The drum pro and youth educator on divine timing (and having to turn down a gig with Alicia!)
– KEYS SOULCARE
Mentor. Composer. U.S. musical ambassador. Since moving to New York in 1999 with nothing but a backpack, $600, and a drum kit, LaFrae Sci has taken on and (made magic of) many roles. A career that started as a back-up player with pop star Kelis progressed to sought-after roles with Nancy Sinatra, Cyndi Lauper, Sandra Bernhardt, and more. Oh, and did we mention she’s a founding member of music collectives Shungite, Sonic Black, and the 13th Amendment? We know, wow.
To hear her tell it, though, her greatest legacy lies in her work as executive director of Willie Mae Rock Camp — a non-profit music and mentoring program that empowers girls, women, and gender non-conforming youth.
We chatted about the vision that she’s using to keep herself and her work on the fast-track to greatness.
What power lies in putting instruments in young people’s hands?
So often, people divorce themselves from their creative selves, and at some point say, “You’re a singer, you’re a writer, you’re a doctor, you’re a lawyer, you’re a teacher…” in such a compartmentalized way. But, we’re all creative. I love seeing kids [who] don’t have opportunities pick up something and do what they can do without being told, “This is the right way to do it, or this is how you do it” — but rather, just say, go for it.
Before taking a full-time role with Willie Mae, you were a resident artist and taught between tours and other projects. Do you share stories with kids from the road?
Let me tell you a funny story. Years ago, I’d auditioned my butt off and had been selected for a project that Alicia [Keys] was working on. The only thing that I had left to say yes to — and clear my schedule for — was filming something all day on somewhat short notice. That was the first day that I was starting a new position teaching a group of middle school kids through the Jazz Academy at Lincoln Center.
I just thought to myself, How is it going to be with these kids who are going to come to this experience for the first time and their teacher’s not there? As much as it hurt me as an individual to not step into work I’d wanted so badly, I told [the project’s production team] no.
I mentioned it to one of my teaching assistants and she told the kids, who were like, “Yo! Ms. Sci turned down Alicia Keys to come to our middle school jazz academy.” And, that became like the legend, you know? If I took them that seriously, then they took themselves — and me — that seriously, too. So, I’m especially honored to be in the orbit of Alicia’s vision now.
How does music allow us to connect with ourselves and others?
If you ask my students what’s a groove, they’re like, “A groove makes you move!” A groove makes movement, creates unity, community, and change. So by looking at rhythm in life, we can recognize patterns and work with them.
I’m inspired by so many things that Alicia’s done and doing right now, but I’m recalling the vibration of her song, “No One” and how it always made my godson stop crying when he was a baby, just through the relaxing, heartbeat bass drum tempo. Music is kinetic, connecting, and universal. It’s life!
Could you talk about Willie Mae TV and the pivots you’ve made during the pandemic?
Ninety-eight percent of our school partner population are POC girls who were on the poverty line before the pandemic. So, the level of trauma that students across the board were feeling because of displacement and remote learning was very real.
I said to our school partners, “Hey, we got some ways if you let us into your classrooms: Little vignettes of information, interactive activities, and PDFs from classes.” Who doesn’t want a one-minute dance party? Who doesn’t want to play “grati-gories” and do self-care work?
Tell us about Circuit Benders, a program that connects music, science, and social justice work.
There’s tons of data out there that around middle school, many girls stop raising their hands in class. They don’t want to stand out. They don’t want to look smarter, or they don’t want to look not smart. Statistically, there’s not even a slope between fifth and sixth grade — it’s just a drop. So if you say, “Oh, do you want to do electronic technical circuit bending?” They’re probably going to say no. But giving [an] assignment to make one while putting together a TikTok-style video, and offering to produce it? That’s a big convincer.
I once spoke with someone from the City of New York who told me music wasn’t science, and I realized that I needed to work on my elevator pitch: that it’s connecting the technical side of making a speaker and soundboard to the idea of amplifying our voices and using our own agency.
What is working with young people continuing to teach you about yourself?
They make me belly laugh, [plus] they inspire me and break my heart with their purity and the honesty of their self-expression. It’s a gift to be able to foster safe spaces for that. People are always surprised my nameplate jewelry says “Gratitude” rather than “LaFrae.” But, I know my own name! When the pandemic broke out and I watched festival after festival cancel like dominoes, I was living in Flatbush [Brooklyn]. [It] was the reddest of the red COVID-19 zones on top of all of the social happenings and tension. But, I was so grateful for the work we’re creating with Willie Mae. My necklaces allow me to take my gratitude — for what I have and for my life — everywhere.
How do you stay true to your values and keep dreaming when life gets challenging?