MEET Dantes: bassoonist, youth mentor and well-traveled nonprofit founder
What does the Venezuelan Orchestra have in common with a local Atlantan? Dantes Rameau started off as a talented classical musician. As if that wasn’t a big enough aspiration, he now heads the Atlanta Music Project, a youth mentoring program that puts instruments and power in the hands of Atlanta’s underserved students in some of the most marginal communities. He took his inspiration from an awesome Venezuelan program that had a proven track record and an even bigger international fan club. We sat down with this young man to find out what causes his incredible drive.
Tell us about your project:
Our nonprofit is called the Atlanta Music Project, and it’s an intensive 5-day a week after school youth orchestra and choir program targeting underserved communities. Our programs are placed exclusively in what you would call disadvantaged areas with lots of high-risk youth and our mission is to inspire social change through involving thousands of kids in after school youth orchestra programs.
What inspired you to choose music?
Well, we’ve been doing this for about a year now and I’ve seen that the real thing stopping the kids from moving up from where they came from, is that they don’t believe that they should. They don’t believe that they’re worthy of aspiring to something bigger. This is something that can’t be fixed with necessarily healthy food or better math scores. This is something deep in the psyche. So what we’re doing is giving them a musical instrument, and because our program is intensive, we are literally not giving them the option to fail. We ask them ‘Are you committed to the program 5 days a week?’ If they said yes, they’re in. Over time they discover that they can be good at something and slowly they start to develop a line of thinking that is “I can do great things”, “I’m great at music”. It’s not just that they are dabbling in music and trying it out for enrichment. We’re really working it to a level of excellence that will enable them to think, “The world is mine”.
We’re based on El Sistema in Venezuela, which is Venezuela’s world renown youth orchestral program. Their founder, Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu has always said, “The worst thing about poverty is not a lack of food or a lack of a roof over your head. It’s the feeling of being nobody. The feeling of not mattering, of not counting” When you’re in orchestra, everyone matters.
How did you get started?
My background is a classically trained Bassoonist. I went to school looking to be a professional Bassoon player in an Orchestra and when I had applied for my doctorate studies, PhD of musical arts, I wrote in my application, “It’s all about El Sistema”. This was around 2009 when El Sistema was really blowing up. One of their students, Gustavo Dudamel, at the age of 26, had been appointed to the directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic which is uncommon. They were making a big splash and I was reading about how the choruses and orchestras in Venezuela give kids somewhere to be after school that uplifts their spirit. So I wrote about this in my application essays and said I’d like to combine my studies with some type of El Sistema endeavor in North America.
One of my undergraduate teachers told me about the Abreu Fellows Program named after Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema. It was a one-year fellowship for musicians to be trained in nonprofit management and also go to Venezuela to learn about El Sistema and how it works in person. I got one of the ten spots in the inaugural year, and each graduate was expected to take the lead on a program in the United States or beyond. So I did this fellowship and learned about what it took to run a nonprofit. Then I went to Venezuela for two months where everything I had read about, I saw was true. It sounded almost too good to be true- but I saw it! I saw a country that’s obsessed with classical music, that’s obsessed with Gustavo Dudamel; kids that want to be in the top orchestra in the country.
So after that, I moved to Atlanta, had contacts as board chair. and worked with Al Meyers and the Atlanta Symphony to launch in October 2010.
How important are role models for your kids? Where are they finding them in our community?
The majority of our kids are African-American and it’s not an issue to get them started. Since these are kids that are between grade 1 and grade 5, they’re not thinking, “This isn’t for me. There’s nobody who looks like me who does this.”
That said, I’m very conscious of it. As they start to develop their skills, role models are really important, so in thinking about this, well, I’m the one leading the program. I’m black, I’m a professional musician, I’m young, and I’m a black male. I’m not Dudamel (the Venezuelan director), but I’m someone they can look at and say, ‘He’s making a living doing music, so this can be for me”. 5 of our 8 teachers are African-American. Then we surround them with what we call Atlanta Music Project Music Mentors who are volunteer high-school musicians picked from the best in town. They’re mostly from the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra. They come to the classes, assist the teachers, and they actually play with the kids.
