Growing up, rapper Molina Speaks struggled to find mentors among older musicians. So in 2017, well into his career and wanting to help up-and-comers, he came up with the idea of a professional development fellowship for emerging artists at Youth on Record, the Denver-based music-education nonprofit where he teaches.
“I pitched this program three years ago, seeing the deeper need for a dive into professional development for young people who are looking to make career moves in music and the arts,” he explains.
The idea was a good fit with the organization, originally founded as a social-justice group by the indie hip-hop band Flobots and first named after the group’s debut album, Fight With Tools. The nonprofit was renamed Youth on Record in 2012, and by 2015 had settled in the Mariposa District in Lincoln Park.
For more than a decade, the nonprofit has served young people through various music-education programs, giving them access to in-house recording studios and instructors from bands such as The Other Black, Wheelchair Sports Camp and The Milk Blossoms.
The programming gives the teens an incentive to stay in school while pursuing careers in music. Youth on Record works with public schools and residential treatment programs, and offers on-site after-school programming, as well. The youth it serves are inspired and ambitious. But after graduation, what happens next for those who want to go on to pursue music professionally? Is a career in the arts really viable? That’s what the fellowship attempts to address.
Fellows are at various stages in their professional development, with a variety of goals. Some might want to be national stars, while others prefer to work in and around Denver. The program aims to prepare them for whatever path they choose.
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On Friday, September 6, this year’s fellows will present Mixed Meadows, a showcase of their music and visual art, at the Denver Art Society.
“The first two cohorts of fellows were very rap-driven,” Speaks notes. “This year’s cohort is super-eclectic, with more pop-music sensibilities on one end and then punk sensibilities on the other end. It’s been fun to work with them, and I’ve learned a lot that I will apply to my own creativity.”
The performers include R&B, hip-hop, alternative, folk, punk and experimental musicians, along with an equally varied array of visual artists.
Fellow Edwina Maben describes herself as a singer-songwriter; she’s currently enrolled in the recording-arts program at the University of Colorado Denver. She hopes to continue working as a musician, but also plans to produce other artists.
“Right now I feel pretty solid as a singer-songwriter,” Maben says. “The fellowship program let me explore the purpose of what my artistry could be and helped me define my intentions for myself.
“We’ve been working on this for a month and a half,” she explains. “Planning and coordinating, promoting on social media. It’s basically a giant group project. Most of us didn’t know each other coming in, but we have all been involved in Youth on Record at some point.”
Destino Mondragon, a singer-songwriter and producer, is also a member of this year’s cohort of fellows, and put an engineering degree at the University of Colorado Boulder on hold in order to get more serious about his music. He is currently enrolled in the recording-arts program at Front Range Community College.
“It’s really a great experience,” Mondragon says of the fellowship. “I’ve made a lot of connections, [and] I’ve learned a lot about artist development, which will be beneficial to my own career.”
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As for the show, “It’s going to be such a great time,” he says. “Flowers, expression and variety. There’s going to be a lot of different kinds of art — canvas paintings, audiovisual, poems. It’s a really great community event meant to be an inclusive space for the community to enjoy art and see what underground artists are creating here.”
The day after the show, eight fellows who just completed the program will pitch ideas for how to use up to $2,000 to pursue their artistic endeavors, Speaks says. The fourth cohort will launch this fall.
“My hope is that one of these fellows is going to strike it big one day, remember the impact of Youth on Record, and write a seven-figure check to keep it going for another decade,” he says.