Midway through the concert, the Sun Theater’s spotlight in St. Louis was on 13-year old Thomas Mack. He was performing a song called “Never Backing Down,” a song he’d written with Maryville University graduate student Ryan Eversole.
Then came the third verse.
Man you was just 18
Bout to head to college
Tryin’ to chase a big dream
It’s pretty hard to hear your momma and your daddy scream
Same story, hoodies on, but a different scene
We all have the same blood
We all bleed the same
Shot down in broad daylight
Can’t you feel the pain
My momma lost my daddy too, he was the same age
I was 6 months and 13 days
You hear the feelings when I rap that same line
I’m kind of blind by the way of mankind
Every step I take is death to me
I’m trying to carry on his legacy.”
Eversole, Mack’s mentor, was beaming from the crowd. “It was a really incredible moment, very moving and powerful,” he says. “When you’re writing a song, you get the passion and the power of the words, but it’s not a performance. Seeing it all come together live in front of everyone…the passion and emotion in the song really came out.”
The “Courage Counts Showcase” concert was the culmination of an eight-week program, called Life Compositions, that matched music therapy students from Maryville University with sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students of Confluence Academy Old North. The goal? To write songs about the trials and tribulations of growing up in urban areas.
For Mack and other junior high students at the St. Louis academy, Ferguson isn’t merely mediaspeak.
It’s an area less than 10 miles north of their school on I-70 W, and for them, the images appearing on televisions and laptop screens across the nation in the last several months have been happening outside of their windows.
“The dean told me there was one week when every story that happened in the news affected a kid in the school,” says Brian Owens, the artist-in-residence for the St. Louis Symphony and the spearhead behind Life Compositions. “It was crime, arson, murder.”
The idea for the project came when Owens asked the choir director, Lynette Ward, what he considers now a “stupid question.” “I was kind of naïve to the make-up of the school, and I asked her, ‘Do you have any kids in your choir who have experienced urban trauma?’” Owens says. “She said, ‘Everybody.’”
Owens decided to adapt the model of an existing Maryville program called “Kids Rock Cancer.” That program places a music therapist with a child or one of their loved ones dealing with cancer and other long-term illnesses and explores their emotions through song. Owens saw this model as a natural fit for children dealing with the traumas of an urban environment, and even an imperative one.
“One of the kids in the program was a snap away from being expelled. They said his behavior changed ‘night and day’ because of the program,” Owens says. “In the lives of certain kids, this could be the difference in so many ways.”
The six students selected had already shown an aptitude for songwriting, and for the Maryville University mentors, it was a process of channeling their energies into a finished work. Their first sessions together consisted of no music, simply dialogue. Mentors learned the lives of these students, and while their own lives often lacked much resemblance, it was the honest conversation that most often bridged the gap.
“What really helped me in the process was coming in and laying it bare,” mentor Sarah Michaelis says. “It doesn’t seem like they get a lot of opportunities to express and explore some of the things that they’ve heard adults talking about or read in the news. I was coming from such a different place that, if I didn’t understand what he was talking about, I’d ask about it.”
Their responses were often confessional and poignant reflections that ended up in the lyrics of their songs. Like Thomas Mack’s song, which takes a caustically political topic—the shooting of Michael Brown—and adds a perspective to it that has yet to be heard. “Hearing a voice of a kid in the community talking about it is so much more important than hearing a newscaster from a different state trying to give perspective on what happened and how it impacted the community,” Eversole says. “It’s such a national situation that somehow lost the voice of St. Louis.”
The concert at the Sun Theater culminated with a song about courage that featured Owens and the entire choir. It came from a recording session where Owens had the students write down what courage meant to them. “We had everything from it takes courage to stand up for what’s right and to sing in front of people,” Owens remembers, “to it takes courage to wake up in the middle of the night crying because you are hungry and you know there is no food to eat, and it takes courage when you have to watch your uncle be shot in front of you and die.”
This is why he sees the program as being so vital, to tell these stories now in the hope of creating a dialogue that leads to positive change, not only in St. Louis, but elsewhere around the world. In the future, Owes hopes the Life Compositions program will eventually expand to schools across the city, and in the fall, Owens plans to institute it at a school in his own hometown of Ferguson. His vision is simple, but it isn’t easy: hope in turbulent times.
For him, music is the best medicine.
“Music doesn’t need a plane ticket, it just needs an open heart. We live in a world and a culture of broken and hurt people that are looking for hope,” he says. “Art is a way to extend that to people.”