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Dean's Lecture Series

11/3/21

As part of Arts for All, a campuswide initiative leveraging the combined power of the arts, technology and social justice to address the grand challenges of our time, the College of Arts and Humanities presented violin prodigy and social justice advocate Vijay Gupta as part of the 2021–22 Arts and Humanities Dean’s Lecture Series. Gupta spoke to a crowd of students, faculty and staff at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Gildenhorn Recital Hall on October 21, 2021.

Gupta, who in 2007 became the youngest violinist ever to join the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has emerged as a leading voice for the role of music to heal, inspire, provoke change and foster social connection. A 2018 MacArthur Fellow, he is the founder and artistic director of Street Symphony, a nonprofit that presents musical events and workshops to Los Angeles communities disenfranchised by homelessness, poverty and incarceration. His lecture was followed by a Q&A with Associate Dean for Arts and Programming Patrick Warfield.

In addition to his lecture, Gupta worked with students from the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra. The event was co-sponsored by the School of Music.

View the full photo gallery here.

If you are a UMD student or UMD faculty/staff member, you can login to watch the recording at this link.

Read more about Vijay Gupta in a Q&A about his visit. 

Photos by David Andrews. 

10/18/21

By Jessica Weiss ’05

In late 2009, violinist Vijay Gupta got a call from L.A. Times journalist Steve Lopez. Gupta, then 21, had two years earlier become the youngest ever member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, one of the world’s preeminent orchestras. Now a friend of Lopez’s named Nathaniel Ayers wanted a lesson. 

Ayers, a talented musician in his own right, had been diagnosed with a severe mental illness and ended up homeless on the streets of Los Angeles. He was the subject of Lopez's bestselling book “The Soloist” as well as a subsequent movie starring Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez and Jamie Foxx as Ayers. 

Gupta had never taught before, but he didn’t hesitate. He began visiting Ayers in Skid Row, the largest community of unhoused people in the United States, where the two Juilliard-trained musicians bonded over Beethoven, scales and technique.

Gupta also wondered how many others in Los Angeles’ homeless population were like Ayers—brilliant and talented but disenfranchised due to mental illness, addiction or simple bad luck. Gupta didn’t know how, but he knew he wanted to offer music to Skid Row.

A year later, Gupta founded Street Symphony, a nonprofit that brings music to homeless and incarcerated communities in Los Angeles through workshops, events and educational opportunities. He is also a co-founder of the Skid Row Arts Alliance, a consortium of arts organizations made up of people living and working in Skid Row. For his work “bringing beauty, respite and purpose to those all too often ignored by society,” Gupta was the recipient of a 2018 MacArthur Fellowship. 

Ten years since its founding, Street Symphony’s roster of artists—made up of professionals and community musicians—now numbers 90. They’ve presented some 1,200 events, reaching well over 10,000 people. Gupta, who left The Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2018 to devote himself to Street Symphony, seeks to share widely his message that art is an offering of love, justice and connection that has the power to heal entire communities. To date, his TED Talk, “Music is Medicine, Music is Sanity,” has garnered millions of views. 

Under the banner of Arts for All, a campuswide initiative leveraging the combined power of the arts, technology and social justice to address the grand challenges of our time, Gupta will speak Thursday at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center as part of the 2021–22 Arts and Humanities Dean’s Lecture Series. But before that, he talked to us about his journey to activism, learning from those he serves and the responsibility of the artist to work for justice. 

You’ve performed as an international recitalist, soloist, chamber musician and orchestral musician for over 20 years. But you also studied biology in college, and are now a nonprofit leader. How do you manage being so multidisciplinary? 

I feel like my role as an artist, as a citizen, as a nonprofit leader, as a spouse, all comes back to finding the truth. And the iterative process of applying oneself to a question to find the truth, and trying something and failing at that something, is both scientific and artistic and a deeply spiritual pursuit. I would love for us to throw away externally imposed certificates of expertise and rather think about multidisciplinary connections of gifts, because that places us into the framework of curiosity. Whether it’s an artistic pursuit, a scientific pursuit, a relationship, an act of civic engagement—I think we always need to stay curious. 

You started Street Symphony at the age of 22 while a musician in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. How did you do that? 

After I met Nathaniel I knew there was a possibility there could be other people like him out there, but I didn’t know how to reach them. So, I just started cold calling people. And there was a lot of failure. I called hospice workers who thought I was a prank caller. I called a lot of people who didn’t take me seriously. Eventually I started calling social workers working for Skid Row and they said “Yes, we’ll set aside our lunch hour and get an audience together and have a concert.” And my colleagues in the Philharmonic really rose to the occasion and they went with me. I didn’t start Street Symphony alone, I was never alone in this work. I had colleagues who gave their hearts, talents and gifts continuously with very little expectation of anything in return. And there was never an idea to create a nonprofit. Somebody handed me a check at a TED conference. I didn’t know what to do with the money so that’s when I thought to start a nonprofit at least to have the money in a bank account. 

How would you recommend people begin to make a difference in their own communities?  

The first thing you need to do is to take inventory of your gifts—what feels good and what you love. Basically, what makes you come alive? The second step is to find a way to apply that in the world—any way. If you like it when someone laughs, then make a daily practice of making somebody laugh. Find a way to give and receive what makes you come alive. Third, create a lab. Find your peers, find your tribe, who are willing to ask questions and apply them in the world in a similar way. Fourth, offer it to the world. Show up with curiosity and not with judgement, and serve. When we take these four steps, we’re identifying our values. If you start with your values—your why—the how and the what will come next. 

What do you feel like you and your fellow professional musicians have learned through this decade-long interchange of ideas? 

