Chicago street musicians convert “non- believers”

By Yingxu Jane Hao & Satvika Khera


alik Cohran has performed in Chicago his whole life.

He is the son of legendary Chicago jazz musician Kelan Phil Cohran, who is best known for his trumpet performances in the Sun Ra Arkestra in the early ‘60s.

“I’m a person who loves music. I’m fortunate enough to be someone who decided as a kid what I wanted to do,” Cohran said.

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Malik Cohran and Ronald Christian play on Michigan Avenue.(Yingxu Jane Hao & Satvika Khera/MEDILL)

At 13, Cohran shared the stage with iconic jazz singer Al Jarreau.

“It was my first gig to play in front of him. I didn’t know who he was,” he recalled.

After performing at a major jazz festival at the age of 18, Cohran started to play on his own. He made his debut on the streets in 1985.

Cohran’s music partner, Ronald Christian, started singing in church at the age of five, and was a part of singing groups all through the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. He later met Cohran, a bass player then, and they’ve played together for over 30 years.


“Music is life,” said Christian, now 66. “Without it, the world would be nothing.”

Why on the street?

“I’m on the street because I can make my own hours, and it’s easier. I know the money gonna come,“ he said.

That Sunday, they earned nearly $160 over a 90-minute stretch at the Tribune Tower at Michigan Avenue.

Cohran and Christian paid $100 for a two-year street performer license. They also have a $10 a year performer’s permit to play at CTA stations.
Click to see the rules about street performing in Chicago.

Click to see the rules about CTA station performing in Chicago.

“Some people look at us like we are homeless, or hungry, but it’s not the case. We are just artists. We love what we do. That’s what we do full-time,” said Christian.

Cohran calls passer-bys who mock street musicians “non-believers.”

“I never let them affect me,” he said. But it makes them feel good when they sometimes “convert non-believers” with their music.

“A lot of time people come up and say ‘you made my day.’ That makes me feel good,” said Christian. “Sometimes it’s better than money.”


Photo at top: Malik Cohran and Ronald Christian play on Michigan Avenue. They’ve played on the streets and CTA platforms for 30 years. (Yingxu Jane Hao & Satvika Khera/MEDILL)