Violin prodigy Vijay Gupta has dedicated his life to making music a platform for transformative social justice. Now he’s a newly minted MacArthur Fellow. Here’s how Street Symphony evolved from “drive-by Beethoven” to an inclusive, vibrant and still-growing musical community.
You can’t miss Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Its gleaming metallic surfaces vault into the sky like an unlikely ship in the desert, paying tribute to the transcendence of artistic endeavor. Yet, less than two miles away from this grand edifice, the contrast could not be more pronounced. On Los Angeles’s Skid Row, a community of more than 10,000 chronically homeless people live on the streets, financially, physically and socially vulnerable. This did not escape the notice of violinist Vijay Gupta who, at age 19, became the youngest-ever member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2007.
Gupta wasted little time addressing this disparity. As a TED Senior Fellow, he co-founded Street Symphony to bring music and upliftment to Skid Row. Now, seven years later, Gupta has been recognized for this work with a MacArthur Fellowship, which awards a five-year grant to individuals “who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future to allow them to pursue their artistic, intellectual and professional activities.”
We caught up with Gupta to congratulate him, and to find out how Street Symphony has evolved from an outreach program to a vibrant, musically engaged community of its own.
How and why did you get involved with the community on LA’s Skid Row?
While I’d trained as a musician all my life, I also had a background in science — specifically in neuroscience. I was really affected by stories of humanitarian doctors like Paul Farmer, the Doctors Without Borders kind of doctor. I was torn: part of me wanted to be that kind of healer, but I was also drawn to being an artist.
I became the artist — I got the job at the LA Philharmonic at 19. But when I saw Skid Row for the first time, I felt like a hypocrite. I felt I’d chosen a life in the arts because it’s what I loved to do—it was easy and exciting for me. But I also realized public health works were needed in downtown LA. I didn’t need to travel the world like Paul Farmer. It was a devastating existential moment for me. I didn’t know how to engage with this part of the world that was in such horrifying pain.
In your first TED Talk, you spoke of meeting and teaching musician Nathaniel Ayers, then living on Skid Row—which helped catalyze Street Symphony into being.
Yes. Nathaniel had, like me, studied at Juilliard — but he’d grappled with some serious mental health issues. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia early in life, then spent 20 years living homeless in the 2nd Street tunnel.
He had instruments with him: a violin, a trumpet and a flute, and he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of music. We were introduced by LA Timescolumnist Steve Lopez, who was writing a book about him. I started out by giving Nathaniel lessons at Disney Hall, and we became close friends. Here was a brother, someone I loved, yet I didn’t know where his next meal was going to come from. I didn’t know where he was sleeping that night. I saw the power of music to support him emotionally, psychologically. In essence, Street Symphony started because I wanted to connect with other Nathaniels.
Street Symphony seems to have evolved tremendously since its inception.
When Street Symphony started, it only involved professional musicians performing classical music to folks in Skid Row, but that’s no longer the case.
Isn’t it a little bit intrusive to bring music into a community, and then just leave?
It was totally intrusive; you are exactly right. I now call that phase “drive-by Beethoven”—where we would come by and play two movements of a Beethoven quartet and some Christmas carols, and say, “Hey, you predominantly poor community of color, listen to some music written by some dead white guys, and now you’re better for it.” That is how we, in the classical music world, typically approach “outreach.”
But the miraculous thing was the response from the audience. Often in the middle of a movement, or right after it, someone would raise their hand to speak. They’d say, for example, “That music reminds me of a time when I felt this. What was the composer feeling when they wrote it?” That was almost a shocking question to us. That prompted us to respond by doing research, looking, say, into the letters the composer was writing in their life during that time, or the historical context of the piece. We’d then bring that back into the dialogue.
Now, when we present music, we want to hear stories from the community before we even start playing — so we’ve moved from outreach into engagement.
