We sit across from one another and when she speaks she uses the full width of her arms in rhythmic motion. When she arrives at the crux of a story, she leans in and clenches her hand into a fist, presenting it in front of you as if there’s a gem hidden inside. Josephine Lee turns words into energy and fills space with color. As president and artistic director of Chicago Children’s Choir, one of the city’s most acclaimed cultural institutions, she is the essence of Chicago in all of its character. The diversity of Chicago Children’s Choir reflects the cultural landscape of the city and through their voices the singers are bringing cultures together.
Now that it’s summer and kids are out of school, what’s going on with the Chicago Children’s Choir?
We’re actually headed to Cuba. I’m taking 61 singers, a band and our team. We’re partnering and collaborating with local youth organizations— mostly choral vocalists, young singers and the Cuban youth choir. We’re part of this international festival. Above all, the artistic exchange is great, but it’s also about partnering with Cubans – despite the embargo and what people think of Americans – and bridging that divide through our youth. We’re helping the next generation of Cubans and Americans come together harmoniously. It’s an opportunity to learn about Americans through a different lens, rather than the commercialized lens that many have had access to.
What can Chicago’s students expect to experience in Cuba?
I was just there a month ago and they’re in for a treat. Going there is a time capsule, essentially. I have some kids who have Cuban parents, so that’s going to be pretty profound and moving for them to go and see their family. Our kids from the urban setting will find it very enlightening to see that there are no chain stores; the Western influence hasn’t quite penetrated that area. They won’t see H&M and Walgreens; they’ll see a totally different life. You’re completely shut off there. I was off the grid. It was the most refreshing, most invigorating time of my life. I felt like no one could find me. I was so present. I could just be engaged in conversation and not worry about what I had to do the next day.
You’ve been traveling to some pretty remarkable places with the choir, what has travel taught you about Chicago?
Even though I’m of Korean descent, I was raised in Chicago. I’m an American, but I had always felt displaced in this city. I never felt quite at home until I traveled overseas. In the last 10 to 15 years I’ve felt like Chicago is a global city, for the first time. It’s much more diverse. I think our Mayors –Daley and Emanuel – have done an incredible job of fostering and nurturing that type of environment. And of course the culinary scene, the cultural institutions, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Ravinia Festival…We are a Mecca. Chicago is a unique city. I was just in L.A. and it’s very spread out, but Chicago has this unique grid. There’s this downtown center, but we are also a city of neighborhoods. Because of our diverse neighborhoods, we have this opportunity to bridge all of these divides and come together within an hour. I think that is the power of Chicago. We are a global city. We are training the next generation of leaders here. Chicago is an incubator for creating and generating new talent. I love Chicago more so than ever.
How is the Chicago Children’s Choir a symbol of the city?
The Chicago Children’s Choir was born out of the Civil Rights Movement in 1956. Someone had this idea that we could create social change by activating and uniting youth of diverse backgrounds. That concept started as a small neighborhood idea that has now turned into this global movement. Chicago is at the forefront of that. Our youth is behind these core values of excellence, education, expression and learning how to be global citizens through music. It’s pretty profound. We should be really proud of that. We have 4,400 kids [in the choir], 85 percent from predominantly underserved communities. They are the voice of Chicago and this model of success. I’m more proud than ever now. We’re coming into our 60th year and it’s fascinating to think about what we’ve done. Recently we collaborated with Chance the Rapper. I’m really proud of that and pumped up about next season.
Do your students understand what they’re helping shape?
They do. We instill it so deeply in our mission. We’re inspiring and changing lives through music. Especially nowadays with social media and the ability to see what’s happening across the world. We need to continue to elevate our youth to think more positively and show them that they have to have a strong work ethic in order to make something great.
Are your students sharing these sentiments within their inner circles?
I think so. I think they’re proud. After we did our collaboration with Chance the Rapper, they came out of the woodwork, “Oh I’m so proud to be an alumni.” They feel forever changed. And it’s not about just serving underserved kids— it’s not about that. We have children with affluent backgrounds. Even those who are entitled can learn a lot. Music does not lie. You can be wearing Louis Vuitton or you can be wearing Wal-Mart, but it doesn’t matter what you look like out here. What matters is the voice. A lot of our alumni have been forever changed by that.
What have your students taught you since we last sat down for a drink four years ago?
