The Artist and The Advocate
The Open Gates Project: Notes from Co-Curator Michele Elizabeth Kennedy
Performing with the SF Girls Chorus, 1991
Growing up as a shy and ambitious girl in Oakland, CA, I grew over time to embrace two central passions: making music in community, and working toward social justice.
My first exposure to music was hearing my grandfather play Bach on the piano as a little girl. He played every morning, and I was mesmerized by the sound. Luckily, that wasn’t lost on him! He gave my family an upright Yamaha piano, and I began taking piano lessons at age 3.
It wasn’t long after that, that my parents discovered my love of singing. Truth be told, when I was supposed to be practicing the piano, I’d often end up singing instead! So it was, that at age 8, I joined the San Francisco Girls Chorus and found myself in the midst of a rich musical family that would help to launch my professional life. And it was the Girls Chorus’ emphasis on early music that would later form the bedrock of my career.
With service oriented parents – my mother, a lifelong social worker and health access advocate, and my father, an engineer and devoted educator – I also developed a love of justice work and began to pursue it in middle school. Every week I would volunteer in Berkeley at Global Exchange, a human rights nonprofit that promotes fair trade and just wages for craftworkers across the world.
As a teenager, I always viewed these two parts of myself as separate: the musician and the advocate. This work – and duality – continued in my collegiate studies at Yale University, where I double-majored in Music and Political Science. I loved the balance that I found across those disciplines and different ways of exercising my brain. The height of it was in my senior thesis statements: one paper about feminism in two beloved Mozart operas, and the other about the global impact of fair trade coffee, small-scale farming, and workers’ rights in Costa Rica.
Guest Soloist with the SFGC, Davies Symphony Hall, Christmas 2018
It wasn’t until I’d graduated from college and moved to New York City that I began to wonder: could these two parts of myself find some way to work together? How could I find an outlet for my joint passions that would somehow satisfy both callings?
Enter the Open Gates Project. In all of my years as a performer specializing in historic repertoire and the oratorio, I had not before found a concert series with a mission like this one: to center the voices of musicians of color with an equal emphasis on artistic excellence and inclusion. The power of that mission strikes a deep chord within me. It dispels the myth that I need to keep my dual callings separate; on the contrary, when they are combined, the power of each calling is magnified into a much wider impact.
It is that impact that I wish to celebrate with you today. We are building our foundation for OGP, and we need your voice at the table. We are calling on our allies and supporters from NYC and beyond to rally behind this trailblazing effort and the generations of hard work that it seeks to honor and advance.
To that end, please join us in spreading the word about Open Gates. Thank you in advance for helping with this essential work!
— Michele Kennedy