Thank You, Zombies; A Reminder Of Why We Do What We Do

II know this is a music blog. We talk about statistics, fan engagement, and the vital stuff that advances our careers. Sometimes I get lost, though. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with the daunting challenges of the new music market. Sometimes, I forget why I do what I do. Fortunately, reminders keep crossing my path. About a dozen did last October in the form of a fourth grade class. I’d like to tell you about them. I think they’ll encourage you, too.

“One good show can change the world” – Jack Black/ Mr. S., School of Rock

Bigger Problems

Baltimore burned the other night. Peaceful protests turned violent. The powder-keg of despair ignited with a blaze of red as broken glass seethed to the street. The frustration, pain, and anger lit up the sky in a way that the world took notice. Expression’s avenue became matches and rocks. Expression was on the radar screen. And far away from the rage, complexity, and problems in desperate need of solutions, a word stood written on my to-do list in my quiet kitchen.

“Savoy.” It was a story of Expression, and Why.

I met a remarkable group of students last fall from Savoy Elementary in Washington, DC, and have been meaning to finish my story about their inspirational performance. I had something composed, but frankly, it didn’t do their spirit justice. So, the word stayed on my list. As the ruddy glare of riot fires sparked thought and stirred consciousness, I found extra meaning, and hope, in the good work of the men, women, and children who are the subject of this story. The next day, I begin to write their story of expression.

The Stage

Any city is a mix, and Washington, DC, is no exception. Forty-odd miles south of the unrest in West Baltimore lie the gritty neighborhoods of Southeast Washington, and, barely a rock’s throw from the opulent Capitol building, Savoy Elementary. Here, the students and teachers had been making remarkable progress in an at-risk school, harnessing the power of the arts to create substantial change in their studies, and their lives.

But I didn’t know that yet on the warm October day last fall. Across town, a rather glum collection of music industry professionals had assembled at the fancy business center of Georgetown University. I listened to entertainment lawyers fretting about the ever-diminishing royalty pie while over-achieving college kids in expensive suits prowled the campus outside, concerned with millions while conference goers worried about cents. At that moment, in the crushingly gray middle, it was hard to remember why I had become involved in the creative field. I wondered if my colleagues felt the same.

Then the zombies showed up, and reminded all of us why we were musicians. They didn’t eat our brains, but instead, gave us back our hearts. I’ll get to that in a minute, though.

He Needs A Better Title

I almost left before he started. “Keynote – The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities: John Abodeely” was the tile on the program. It was fancy sounding, and I was done with fancy. But when Mr. Abodeely started speaking, I saw they had picked the right guy.

He outlined the work the commission was doing, using arts in schools as a tool to fix the big problems – “A wrench, not a rose” drastically improving at-risk schools in some of the nation’s most challenging districts. After citing remarkable statistics about student engagement, attendance, and academic achievement as a result of the arts program, he finished with “I could talk about this all day, but let me have the kids show you.”

‘Cause This Is Thriller

In came the zombies as the music filled the air. It was the class of Savoy Elementary, one of the schools in the program from across town. They were there to perform their own version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Fully costumed, they moved and grooved to the beat. They all “died” onstage, “Michael” standing over them. Suddenly, on my feet with the rest of my audience in wild applause, I forgot about the puzzle of streaming revenues, and I suspect the rest of the crowd did, too. The talent and creativity of these students was inspirational, and the dedication of the teachers noteworthy.

Closing up my gray briefcase in a hurry and jamming plain papers into my gray shirt pocket, and feeling very mature in a boring, unfortunate sort of way, I sprinted downstairs to get an interview with the performers after the show.

The Why

Their teachers got it. The nine year old kids got it. They not only knew why they sang and danced, but they were using music in a real and tangible way to improve their lives. And there was that theme again: expression.

“Why do you sing? Why do you dance?” I asked.

“Michael Jackson” was the first with a quote. “It feels great, because it makes you express yourself more.”

“Sometimes when I’m upset and angry, my mom will put on the music, and I’ll dance, and then I’ll feel better” a young zombie girl said, as classmates nodded assent.

For others, it was a self-esteem booster. “For me, dancing makes me feel really good about myself.”

A zombie named Christian mentioned that he liked to sing. I asked him if he wanted to show us. “I want him to sing it with me” he stated, pointing to “Michael”, who agreed. As they started, the rest of their classmates joined in with clapping and singing. I couldn’t help but clap along with the magic.

I looked into their talented, makeup-smeared zombie faces – faces that hadn’t forgotten, faces that hadn’t been distracted. I thought of a question.

“What would you tell us industry folks? You know, all of us grown ups.”

“Have fun.”

“Keep calm and don’t stress out.”

“Believe in yourselves.”

“Be active.”

After getting some (essential!) photos with the crew , I walked away with renewed hope for the future of music. And today, as I ponder the world and the lack of easy answers, both with streaming revenues and riots…their spirit adds to my hope for the future as a whole. When the problems seem so great as to manifest in an all-consuming fire, there are children using the arts to build a better future.. They know, their teachers know, and Mr. Abodeely knows: music is more than just entertainment. It can be a wrench, not just a rose.

The next time I forget the music and it’s force…I’ll think of the teachers and the zombies, grit, determination, and dancing like you mean it. Thanks, crew.

Backstage at the Future of Music Coalition's Annual Policy Summit with the zombie dancers from Savoy Elementary

Backstage at the FoMC’s Annual Policy Summit with the zombie dancers from Savoy Elementary

Josh Urban is a writer, musician, producer, and really bad dancer. He lives near Washington, DC, USA. Say hello @DontJoshMe on Twitter or email