08/11/2014 12:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Wake Up and Face the Music, Chicago

John Roman via Getty Images

In the wake of the Fourth of July holiday weekend in Chicago, where 82 people were shot in an 84-hour window, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Wednesday that Forty Illinois State Police troopers will work with the Chicago Police Department's fugitive unit to apprehend wanted criminals. That's all well and good. Get the fugitives off the street and Chicago will be a little bit safer. Maybe slip down a couple of notches from its "Murder Capital" title bestowed upon it in 2012. But what about future fugitives? The future criminals of America. Kids who are wandering the streets without purpose, turning to lives of crime because they have no other options. What can we do as a society, if anything, to save them?

Chicago native Franklin Vanderbilt, who has spent the past seven years touring as a drummer with Lenny Kravitz, has a suggestion: Start intervention a lot sooner in life. Swap a gun with a guitar or a set of drum sticks and you never know what kind of an influence you can make in a child's life.

You credit the arts in Chicago schools for saving your life. How so?

They definitely saved my life. Arts and determination were my way out.

I was fortunate to have exposure to the arts at a young age. Especially in high school. I attended Carl Schurz High School Music Academy and was involved in the all-city band and orchestra program. The band director, Carl Annis taught me to never give up and instilled a strong work ethic in me. He encouraged me to stay on the path I was on.

I was also in ROTC which taught me discipline. Ricardo Garcia -- who ran the ROTC Drum and Bugle Corps -- was a major mentor and influence in my life. I'm also a product of the Ravinia Jazz Mentors Program. Some of the Chicago greats who took me under their wing were: Ramsey Lewis, Clark Terry, Ernie Adams, Willie Pickins, Orbert Davis and Marlene Rosenberg. They've all played a hand in my career success thus far. Kids need more people like this these days to shift their focus.

In what part of the city did you grow up?

I grew up on Chicago's west side in a neighborhood called K-Town. It was a rough neighborhood. Before I was born, my grandmother was carrying a .38 in her purse. I remember witnessing gang fights. I even saw a dead body in between a house before. But I have to say, that even back then, it was a little different than it is now. It's a lot more intense.

How did you avoid the peer pressure and being a statistic yourself?

For awhile my parents and I lived in my grandparents duplex with my two sisters. And we had a church in the basement of that house. That's where I started to play drums. Because of that church, and that drum set, I kept myself out of trouble.

When I was in school, I had a bad habit of beating on my desk. Because I was able to keep a beat in class, I gained a little popularity. The girls liked it, too (smiles). I would see certain gang members or whatever, one of them considered himself a rapper, and he would look over and he would start rapping. When I realized that people were accepting of what I did, I didn't have to do what they did to be cool.

Do you think the recent school closures in Chicago will contribute to an increase in crime?

I went to Goldblatt Elementary School. This is one of 53 schools -- 61 buildings -- that were closed by the city in 2013. This school saved my life. It pains me to think about the kids -- just like me -- from that same neighborhood, who are without a neighborhood school. What are they supposed to do? Cram a million kids into other buildings, short changing them on their educations and opportunity? If you give kids a strong educational foundation, and a solid family life, they will create opportunities for themselves. Think about it -- do those kids want to be out there shooting and killing each other? Do you think they were born that way? For most of them, this is a last resort.

I was very fortunate to have a very strong family that believed in music, love and God. And that was instilled in me as a child. When I was playing drums nothing could keep me from it.

How was life in Chicago different than it is now?

When I was coming up, there was violence, for sure. It seems like the spirit of depression and violence has increased. Statistics may not show that, but it just seems that there's a lot more hopelessness out there now than there was when I was growing up. Not as many places for kids to turn for help or guidance if they're not receiving it at home. And it all starts at home.

Was music the key to keeping you out of trouble as a child?

In part. But mostly my mother's and father's discipline were responsible. And that's the key here: my father. I had a father in my house growing up. So many kids don't these days. You need the influence of both parents to make a well-rounded kid. My father instilled in me to stand on my own and to go after what I desire.

How old were you when you were first introduced to music?

Since birth. The first person who introduced me to music was my dad. He was a saxophone player and had a record collection that I later inherited. My father and my grandfather took me to a music store downtown to pick out a Ludwig drum set when I was 5 years old. I still have a picture of that drum set. And that's still the brand I play today.

If you could sit down with a child right now who was struggling with peer pressure to join a gang, or hanging with the wrong crowd, what would you tell him or her?

First of all, I believe kids join a gang out of fear. They may be shooting and killing each other, but the root of all that killing is their own fear. What I would tell that person is the definition of fear. To me that is: False Evidence Appearing Real. Fear is not real. I would tell them there is another way out of the situation you don't want to be in. Gang life gets you nowhere. You're lucky if you get to live to be 20. The same energy that you use to become a gang member, take that and look inside of yourself to search for what you truly should be and what you truly desire, because there is a better opportunity and a better life than what is in front of your eyes. And it's up to you to create that world for yourself, because it's possible. You don't have to become a victim of your surroundings. You have the power of choice. And nobody can take that away from you.

How can a child, with little or no family influence, take part in the arts today?

Make programs accessible to kids in the most hard-hit areas -- programs like business, economic, music, social skills -- the kids without that influence at home would have a place to escape. I'm sure these places exist, but for these kids, they seem like they're a million miles away. For me they were accessible; I was able to escape and grabbed on to what I desired. Bottom line: If there's something deep inside of that child that he or she cannot keep away from, nothing will stop him or her from achieving it.

What do you most love about your hometown?

My family, the pizza and that Chicago pride that will never leave me.

What message do you have for the people of Chicago?

The message to my city is this, let's be the cause in our lives, not the effect of negativity and violence. We are the city of big shoulders. And we're great people that achieve great things. We have the power of choice and we should be the masters of our emotions. Let's make the choice to live, not die.


Franklin Vanderbilt is a musician and actor currently living in Los Angeles. His credits include a seven-year stint with four-time GRAMMY-winner, Lenny Kravitz, a 2 1/2 tour with Chaka Khan, and sharing the stage with legends Stevie Wonder and Stanley Clarke. A young and seasoned musician, Franklin continues to focus on his music through songwriting, singing and composition of original music for TV, film and studio recordings. He is currently working on his debut solo album.For more information on Franklin, visit his website at

Police tape photo licensed through © Franklin Vanderbilt photo credit: Karen Bystedt.