I attended a briefing this past week that still has me glowing with inspiration. It was a reminder of the miraculous potential of service and the raw power of music. Both can stir the imagination. Both can change lives.
Kiff Gallagher, a friend from our shared time on the 1992 Clinton/Gore campaign, came down to Los Angeles for the day. He was hosted by ServiceNation and William Morris Endeavor Entertainment. The agency provided him with a boardroom and an audience of 18 or so people, including leading voices from a range of LA institutions. There was representation from City Hall, the philanthropic offices of producer/activist Norman Lear, local businesses like Toyota and CAA, even the Kanye West Foundation.
Kiff dazzled the room with a presentation of his entrepreneurial passion project, Music National Service, and the corollary MusicianCorps, which is best described as a domestic peace corps staffed by artists and musicians. These individuals spend two years in under-served communities, ostensibly teaching music to young people in at-risk situations. In reality, these people are using their gifts to mend the civic fabric and strengthen the public good, one note at a time.
Kiff is a remarkable person, animated by an almost hip-hop energy and uniquely suited to realize his audacious vision. He worked under the legendary Eli Segal to establish the original Americorps program in the early years of the Clinton Administration. Since then, he has been an organizer in the social enterprise field as the former ED of Social Venture Network and deeply understands the nexus of the arts, entrepreneurship and community. All the while, he has been playing in bands, writing music, and growing as an artist.
Perhaps more than ever, music is a universal language with boundless appeal. I see countless students here at UCLA wandering about campus lost in their iPods. American Idol still sets the pace of primetime, though Glee is now the hottest thing on TV. Even as I write this post, I am enjoying Pandora, which is open all the time in my browser. And its been proven that music education improves the cognitive skills and learning capacities of our children.
Yet it is disappearing from our schools.
The statistics are staggering, but arts education has become an endangered species, a victim of shrinking school budgets and our relentless Race to the Top. Beyond the data that proves its benefits, the stories of people rescued by music -- giants like Johnny Cash, Tina Turner, Usher or even Lee DeWyze -- are legendary.
Music can serve as a potent antidote to the hopelessness that seem to grip so many communities. Not as a substitute for hard skills like mathematics or science. Instead, as a gateway drug that can turn on the latent intellectual genes in young people, activating their creative abilities and stimulating their minds. Music knows no color, no class, no religion. It has the power to pull together the disparate and disenfranchised like almost no other force in our fractured and fragmenting culture.
For these reasons, MusicianCorps seems like an absolutely critical add for a mixed-up metropolis like Los Angeles whose identity is inextricable from the arts -- let alone for other communities across the country. Music National Service is an idea whose time has come. It fills a gap that we desperately need. And it serves a purpose like no other.
So who will lead? Kiff already has sketched out the game plan. We just need some Angelenos to step up to the plate. Perhaps it will be one of our leading philanthropists who understands music like David Geffen or Haim Saban; a local personality with a commitment to education like Eli Broad or Fernando Espuelas; a business leader from the music industry like Michael Rapino, Kevin Wall or Jason Flom; a dedicated public servant like Eric Garcetti or Bob Blumenfield; a mega-artist who believes in giving back like Usher or Kayne; or even a local social entrepreneur who wants to help make it happen.
To paraphrase VH1, lets hope the City of Angels can save the music -- and perhaps save ourselves at the same time.
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