The city of Baltimore is no stranger to stories of violence and corruption. In the spring of 2015, Baltimore made national news headlines when Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died from injuries sustained in policy custody.
In light of the trauma many of the city’s African American youth experienced, Ronald McFadden, former teacher at Booker T. Washington Middle School, decided to establish a healthy outlet for students to creatively process and work through their own experiences and feelings. The result was the Urban Choral Arts Society (UCAS).
In an interview with The News-Letter, McFadden, now the artistic director of the UCAS, explained why he wanted to create the group.
“After Freddie Grey was murdered, there weren’t any therapeutic outlets for kids in the area, so I had the kids write and record so they could express how they were feeling,” he said.
As an educator, McFadden wanted to further develop his idea of constructing a positive outlet for children in the community, and thus UCAS was born.
Comprised of adults and students in grades six through 12, UCAS partners with the Eubie Blake Cultural Center in Mount Vernon to provide young people with both one-on-one and collaborative instruction to learn and engage with the arts.
In the past, the students have studied and learned the work of several prominent composers and artists including Colin Lett, Robert Nathaniel Dett, Undine Smith Moore and Rosephanye Powell.
The students are currently studying the work of prominent poet and playwright Langston Hughes. Although Hughes has written about many issues and themes that resonate with UCAS’ role in the community including, race, cultural identity and strength, this current season is centered around one of his most notable themes: dreams.
According to McFadden, this theme was chosen to show students that no matter where they come from or how their communities are depicted in the media, “they should never stop dreaming.”
With the backdrop of Baltimore, one of America’s most culturally rich cities, UCAS gives students the opportunity to level the educational field. They manage to do this by helping them benefit from the surrounding cultural influences while also providing the skills needed to pursue higher education or a career in the arts.
In Baltimore City, African Americans comprise 63 percent of the population. However, only 13 percent of African Americans obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 51 percent of Caucasians, according to the 2017 Racial Wealth Divide Initiative at the Corporation for Enterprise Development.
Carlette Flowers, a parent and member of the Board of Directors for UCAS, explained how the program affects students specifically.
“Sometimes [students] can get captured in the inner-city life, but those are exactly the types of children we want to bring in,” she said.
While the program has offered many students and adults the opportunity to showcase their talents and vocal abilities, it has also given them a place to grow on an individual level and see beyond the city’s violence.
“A lot of violence happens in the city,” Mekai Hines, a 16-year-old baritone in UCAS, said. “So it’s sometimes hard finding things to do.”
As a pre-professional vocalist, Hines enjoys working with professional singers and insists that UCAS is not just a group but a family that supports each other.
“I appreciate every single person in the organization because whether it’s my math homework or singing lessons, I know they are there for me,” Hines said.
According to McFadden, the choir has become an outlet for the group to share their rich understanding of African American music while simultaneously showcasing the exceptional talent that Baltimore’s youth has to offer.
“Being in a choir is bringing people together and I think that’s important,” McFadden said. “There is a lot dividing us, and young people need to see that you need differences in order to create harmony.”
Luckily for UCAS, they have been able to showcase their music and talent across many stages and with different groups ranging in musical styles, cultures, backgrounds and demographics.
For the last two years, UCAS has celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy with the cultural exchange and diverse display of musical styles. This year the group traveled to Lennox, MA to celebrate his life and legacy King, Jr. with the Cantilena Chamber Choir.
While travel engagements help students gain exposure for performance opportunities, they serve a much larger purpose here in the city overall.
“We travel nationally and throughout the city because Baltimore is a national city,” McFadden said. “You may read about the city and the bad press, but we want you to hear and see something positive from the city, like we’re Baltimore Musical Ambassadors.”
Through the contributions of patrons and donors, UCAS continues to showcase the incredible talent within Baltimore schools, while reminding students of color that no matter where they come from, they can flourish and dream.
The group’s next performance, Freedom’s Journey, will be at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center on Saturday, June 8 at 7 p.m.