies, confirms that children and youth who participate in afterschool programs can reap a host of positive benefits in a number of interrelated outcome areas—academic, social/emotional, prevention, and health and wellness.”

Digging deeper into afterschool educational programming, the Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities (GAAH), located in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood, operates to enrich the lives of neighborhood youth through diverse and engaging programs. Steffanie Rosalez works for the GAAH as Program director at the Cook Arts Center.

“The disparities in access and opportunities in the neighborhood needed to be addressed," , she explains. "Our programs all center around the arts and humanities but we definitely use these focuses as tools for engaging and empowering youth and families in many aspects of life, and both of our facilities- the Cook Arts Center and the Cook Library Center- exist to be safe, shared community spaces that neighborhood residents claim ownership over, and help drive the programming to meet their own needs and interests.“

Rosalez is also the President of the Girls Rock! (GR!GR) Grand Rapids program.

“Girls Rock! camp is my favorite program because we dive so deeply into all the things that matter most to me," Rosalez says. "Using music as a tool for equity and empowerment for women and girls is nearest and dearest to my heart!”

The GR!GR program is run by a volunteer group of women who are dedicated to providing safe and empowering spaces for girls and women to learn, explore and create together.

“When I was a kid all I wanted to do was play guitar and sing, and there was no opportunities for me beyond classical training," says Lena Nieboer, one of the volunteers and member of the band Flushed. "A few women that I know and I talked a lot about how we’d love to work with girls and introduce them to songwriting, without the focus being on the technical aspect of music, but rather to help them put their thoughts into a song that would make them feel good about creating something. So we had our first meeting at a coffee shop and Girls Rock! Grand Rapids began.”

A program that takes another approach to education, engaging urban teens to affect social change through applying design thinking, arts and technology to critical thinking, inquiry and practical application in the community is the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT). Located in the Heartside Neighborhood, but serving a variety of schools, WMCAT works to give adults and teens a voice to change their world. Their full scope of programming empowers 166 students annually. WMCAT teaching artist Mike Saunders uses his passion for audio and video production to connect his students with opportunities that exist in Grand Rapids.

“It’s important for the arts community to be leaders in ending the racial segregation in Grand Rapids, to recognize massive talent, and to give it a platform," he says. "I’ve worked at WMCAT for less than one year and have come across a number of students with massive talent. As people who love art and music we are missing out by not engaging more with the youth of GRPS.”

TJ, a 17-year-old U Prep High student and participant in Saunders’ Audio Production class, is a talented songwriter performing under the name A Rose In December. His song “Monster” recently aired on WYCE, and he will be performing at the upcoming First Friday along the Avenue for the Arts.

Both Saunders and Ndawillie have found creative environments, outside of traditional education institutions, more suited to an exploration of free expression. Saunders cites his creative influences as as far back as high school. His education in filmmaking was “heavily influenced by the Rockford High School TV studio program, working with Toni Perrine and Kim Roberts at GVSU,” yet with music he’s “had very little formal training,” but has “mostly relied on people who have shared interests in music, the work I did at the DAAC was a massive influence. The DIY mentality has been very big for me.”

Supplemental educational programs have sprung up as a response to traditional school system.

“Some friends of mine started Triumph after leaving university feeling artistically frustrated," Ndawillie explains. "Or being held in a prison of limited expression by the confines of prestigious musical academia and Western Classical music theory.” Started in 2011, Triumph is an innovative school of music where students receive individualized programs focusing more on playing together, booking shows and other practical applications over simulated rehearsal.

“I think at the center of Triumph’s core values lays the belief that music, no matter how it’s employed or created is the most fundamental, quintessential language of all life. It is that core value that attracts me to Triumph," he says. "Whether I’m teaching piano, drums or my main focus- composition- lessons I teach are always one big, long conversation about not just music, but life in general because music is the most universal communication tool of all living things.”

As a Heartside/Avenue of the Arts resident, Claudin shares his perspective.

“Despite lots of talk recently about the importance of art and education little has changed for students in Grand Rapids. The Grandville Avenue Arts and Humanities seems to be the most active, along with WMCAT, seem to be about the only programs available to students. The Avenue [of the Arts] is seeking to diversify but most events are attended by white college students who have little money to spend on art," he says. "I have been here 11 years and not much has changed.”

Another privileged white male such as myself may not be a huge part of the solution, but I’m trying to do more. What I can do is give artists a voice on the Avenue for the Arts stage and try to be present and celebrate the agents of change they represent. August 7 at the Avenue for the Arts First Fridays: The Market event, educators, students and artists alike will share the stage. The night will open at 6:00 p.m. with intimate solo performances debuting brand new material from Jacob Bullard (of CARE and Strawberry Heritage) and Eric Andrei (formerly Filmloom), followed by musical and dance performances by Cook Arts Center students. Theo Ndawillie will be unveiling a solo-electronic act he calls Janga just before A Rose in December takes the stage. Closing out the evening with all the power and fury of a thousand rainbow unicorns riding dragons is Flushed. To find out more about the performers check out the event on Facebook or get event details on the Avenue for the Arts website.


The Avenue for the Arts is a neighborhood title for the South Division commercial corridor. We are residential, commercial and nonprofit groups working together in a creative community. We are residents in Heartside, and active participants in shaping change in our neighborhood. In 2005, we chose the Avenue for the Arts as a title to represent our commercial corridor and the projects and events that we create. Because the Avenue is powered by volunteers, guest writers create our Rapidian content. Special thanks to Learning Lab participant Benjamin Davey for his contribution to this piece. Benjamin is Label Coordinator and Media Specialist at Hot Capicola Records, host of Vinyl Thursdays at Harmony Brewing Company, and a generally pretty alright dude.

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