We take our kids to the Atlanta Symphony Talent Development Program. The development program is a scholarship based program for talented African American and Latino musicians from grade 4 through grade 12. We’re surrounding them with great teaching artists, most of them are African American. We’re also bringing in these high school kids of mixed races, great kids just a few years older than them. So we’re surrounding them with possibility.
What was the biggest challenge in getting AMP off the ground?
Well, initially, it was not very hard to get this going. You have this world renowned program [El Sistema], I have this platform that attracted a lot of media attention because it was connected to Abreu and Venezuela’s program. So I brought this credibility coming to Atlanta. And Atlanta’s such a great town for social justice and there’s a real sense of helping to uplift the community here. So I came to Atlanta and said “I have this program that has been proven to work in a country that has many more issues than the United states”. This was kind of a shoe in. The challenge was being connected with the right people and getting it up in time for the beginning of the school year. But besides that, I’d be lying if I said it was that difficult.
Since we had some early success, our biggest challenge is how to grow properly and strategically without growing too fast or losing our impact, or losing focus on our mission. So we’re working with Goizueta Business School at Emory to get a long term strategic plan with fundraising, how to expand, and how to make sure we’re evaluating our programs correctly. That kind of thing.
What resources does AMP need the most?
I think one of the things we’ve struggled with is getting local media attention. We’ve been interviewed by CNN and we’ve been featured by AJC, but we’re not able to get Fox 5, 11 Alive, or Creative Loafing. We’re not getting the local press that would be helpful in spreading the word about the program. We have as many people on our email list that are outside of Atlanta. So local press is something that we’re really trying to push, whether through events or an annual fundraiser. It’s really word of mouth. Once people know about the program everything else comes with it.
We also need instruments for the kids. We have a big donation drive coming up for people to pass on their un-needed instruments to the kids who really need them.
What are some of your favorite organizations in Atlanta?
There’s actually several that I love. I love the city of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs. They are great because they completely understand our necessity to be an intensive program. A lot of our potential partners get a little bit worried when we tell them ‘Yeah we do this thing, and it’s two hours a day, 5 days a week, sometimes even Saturdays and it’s 7 or 8 concerts per year’…they go “whoa whoa whoa…that’s too much. The kids need to be doing other things”. The city of Atlanta really took a risk, believed in us, and the result has been a lot of happy campers. I really appreciate the partnership with them.
Another nonprofit that I really like is the WEB DuBois society. They recognize and promote the academic achievements of young African-Americans in high school and below. They have what they call the WEB Dubois Scholars, a group of very very talented seniors who are going off to college. In sports, if you’re an African-American football star or basketball star, you’re known all over the city. You’re in the paper all day. If you have a scholarship to Harvard, nobody knows about this. We promote what we value and there’s something wrong with that picture.
It’s important to me that our students finish high school. The graduation rate in some of the communities I work in is listed at 45% and I’d say that’s kind of optimistic. But if we can show that our kids can stay with us, that our program is capable of helping our kids graduate from high school, that is a big difference we’re making. We’re teaching them to aim for excellence. We’re teaching them to hate mediocrity. And I think if we do that, we can transfer that skill, that sense of accomplishment to their school.
Who are you collaborating with?
What I’ve found is when there is an organization to partner with, the collaboration is so natural, that it’s easy. For example the Atlanta Symphony was a natural partner for us because they have an education room. By allowing us to use their office space, AMP has become an extended unofficial wing of the education department. It’s a natural partnership. They have a world class orchestra, that we can bring our kids to see and at the same time, they’re expanding their audience with our families.
I think Atlanta’s great for collaboration. When I tell people what I do, they’re quick to say, “Oh, I should connect you with such and such”. People want to make a difference and are really big on connecting you with people who could help you out.
What FEED’s your soul?
I FEED my soul with helping.