We’ve returned from LA with dashes of joy, plenty of truth to discern, and love for everyone who supported us and made the event possible! We’re grateful and still growing amid lessons in community support, self-advocacy, and grace.
If you’ve heard Markita’s song “Three Chords” before, there’s a line in the chorus that goes:
“I’ve got three chords in my pocket. Their names are: Joy, Truth, and Love.
They make the world go round, I can hear it by the way they sound.” -Markita Moore, Three Chords
I’ll organize this reflection in that spirit.
We found lots of joy from simple moments:
Like having gentle sunlight and mild rain and sand beneath our feet (instead of gray skies and a sparse sprinkle of frozen snowflakes) in the middle of February. Or when we arrived and had to find food, getting advice from a local woman that a sandwich from Subway was going to be the most affordable option for us in an area where everything was overpriced. We met another generous woman, Paula, who between working several jobs helped us navigate the bus & metro system even going an extra stop to show us the proper connection to take for our hotel. Our gratitude to the kindness of fellow bus and metro riders who helped us get from the airport to Hollywood can’t be emphasized enough as well as the hospitality of the staff–from security to room service and cleaning crews–at the Hotel we stayed at.
We also encountered several challenging truths.
What struck me (Ian) most about the experience came from experiencing the city through all of its public transportation and seeing the disparity between more impoverished communities, and the completely different dimension of affluence that comes with living in Hollywood. Los Angeles is like Detroit if Detroit were to age and grow times 300% unchecked: it’s horribly sprawled out (imagine trying to set up a small mom and pop restaurant in the middle of the Southfield/96 junction next to warehouses and hotels), it relies a ton on car transportation, they have a more functional and slightly better connected bus/rail system, the weather and whatever natural areas you can have access to are beautiful, there are very wealthy and very impoverished places sometimes just a few streets away, cultural diversity tends to happen in small segregated pockets outside the wealthy areas, and the people you run into that are rooted in their communities are often very supportive and welcoming.
It’s easy to forget that where you live can trick you into thinking about what’s normal in the rest of the world and the perspective gained from our journey from Michigan to Hollywood and back again will remain memorable even with all its associated challenges. In Hollywood’s hills, it’s possible for whole neighborhoods to be made up of mansions in the hills, and meals could easily surpass $200 a day per person. Riding the bus routes, it’s possible to forget that there are people who never have to think twice about whether using Lyft, Uber, or a taxi would put their credit card beyond the limit (this was a real concern for us).
Navigating public transit that didn’t accommodate for people who have trouble walking or are encumbered (having escalators/elevators shut down while carrying luggage with an injured knee can be a real challenge when walking a lot), the costs and consequences of travel on public transportation for low-income people and their communities, are things we all probably hear about or even personally experience in our own communities here in Michigan.
In Michigan, I often work in places or stay with people who are already part of this or that community and know I have places I can go even if there are problems. It’s another thing to experience a city as a stranger to someone else’s community or bus line. In some parts of L.A., missing a stop could mean not having enough money to make it through a rough neighborhood with luggage and no one to host or back you up in the night.
At the same time, there’s a certain familiarity and sense of solidarity you can sense when someone from LA to assume you’re from the area and starts talking about exactly the same kinds of problems we experience in Detroit. For example, late/no-show buses and how people wind up missing parts of their classes or work despite doing everything right to prepare (a woman I spoke with planned to arrive 45 minutes early in case the bus was late by 15-30 minutes and the bus was still too late for her class because it came 45-50 minutes late).
As to the studio visit: It’s easy to see how naive musicians get churned by the industry. What I mean by that is that it’s easy for someone to get used by another organization without knowing how to recognize it, how and when to speak up for their self, or even by being pressured to do things they didn’t anticipate they’d do like speak on behalf of a product, person, or program that they don’t know anything about.
I lost some of my hearing during the studio visit (they’ve got very powerful speakers and I forgot my earplugs in the other room) which in a roundabout way probably adds pressure to the music industry’s bias toward favoring young musicians over the older ones. Markita was asked to do a filmed interview that she didn’t feel prepared for. As I understood it, DJ Mustard churns out hundreds of tracks which are then chosen by a different agent/artist to sing over. Much of his success comes from the sheer volume of work, and he gets paid enough that even 1/100 of his tracks getting picked keeps him among millionaires at this point in life–and it doesn’t really matter what message the vocalist wants to convey, he just makes the beats and an agent or manager might do the matchmaking. That’s serious “churn” if you’re not in a position to work through those kinds of conditions or advocate for better alternatives.
On the other hand, it’s easy to see how challenging it would be for an organization like the VH1 Foundation to get stretched thin when doing a contest/experiential prize reward. I personally (not speaking on behalf of the band or Markita) think because Markita and I are both musicians and still work/have worked with music education that the kind of focus we had on wanting to record, or learn from DJ Mustard made it challenging for VH1 to accommodate and fulfill their contracted obligations in full for the reward. We weren’t able to record in studio or make a track with DJ Mustard’s guidance–Markita can speak more to details and her disappointments about this–though we did get to meet him in a studio and I’m grateful for the experience.
After that, we stopped by an open mic in Santa Monica where Santa Monica locals warmly greeted us and we got to enjoy the company of musicians making some genuine blues straight-from-the-heart (thank you for streaming us too, Jenny Zepp!).
One of our fondest memories from the trip was meeting another fiddler Thomas Letchworth and jamming at the airport to entertain other exhausted fellow passengers while waiting for delayed flights. Here’s a brief clip (the camera ran out of memory) of that magical moment which we hope you can enjoy too. Thank you again to everyone who made it possible for us to have a place in the contest and to VH1’s Save the Music Foundation for indulging us with the trip to LA.