By Jelah Anderson
LOS ANGELES — The Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles started as a small ensemble renting out the hall at Walt Disney to play concerts. The ensemble since then has grown and received the opportunity to perform at the NFL Honors, but because of space limitations only about half got the chance to perform.
The ICYOLA was started in 2009 by a group of nine students and executive director and conductor Charles Dickerson III. The ensemble is the largest majority Black orchestra in America with about 70 members currently. The group became a California 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 2011.
“This is a Black orchestra, like the orchestra was founded by Black people, for Black people, for people of color, especially,” said Akilah Morgan, director of programs for ICYOLA. “We’re playing this in a classical musical art form, and that’s not something that you generally see Black people playing, and we just, we’re not there, we’re not represented in those spaces. So, I think for us, this orchestra was so important to us, because we’re seeing people that look like us.”
The initial group of nine quickly grew to 25 members by the end of the summer of 2009. Students from all walks of life came to join the orchestra whether or not they had playing skills. Members as young as 10 were encouraged to join, regardless of musical experience.
“It was just kind of like, hey, if you can play at the level that we need you to play for this, come and join us. If you can’t, we’ll help you get to that point,” Morgan said.
Many members have had the experience of being the only Black person in an orchestral ensemble, so ICYOLA was a change of pace for them.
Matthew Dudley, a violinist, is one of the earliest members of the orchestra. He grew up in South Pasadena, a majority white and Asian neighborhood. He was the only Black person in his orchestra class at South Pasadena High School.
“I’ve grown up being kind of used to me being one of the only people I see,” Dudley said. “Like just the camaraderie between all of us, it’s definitely like the vibe. It’s just very different from where I was from.”
ICYOLA alumni frequently come back to help current members because they want to give back to a place that has given so much to them. The bonds and friendships created are just as important as the music being learned to the ensemble, according to Morgan.
“We feel like it’s very important to have those people who are able to give back to our students and who our students can learn from sitting side by side with them, because it’s just, it’s something that’s worked for us,” Morgan said. “And I think it’s really helpful for our students as well.”
Hannah Innis joined ICYOLA in seventh grade and is now a student at Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C. She said she plans to go back to LA during her school breaks to help the students.
“When I came home for winter break, I went to rehearsal, and I’m going home for spring break, March 5, and I fully intend on being at rehearsal March 6,” Innis said.
The orchestra performs eight to 10 shows during concert season across Los Angeles, concluding their season at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
“I think it’s really something that’s really important for our community, to see our kids on that stage and to be able to just promote excellence in that way,” Morgan said. “It’s also important to the kids, and I think those kinds of opportunities like we went to D.C, I think in 2011, for the unveiling of Dr. (Martin Luther) King’s statue. We’ve performed for Michelle Obama. We’ve done a lot of really amazing things.”
Jelah Anderson is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @jelahmichelle.