BALTIMORE — Chelsea Gasque nervously adjusted her headset in the mirror. It was recording day for the 12-year-old Baltimore resident, who stood on her tiptoes as she put her mouth to the microphone.
“Check, check.” Giggle.
The makeshift studio, with a mirror on one wall and crookedly cut foam boards on another, is home base for the underprivileged kids in Believe in Music, a program in which they learn to write and record their own songs. Tucked into the corner of a dance studio-plus-classroom at the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center in East Baltimore, it doubles as the office of Kenny Liner, 36, a former professional musician who four years ago founded Believe in Music, part of the Living Classrooms Foundation.
The tiny blue room is a distant cry from the recording studio at WTMD-FM, an NPR member station based at Towson University, where Chelsea and eight of her Believe in Music classmates recorded an original song in May alongside members of high-profile Baltimore bands such as Future Islands, Lower Dens and Celebration. The lyrics and melodies that the students created in class were transformed into a song by Baltimore-based musician Cara Satalino. The collaboration, released Wednesday and aptly titled “Believe in Baltimore,” calls for unification and peace in the community.
Over drumstick beats, a chorus of youthful voices sings out:
This city is where we live
This city is where we come from
Written just weeks after violent protests broke out in April in response to the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal injury in police custody, the students’ words are laden with equal parts uncertainty (“Who’s gonna save Baltimore?”), anger (“People outside trying to tell us how to live/ They teach us to hate, then ask us to forgive”) and hope (“Unification can show the whole nation/ That we are together by association”).
In the Believe in Music classroom last week, the dozen students in Liner’s class were polishing and rehearsing their lyrics for a new project as they awaited their turn in the studio. One of the “Believe in Baltimore” lead singers, 12-year-old Taniyah Kutcherman, pored over a notebook page with Caleah Pulley, 9.
“It’s supposed to be happy,” instructed Taniyah, a lithe middle schooler with rectangular glasses and a knowing smile. “You can add a happy part.”
Taniyah was listening to Meghan Trainor when rioters came down her street. With her headphones firmly on, she bobbed her head to “All About That Bass” and tried to ignore the shouting outside her front door.
“We’ve heard from the politicians and we’ve heard from the media, but we haven’t really heard from the kids,” says Sam Sessa, the Baltimore music coordinator at WTMD who spearheaded the project. “You listen to the song, and the kids don’t sugarcoat it. They’re not hiding anything.”
Believe in Music students vividly remember what life was like during the unrest. Many of them were in class with Liner when the violence started, when worried parents began calling and texting, and the singing abruptly stopped. The kids were scared, Liner says. They didn’t know how to react. They huddled together and talked over their plans for getting home.
They watched as stores they frequented were looted and burned. And like most in the community, their feelings about the protests are complicated. Many said they wish the demonstrations could have been peaceful; some blame the rioters for inciting chaos in already-maligned neighborhoods; all agree that Freddie Gray shouldn’t have died.
The story that made national headlines had searing effects on their daily lives. Caleah says that all the stores in her vicinity were robbed, “even the hair store.” Yamaudi Pinder, 15, says, “I felt the pain of the people who couldn’t get their medicine because the Rite Aid was shut down.”
But even while speaking solemnly about the ways in which residents were affected, they try to look past the violence that has become commonplace in a city that experienced 144 homicides through the first six months of the year, a 48 percent increase over 2014, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Taniyah shrugged when she mentioned that a man was recently shot down the street from her house. The kids are used to their parents telling them not to go outside. Danger is as present in their daily lives as more conventional kids’ stuff, such as the school ice cream social that Taniyah was invited to by another student.
As one of the oldest students, Yamaudi says she isn’t worried for herself because she only has two more years before she leaves for college.
“I’m more scared of losing one of my younger sisters,” she says. “The smallest one is only 3 years old. She’s still got her whole life here.”
The soft-spoken Yamaudi sings one of the lead parts in “Believe in Baltimore” with Taniyah, Amira Winchester, 12, and Caprice Martin, 12. A few years ago, Yamaudi says, she fell into a depression from which music seemed to offer the only reprieve. Her parents were in the middle of a divorce, and she began writing poetry with dark themes — pain, self-mutilation and death. Yamaudi purchased T-shirts with Kurt Cobain’s face on them; she relied on Nirvana and Pearl Jam to make sense of her emotions.
“Things are a lot better now,” Yamaudi says. After she joined Believe in Music two years ago, she started to see her future more clearly. Now she dreams of attending Spelman College in Atlanta and getting signed by Columbia Records.
When Sessa contacted Lower Dens about “Believe in Baltimore,” singer-songwriter Jana Hunter says they leapt at the chance to help bridge divides in the city.
“These kids are coming from a neighborhood that’s mostly black and mostly poor, and most of us [professional musicians] working on the song are mostly white and mostly not-poor,” Hunter says. “Baltimore is one community, but it acts like two. We need to fix that.”
Yamaudi is determined to move out of the city after high school, but she says she will miss the malls, the diversity and the familiarity of it all. “Baltimore is a big-small place,” she says with a smile. “There are so many people, but everybody knows everybody.”
This “big-small place” is what you see in the “Believe in Baltimore” music video created by Chris LaMartina and 15Four productions. Shots pan to a glistening skyline and graffitied brick walls, kids shooting hoops outside and old men playing chess. In harmony and with hope, Taniyah and Yamaudi croon, “We should come together and restore our own.”