When the rioters came down the street by her home in Lexington Terrace, 12-year-old Taniyah Kutcherman hid in her bedroom with a book and put on headphones to block out the noise.
“They were trying to get into the Rite Aid,” she says. “If I took my earphones out, I could hear them. But they were in, and the music was really loud.”
Kutcherman is one of several Living Classrooms Foundation students who witnessed the recent unrest up close—and channeled their experiences into a song they recorded with musicians from some of Baltimore’s most popular bands.
Called “Believe in Baltimore,” the song features Kutcherman and three other girls singing lead vocals and rapping, backed by members of Future Islands, Lower Dens, Celebration, the Bridge and many others. Filmmaker Chris LaMartina shot the music video, which was produced by 15Four. It’s one of the biggest collaborations in the history of the Baltimore music scene—a plea for positive change that spans genre and generation.
The project began as a partnership between Believe in Music, a program of the Living Classrooms Foundation, and Towson University’s WTMD, the radio station where I work. The program is a creative outlet after school and during summer months for the kids, many of whom live in public housing.
Kenny Liner, who founded Believe in Music, asked his students to write lyrics and melodies about the unrest and reached out to me about turning their words into a song. We sent their ideas to singer-songwriter Cara Satalino from the Baltimore band Outer Spaces, who had participated in a few collaborative music camps in the past. Using the students’ words, she came up with the chords and melody in just one day.
“They had a really different view than I’d expect from children,” says Satalino. “I was impressed with how much they knew about what was going on. They had a very adult outlook.”
The first verse came from Amira Winchester, the sometimes-sassy 12-year-old with a flair for drama and an undeniable voice. A few of her friends went out looting, but she refused to join them. Instead, she spent that night in late April watching TV and crying.
“Who is gonna save Baltimore? / There’s not much opportunity knockin’ on the door,” Winchester sings, starting off the song with the powerful words she wrote.
Four especially poignant lines, penned by Kutcherman, would become the song’s chorus: “This city is where we live / this city is where we come from / won’t let it crumble / into mass destruction.” This is the part that gets stuck in people’s heads (two months later, I still haven’t been able to stop singing it). Kutcherman loves to read, and dreams of being accepted into the Baltimore School for the Arts to sing. Her heart aches when she thinks about the unrest.
“We should be taking care of our city,” she says, “not tearing it down and destroying it.”
When the call went out for Baltimore musicians to help record this song, the response was overwhelming. Future Islands’ bassist William Cashion and touring drummer Michael Lowry helped arrange the music, and Celebration singer Katrina Ford and keyboardist Sean Antanaitis immediately jumped on board. Cris Jacobs from the Bridge and Ed Harris from Mt. Royal handled the guitar parts. We set up a recording session at WTMD in early May with about a dozen students and most of the musicians.
“None of the students had heard of any of the bands,” Liner says, “But it was cool. William gave them Future Islands stickers and they all have them on their backpacks and shirts even now.” (Google the band’s epic Letterman performances if you haven’t heard of them yet.)
A few weeks later, lead singers Kutcherman, Winchester and 14-year-old Yamaudi Pinder returned to WTMD to re-record the lead vocals with a little help from Jana Hunter of Lower Dens, who recently penned a great article on misogyny in the music industry for Cosmopolitan. Hunter showed the girls how to layer three-part harmonies and helped coach them through the verses.
“After we met Jana, I looked her up and was like, ‘Oh, we were just working with someone who is huge,” Kutcherman said with a laugh. “She was really nice—a little weird but different. You don’t have to be like everybody else, and that’s what made her stand out.”
“Believe in Baltimore” has a warm, “Schoolhouse Rock” feel, but also speaks to some painful truths.
“People outside the city try to tell us how to live,” raps Caprice Martin, age 12 “Only teach us how to hate and ask us to forgive.”
While tour schedules and other conflicts kept some Baltimore musicians from participating in “Believe in Baltimore,” they still wanted to help. Future Islands, Beach House, Dan Deacon and others are donating the proceeds from their sold-out late-August Pier Six Pavilion performance to the Believe in Music program.
“We’re all one at the end of the day,” Pinder says. “We need to come together— all races—to fight something that should have never happened in the first place.”
Visit wtmd.org to download the song for free.