We recently caught up with Co-Founder of ‘Ignite The Voice’ from New Haven, Connecticut -Jess Gilliam. The program which she co-founded with a group of friends from CityKids Safe Space is a non-profit organization that gives kids a platform to be heard artistically, while giving them the tools for new forms of expression. Here is what Jess had to say:
Hi Jess, it’s really nice to meet you. Please give us a little insight into your background?
I was born and raised in New Haven, CT and my parents were pretty involved in the community. My mother was a teacher in the New Haven Public School system for 37 years and my father by trade, worked as a delivery man and Janitor -but he was also very involved in community organizing as a Gospel singer and a Prince Hall Free Mason.
Who were some of your influences growing up?
I had different influences growing up and went through several phases. My parents obviously were big influences, but artistically, I had what was called my “divine 6.” Kinda cheesy I know! But they consisted of Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston and Prince. My alias in middle school was “Mariah Tina Jackson”. I would do talent shows mostly with my friends as the Ike and Turner Review -teach my friends Janet choreography, or sing a Mariah Carey song -that last one I would change, though -my voice was never fitting for her songs, honestly. But I was also really into the music my parents listened to. So Sam Cooke, Carole King, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, and Sly and the Family Stone were also staples in my childhood. I was also a child of the 80's and 90's, so hip hop was always a big part of it as well. As far as the community aspect I’d always looked up to women like Dorothy Height and Ida B Wells. Their histories and examples always inspired me.
How did you become involved with ‘Ignite The Voice’?
I started Ignite The Voice with a group of people I’ve known since high school. We were all part of a performing arts organization called CityKids Safe Space New Haven. CityKids is an organization based in New York City, but in 1996 they opened a chapter in New Haven. We all performed together as part of their Repertory Company I started as a singer but ended up doing more dancing for them.
The bulk of the funding for our space came from Michael Bolton, who is also from New Haven -he came to the space a few times and was very good to us. So in 2015, we realized that there was nothing in New Haven like that anymore, since they closed the New Haven chapter in 2003. We wanted to figure out a way to provide what was so effective for us to young people in our city today. It’s been a very trial and error road. All of us had worked in some form for the New Haven community and had worked for a few non profits, but this was new for all of us.
Is it sometimes challenging working with the students? Do any of them ever give you a hard time?
We have just moved into the phase of organizing creative workshops. Our Self Expressionz program is the artistic element. We began with a journaling series, led by a journalist and author named Stacy Graham Hunt who was also part of CityKids. Then we are moving into a poetry series and a songwriting series. We’ve held several open forums, talent showcases and open mics for young people and we have included performances by professional performers who are also from our community. We did one event where we had professional performers from New Haven give some of the best, most tangible and constructive critiques of the kids after every performance. We made it a point to keep the local aspect of what we do at the forefront. We want the kids to see the wealth of knowledge and opportunity right here in their city from people who come from the same neighborhoods. The kids are never hard to deal with. I have found the challenge more in the organizing. Starting a non profit and building it from the ground up requires a lot of learning and leg work. It also requires making mistakes and learning from them. Follow through is the name of the game.
Are you still singing, yourself?
I am a singer, though I don’t actively sing. I’m out of practice but I feel motivated sometimes to really get back into vocal training. People always told my father how great of a singer he was, but in private he would say to me “I’m really not a great singer, I just holler well. And church folks love a good holler”! He was being modest, but I’d be inclined to say the same about myself.
What are your thoughts on the music industry today?
I think every generation will create new forms of music and new spins on old sounds. I think the older generation will always find reasons to hate it (laughs)that’s just the circle of life! But I do think with every generation there will be some really amazingly creative music made and there will be some trash made as well. I can only hope that the good stuff gets the same amount of radio play and push. I’ve accepted that I’m old now. At 35, I barely listen to the radio. I often find new stuff I like, but I was always an old soul.
What is your best piece of advice for aspiring artists?
I guess my advice would be to find innovative ways of keeping up with the times, but commit to your craft. Technology has changed so much in the industry and there will always be anomalies that seem to make it big. However, nothing will beat consistency and hard work. Mastering your craft will always take you far. I recently attended the Black Girls Rock awards show and I heard Ava Duvernay say something to the effect of “most ‘overnight sensations are actually decades in the making.” And it struck me. It’s true for building a nonprofit organization, for mastering one’s craft and true for building a long lasting career in the performing arts, whether that’s as a singer, dancer, actor, writer, musician, etc.