Beth King, 44, is deputy director and director of development and communications at Intonation Music, a Bronzeville-based organization that helps Chicago youth make music on their own terms. She believes that music is community, and that community is where meaningful change starts.
As told to Jamie Ludwig
Music has always meant community to me. I moved around too much as a kid. I went to four schools for eighth and ninth grade, but I could always find somebody who abused black eyeliner like I did, which meant they shared my politics and the music I liked. When I was 13, my mom sent me from Cleveland to LA to live with my dad, but it was easy to find community around music no matter where I was living. Sometimes that was really terrible hardcore with way too many rules and misogyny, but it all led me to get into local politics.
For most of my 20s I worked in local government in Portland, Oregon, with the most incredible mayor [Vera Katz], who taught me so much about what could be accomplished through sheer determination and creative problem-solving. I’d been scraping together a community college education, not knowing how to do anything, and knowing I would never be the smartest person in the room. The story of my life has kind of been: work as hard as possible and try and outwork everybody. I did nine years in Portland, so when I came to Chicago in 2005, it was like coming home.
In the midwest, it’s kind of taboo to be an asshole. There’s a sense of community, and people want to do good, so you look around and see how you can help and you just hustle. I initially came here to help a friend open a gallery, and it was the purest experience of sales, buying and selling art and antiques.
My father, who is legitimately kind of a con man—when I moved in with him at 13, he was a professional gambler—was so excited. He was like, “Every job in the world is sales. You have to connect with people and make them invest in your story or way of doing things.” I always thought, “That’s gross.” But now as a fundraiser, when people ask “How the hell can you do that?” I tell them, “I’m providing people with opportunity. This is the greatest job in the world.”
I got my master’s for free while working at DePaul’s College of Education and learning how to be a fundraiser. And I was a scholarship administrator too. So I felt like Robin Hood. I was raising the money to give it away, and talking to a lot of kids who were like myself.
I didn’t get my bachelor’s till I was 28. It was wonderful to be an older student and really think about, “This is what I want to learn: how to think and research and reason.” During this time, I also allowed myself to be immersed in music as my own little private thing.
I reconnected with the founder of Intonation [Mike Simons] about three years ago. When I first moved to Chicago, I volunteered for him, working next to his father putting on a music festival [the 2005 Intonation Music Festival]. When he told me his development director was leaving and asked if I knew anybody, I was like, “Look no further, buddy.”
- A video produced by Intonation Music to celebrate its tenth anniversary in 2016
Pre-pandemic, [the Intonation Music] model was to partner with schools and parks and get students to come together year-round in school, after school, weekends, and summers to form their own bands. They name the band, and they democratically pick a song that becomes their curriculum, whether that’s a Drake song, a Bikini Kill song, a Bon Jovi song, or whatever else they want. Then they learn every instrument for that song—guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, and vocals. Every student learns each one over the course of eight to ten weeks. At the end of that period, they put on a performance.
We don’t require students to learn how to read music, so it’s really playing by doing. And because they play every instrument, there’s a lot of camaraderie and peer learning and teaching. If you played drums last week and I’m playing them this week, you know how you struggled and you can help me.
All of our instructors are working musicians, and just about all of them are multi-instrumentalists, so they know how to break down a song. For younger students, the first couple of lessons might be as simple as clapping exercises to get the rhythm down. And that will turn into a drum lesson, which leads to a bass lesson, and so forth. There’s a six-to-one student-to-teacher ratio, so we’re talking really small groups.
About five years ago, we decided to have a geographic focus area of Bronzeville. It’s like a hub-and-spoke model. For instance, we’re at Ellis Park, and right next door is Doolittle Elementary School, and right behind Ellis is the UChicago Charter Donoghue Campus, and a couple of blocks away is another school. So the idea is that we’re with all of those schools during the school day. And then we can do an after-school program at the parks with the same kids, and then we’ll do a summer camp there, a deep dive on weekends, et cetera.
We want those kids from third through 12th grade, because when we have those kids for years and years, the retention and the social-emotional learning skills grow incrementally. We also create other opportunities, like all-star bands. We had our first graduating class of students two years ago. Of the five students, some had been with us since they were six years old.
- A compilation of Intonation Music bands released in 2019
When the pandemic hit, we had two big goals. One was to reach out to our families to figure out what technology they had at home and what kind of programs the students wanted while the lockdown was going on. The second was to keep every instructor working during the lockdown.
Our instructors took a deep dive into what kind of platforms we could use virtually to get the kind of collaboration that we get in classrooms and what kind of equipment would be needed for students at home. They came up with the idea that all of our students needed MIDI controllers and that we could work over this music education platform called Soundtrap. They designed this suite of pilot programs that we had up and running by early April.
We had a program called the Daily Beat, where every week there would be one song that you’d drop in and work on twice a day, three times a week. We did a video of the week, and we did an instrument ownership program, where students that had been with us for two years were sent a new guitar, bass, or keyboard.
Our donor committee community has been incredible. Our costs obviously went up to do this, but since the summer, every one of our students has received a MIDI controller of their own, which allows them to play every single instrument and record it and produce it and share it with their classmates. We have lost some enrollment because CPS and the Chicago Park District are our biggest partners. But I can’t even express how needed any kinds of arts education is for students right now.
I can’t imagine being a student and not being able to get out of my house or have my own people and creative outlets for all the emotions you go through as a teenager. It’s great to have something where you don’t necessarily need to put that into words.
The communities we serve are majestic—it’s been the greatest privilege of my life to get to work in Bronzeville and get to know its history and community—but they are incredibly divested of arts and education resources, among other things. This city is deeply segregated, and so many Chicagoans don’t know much about Bronzeville. But what this neighborhood has contributed to American music is insane.
I work at Kennicott Park, which is at 4400 S. Lake Park. That’s half a block from Muddy Waters’s house. I can walk to Louis Armstrong’s house. I can also walk to the Harold Washington Center, which used to be the Regal Theater, which opened eight years before the freakin’ Apollo. And the Regal was where Aretha Franklin was crowned the queen of soul. There’s also Curtis Mayfield and Chaka Khan and the Staples Singers, and that’s just music.
It gets really exciting for me when I get to be in a building in Ellis Park, and know Otis Rush grew up across the street. Whether or not our students know who the heck Otis Rush is, that’s shared soil. Our students are so amazingly talented, and when I see them onstage, knowing they are a part of this legacy of changing the way modern music sounds is exciting.
It’s also exciting on a grander scale. Not everybody is going to be a Chaka Khan or a Curtis, but they might get a moment to see a path forward. They might get recognition for these gifts, and that opens up worlds. If nothing else, it provides immediate community and recognition around this thing that moves us all, which is music.
When I was working in politics, we always went to the community for answers. Community organizations are going to be around a lot longer than any politician. I’m not shading any hardworking politicians, but when I get to speak with the people in the community of Bronzeville, those are the people that are making real change. It’s not some mandate from someone up on top. And that’s something I think punk rockers have always known. You want a festival, you do it yourself. v