(Editor’s Note: This story was previously published by PBS NewsHour.)
Vijay Gupta is a Juilliard-trained violinist and MacArthur Genius Award winner who’s been using music as a way to connect with L.A.’s homeless and incarcerated and promote healing. A movement that began with one Skid Row occupant has now evolved into a group of 80 musicians who perform in shelters, jails and treatment facilities. In the accompanying video, Jeffrey Brown talks to Gupta about abuse, dysfunction and how art became his “lifeline.”
Thirty-one-year-old violinist Vijay Gupta rehearsing on stage at Walt Disney Concert Hall as a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, world-class orchestra, top-level musician.
But, not far away, Gupta also makes a life as a musician here, an area that many in his usual audience rarely if ever see, Skid Row, a downtown neighborhood home to thousands of the homeless, the battered, the struggling, living in shelters or on the streets, often ignored, even forgotten.
The fact that Skid Row is two miles away from Walt Disney Concert hall is not, in my mind, a matter of two different worlds, but a master class in the way structural violence plays out, right?
That is a predominantly poor community of color, right? That has been historically and presently oppressed for a long time. Engaging these two worlds and being a bridge is exactly the role of the artist today.
Gupta grew up in New York state, the child of Indian immigrants. Pushed almost to a breaking point, he complied. He entered a pre-college program at Juilliard at age 7 and performed with an orchestra at 11. By 17, he had an undergraduate degree in biology, then worked in a Harvard neurological lab.
Those were incredible opportunities, but they weren’t my choices.
You have used the words, I think, dysfunction. You have used the word abuse. What does abuse mean?
It was physical abuse often. It was psychological and emotional. And it was sort of compounded into this feeling that I would never be enough, and that everything would always be my fault.
Music was his choice in the end. He was just 19 when accepted into the L.A. Philharmonic as its youngest member.
Two years later came a life-changing event, meeting and then giving lessons to Nathaniel Ayers, a Juilliard-trained musician who suffered from schizophrenia and fell into homelessness, the subject of a book and 2009 film The Soloist.
So the question became, well, how many more Nathaniels are out here in a community of over 58,000 people who are unhoused or at risk of homelessness in downtown Los Angeles?
Gupta began to learn more about Skid Row’s residents with the help of people like Christopher Mack, who once lived on these streets and now works for a community improvement group.
Helping people out of love, you know, not out of despair, is the key, because now you don’t make something of their condition.
Gupta gave his first Skid Row concert, with a group of professional friends, at this shelter in 2010.
The thing that sort of blew us away was the fact that these audiences were some of the most engaged, empathic, wise people we had ever met and we had ever played for.
At that point, were you thinking you’re coming in to do something, and then leaving, and that was…
We thought it was one-off.
Totally. Totally. And we were functioning from a place of outreach, were you just thought, OK, well, we’re not here to change. We’re here to give you something. And then…
Well, what happened?
Well, what happened is that when people in the audiences started to ask, who are you, my colleagues started to share really vulnerable stories about their own histories of abuse or their own histories of mental illness in their families or in their lives.
And I started to look at the entire situation differently, because we were actually receiving something back from our audience.
In the years since, Gupta’s Street Symphony has performed a variety of music monthly in shelters, clinics, transitional housing and, more recently, in all five Los Angeles County jails.
An annual performance of Handel’s “Messiah” features both professional musicians, students and people from the community. And Street Symphony has changed lives, like that of Malek Vossough, whom we met in a space run by a nonprofit community arts group called LAPD, in this case, the Los Angeles Poverty Department.
The 46-year-old Vossough is a longtime musician who fell into addiction and homelessness and has lived in Skid Row shelters and housing for four years. He’s now back in school and back to taking lessons and playing music, all after hearing Gupta perform.
I was trying to reconnect with my inspiration, the hope I have and that childlike quality of wanting to be happy.
At a time when you were not?
When — at a time when I was, like, really struggling with accepting a lot of dreary truths, and wondering if I would ever be able to kind of get back to that, and also not knowing if anyone really appreciated that I had that in me.
Also affiliated with Street Symphony, a deejay who goes by the name Sir Oliver. He puts on music shows, including an annual reggae festival.
I’m here to, like, make you feel good.
In a rehearsal room in Disney Hall, Gupta said that, for him, an artist is also an advocate for social justice.
We think about art as something to be added to the plate. We also think about community engagement within the art world, so-called outreach, working with disenfranchised communities who don’t have access to our spaces, as something that we kind of add to the mix of the great art.
Again, I want to turn that narrative on its head.
The MacArthur prize comes with a large financial award. And, for Gupta, it also signals a trust and belief in his Street Symphony work.
And, for you personally, are you healed, yourself?
There’s a point at which I can never get used to seeing Skid Row. There’s a part of my stomach that always turns, and I have acknowledged that feeling as grief, right? There’s fear and sadness there.
So, for me, art has become my lifeline.
And now Vijay Gupta’s life has taken a new term. As the year came to an end, he performed his final concert with the L.A. Philharmonic to work full-time on his Street Symphony and other activism.
For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown in Los Angeles.
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