One story I love telling: we once took a Schumann string quartet into Twin Towers Jail, which is effectively the planet’s largest psychiatric facility. There’s over 5,000 mentally ill people incarcerated there. Schumann was diagnosed as having some kind of probably schizo-affective disorder, and you can hear it in his music. An inmate in the county jail said, “You know, Schumann died in a place like this.” Here was someone who had studied music, who could say “Schumann’s life was a lot more like mine than it is like yours.”
This was humbling for us. It became clear that our job didn’t end when we left. So the mission of the organization became advocacy. We became aware of the interlocking systemic issues that lead to disenfranchisement like structural violence, systemic racism, the intersection between a community of 10,000 people who are homeless in Skid Row and the largest county jail system on the planet.
How did you make the structural leap of being a hit-and-run performing organization to an engaged community advocacy organization?
We’ve stopped referring to our events as “concerts,” for one thing. We put on up to 80 events a year, and they’re really kind of engagements, conversations. Each of these events is convened by a community partner, whether that’s a shelter or a clinic. We always find someone in the audience who’s a member of the community to be our emcee. Also, most events have a performer or a presenter who’s a member of the community. So truly, the Skid Row community takes ownership of the event.
We also now have a number of Skid Row musicians who have been taking lessons with musicians from the Street Symphony professional roster — voice, violin lessons. We have an all-female mariachi ensemble, we have a reggae ensemble that’s run by a DJ who lives in Skid Row. We’re hiring paid musicians from the Skid Row community to perform alongside us in Street Symphony, and they’re on our staff, too.
So that’s been the biggest change — is that we’ve gone from drive-by Beethoven to music actually being a sanctuary. Music creates a safe space for a conversation, not only for members of the Skid Row community, but also for our donors, the city, and policymakers.
Why is that space and dialogue necessary, and why does it have to happen on Skid Row itself?
Too often, the Skid Row community is not seen as a community. They’re seen as a problem, or an urban blight that can be erased. We want to show that no, this is a community, and one that is intact. It has lives and stories that matter.
In fact, those stories are integral to our understanding of what it means to be in Los Angeles, what it means to be in a city—what it means to be living in our world today. Mental health and disenfranchisement and racism are things we all grapple with every single day, but maybe as we do with Skid Row, we’ve pushed those things down, and tried to ignore them.
Should part of Street Symphony’s goal be to help people off Skid Row into homes, into jobs?
Yes, part of our job is to move people into a better economic state — but it’s not to determine what they should do with their lives. We offer an honorarium to every musician who participates in any Street Symphony program, so the same honorarium is extended to members of the Skid Row community. Of course, $150 or $250 dollars for a professional musician is something taken for granted as a fee. For a member of the Skid Row community, art is not a form of entertainment. It’s a lifeline, and the acknowledgement of their professional service with an honorarium is something that goes a lot further.
Yet what’s also humbling is that people don’t want to abandon their community. We have a violinist right now who has gone back to school at Cal State Northridge. He’s used his honorarium from Street Symphony to get a car. Two years ago, he was taking three buses every day, one way, from Skid Row to Northridge to finish his degree, in his 40s. He’s four years sober and now lives in an apartment in Skid Row.
It’s a big deal for him to now be able to have a car but stay living in his community. Today, he shows up as one of the primary emcees of Street Symphony events, and it’s powerful when he says, “I was sitting where you’re sitting right now, and this is my life, and I live down the street, but I’m still in your community.”
The bigger issue is policy makers and people in LA who say, “We don’t want a homeless shelter in our backyard.” LA has the funds, through a proposition called HHH — we passed $1.2 billion dollars of funding to build sustainable housing. So the work of Street Symphony is to say, “Whether you like it or not, these people have always been your neighbors, and they’re part of your community.”
Isn’t there a lot of vacant space in downtown that might be repurposed for housing?
One of the goals I’d like to explore in the next five years is to actually acquire spaces in downtown LA. That means we’d work with developers who often own those vacant buildings, in whose best interest it is that those buildings remain vacant so that more housing can be created for hipsters like me.
We’d argue that this is a vital community that deserves space so that we can teach music lessons, and have community gathering spaces with some permanent supportive housing attached to them. Ultimately we’d not just be bringing people through the doors but giving them a home because of music.