They have taught me patience. They have kept me young. They have kept me on my toes. They have taught me how to laugh and enjoy my life. They have given me more than I could have ever given them. I was with a group of alumni last night. I grew up with these guys since I started with the choir in ’98 when I was 22. They were 11 or 12 year olds then– so nerdy and cute. Now they’re at Harvard, MIT, Yale, running the world. I’m looking at them saying, “I’m going to lean on you to run this institution. I’m going to lean on you to amplify what you learned and share it so that 60 more years of youth can benefit.”
What’s the biggest lesson you think you’ve taught them?
To be open-minded. To never get stale. Continue to innovate, continue to dream, continue to hope. My parents passed away in 2001 and I’m an only child. I had to go through that, but I persevered. Music was my religion, my outlet. These kids were the reason I kept pushing through. I think you can never stop dreaming the impossible.
You found your dream job at a very young age, what is your dream today?
I won’t stop until every child has the opportunity to share their voice with the world. It’s not about being a musician. Everyone listens to music, everyone understands harmony and rhythm, everyone has a heartbeat. It’s about creating that whole, comprehensive human. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” That rings true today. By design we’re still so closed. I don’t think people do it intentionally. It’s taught. I think that’s something we can strive for— to break down those barriers.
As the teacher and coach, you have to relate to different types of people from different backgrounds. How do you adapt to teach a diverse set of students?
I just think I’m that global citizen. Music transcends all boundaries. You can sing a Bulgarian song or a Nigerian song and it opens the doors and starts a conversation. Everyone just wants to be validated and heard. What drives negativity is when you’re not positively reinforced. Insecurities drive negativity. We’re all insecure. When you’re dealing with youth, it’s about building them up and giving them the tools, but also being very honest.
Music is something that’s natural to you. When are you out of your comfort zone?
I’m uncomfortable when I’m around ignorant people. That’s why I like young people because you can shape what they’re going to be. Once you’ve formed your opinion it’s hard to break it.
You infuse your own style into the music that the choir sings and the way you teach. Have you ever received pushback?
I’ve experienced resistance when we’ve done a little too much popular music. I inherited an organization that values classical music but also worldly music. Along the years, I felt it was necessary to validate our young people and take them from the known to the unknown– engage them with popular music to then say, “By the way, have you thought of this piece? It may be from an old German dead man, named Beethoven, but…” There are some who say, “You’ve got to give them the classics.” But if the children love popular music, you gotta give them a little candy. You gotta give them a little something. We did this huge Latin medley from Marc Anthony and Gloria Estefan. The kids went bonkers. They were dancing. Forty-four hundred kids went nuts. We did a Macklemore and an Michael Jackson medley, but in addition to that, I gave them some really amazing anti-apartheid South African music or Korean folk songs. Then you also counterpart that with Vivaldi’s “Gloria.” When you give them the classics, it gives them something meaty to sink their teeth into. Now you’re teaching them history. It’s the fastest way to travel, truly.
What can the youth of today teach the adult generation?
A million things. I think they can teach them to live. To be spontaneous. To be fresh. To never be so set in your ways. To learn to evolve with the changing world. For me I’ve always wanted to know what’s next. If you ask any of my kids, they’ll say, “Josephine is already on Mars.” I’m ready for Elon Musk to take me to Mars to start the first alien chorus. Put me there. I’m always looking ahead. I think that’s so important for us to see where we can go. The possibilities are infinite. I’m all about tradition, but it’s important to stay fresh.
Do your students give you style tips?
Oh yeah. They recently told me that “turnt” is now “T”… “Miss Lee, just ‘T’.” You have to stay current, because they speak in code. It’s like Portuguese versus Brazilian Portuguese and Spanish in Spain versus Spanish in Cuba. Everyone has their code. Chicago definitely has its own vernacular, man. It’s deep.
What do you want people to know about the choir?
It’s the world’s best-kept secret! These kids are going to take over the world. If we don’t get on the bandwagon and support our youth and this movement of positive goodness, we’re going to miss out. When people look at Chicago as “Chi-Raq” we’re not focusing our lens on those that are doing something great and positive in the city.
What do you want to tell young women who are just beginning their careers?
To listen. Meet as many people as you can. Be confident that, if it’s your passion, you can make it happen. If you have that burning desire that this is the right thing, right now – and you know when you feel that – then it will happen for you. You know when it’s right. The doors will open. Women need to follow their gut. Surround yourself with the right mentors– and don’t seek out mentors, I think they come to you organically, people that you trust. If someone blocks your path, pivot. Surround yourself with people who are positive and are going to embrace you.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
I would like to sit down with Kim Jong-un. We need to stop this divide once and for all and he needs to do it at the highest level, diplomatically. This is a war between two governments. This could be an opportunity for him to redefine his legacy. I hope it gets to him.
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