That there is more that is similar about us than is different. The conversation around service and engagement and outreach often has this pernicious myth around the redemption story, that we can save people. And I feel like that’s a perfectly fine place to start but it becomes hubristic if that’s our only motivation, because it maintains a separation of us and them. Even if we’re showing up out of charity it could still be in the mode of judgment and not in the mode of curiosity. It could still be in the mode of expertise and not experience. So, I feel like I have thrown every bit of dogma or rule or some judgments I’ve had about “those people” out. I’ve also learned from my colleagues in Skid Row that we don’t have to let the worst thing that’s happened to us define us. Forgiveness is choosing to take our identity from something more than the wound. We really do get to choose our lives. We really do get to choose our perception and the way we go about paying attention to the world. 

Do you believe artists have a unique responsibility to engage in social justice work? 

I see justice as an artistic practice. There is no end to justice. The same way there is no end to reconciliation and there is no end to love and there is no end to learning. These are all practices. And the truth is, what artists know more than anything is how to practice. We already have what we need to change the world. So, yes. I think we actually have an obligation to be engaged—to heal and inspire through our artistry but also to provoke change.

Gupta will be at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center October 21, 2021 from 5:30-7 p.m. Reserve tickets here. He will also sell and sign copies of his recent album “When the Violin” in the lobby after the event. This event is co-sponsored by the School of Music.

Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Gildenhorn Recital Hall
Thursday, October 21, 2021 - 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM

Esteemed violinist and social justice advocate, Vijay Gupta will present "Creating Justice through the Arts".

3/19/21

By Viet Thanh Nguyen and Janelle Wong  

The Asian American sense of belonging was already fragile before a White gunman killed six of us among his eight victims in Atlanta this past week. The slayings reinforce a sense of heightened vulnerability among a group that had reported nearly 3,800 incidents of anti-Asian bias over the last year. The alleged killer told police that race wasn’t a motive, but given his targets, that is just not credible. Partly, no doubt, those incidents came thanks to President Donald Trump’s insistence on calling the coronavirus the “China virus” and the “Kung flu.” Many recognized early that such words aligned him with a strain of hatred — and accompanying vigilante violence — that has existed in the United States for as long as Asian immigrants have been here.

But it’s too simple to blame Trump for what is happening. In the 1980s, officials from both parties cast Japan as the economic enemy; now it is China, one of the few issues about which Democrats and Republicans agree. And yes, it’s true that China is an extremely bad actor when it comes to espionage and human rights. But decades of official U.S. foreign policy and rhetoric from the pundit class have had a unique effect on Asian Americans. When the government frets about Russian hacking and election interference, there is little consequence for Americans of Russian heritage. When officials express fears over China or other Asian countries, Americans immediately turn to a timeworn racial script that questions the loyalty, allegiance and belonging of 20 million Asian Americans. Most Americans are not skilled at distinguishing between people of different Asian origins or ancestries, and the result is that whenever China is attacked, so are Asian Americans as a whole.

While former president Barack Obama and President Biden have both denounced anti-Asian violence, as they should, they have also spent their careers embracing critical takes on China that have overlapped with Trump’s and that may have helped accelerate Sinophobic sentiment in the United States. Trump called China a “threat to the world” and advocated a hard economic line against the country, but even Biden has vowed to continue a tough stance. This includes an initiative that civil rights groups say opens the door to the racial profiling of Chinese American scientists by giving extra scrutiny to their tax records, visa applications and other documents. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said this month that “China is our pacing threat.”

[In Trump’s vision, immigrants should be grateful and servile]

The news is full of paranoia about Asian Americans and Asian immigrants. Some Chinese American scientists have been wrongly charged on the assumption that they are spies. In 1999, scientist Wen Ho Lee was accused of passing nuclear secrets to China and held, often in shackles, for nine months. In the end, the judge overseeing his case freed him, complaining that he’d suffered an abuse of government power. To be sure, spies from China, like those from all major powers, operate here. But research shows that innocent Asian Americans fall under suspicion because of their race or last names. (This is the same instinct behind the racial profiling that targets Black and Brown people.) In 2014, for instance, Sherry Chen was wrongly arrested on suspicion of espionage, charged and suspended from her job as an analyst at the National Weather Service. The charges were later dropped.

While it is ever-lurking, the prominence of anti-Asian bias in U.S. life is cyclical. Though Asian Americans are often cast as a success story because of their high average levels of education and income, many Americans, at times of economic stress and uncertainty over U.S. global standing, associate Asian faces with a foreign threat. In the 1980s, alarm that Japan would corner the affordable-car market led to Asian-bashing and increased hate crimes against Asian Americans, including the murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin in 1982 by two White Detroit autoworkers who mistook him for Japanese. The supposed threat was captured by the 1993 movie “Rising Sun,” in which the Japanese villain ate sushi off the body of a naked White woman, recalling World War II propaganda that showed Japanese soldiers threatening White women with rape.

Anti-Asian bias extends beyond people of Chinese origin. Four of the six Asian women who were killed in Atlanta were of Korean origin, with the two others possibly of Chinese origin. Last March, two young children and their father were stabbed in a Sam’s Club in Midland, Tex., by a man who believed the victims, of Myanmar origin, were from China and responsible for spreading the coronavirus. Data from the Asian American Voter Survey shows that, last summer, more than half of all Asian Americans, regardless of national origin, worried about pandemic-related hate crimes, harassment and discrimination.

There is historical reason that Asian Americans feel targeted, scapegoated and vilified. In the late 1800s, the Page Act and the Chinese Exclusion Act effectively ended Chinese immigration, based on fears that these immigrants would pollute the nation with disease, immorality and foreign habits. The laws were the official expression of many years of anti-Chinese violence, including the 1871 massacre of 17 Chinese men in Los Angeles and the 1887 killing of as many as 34 Chinese miners in Deep Creek, Ore. During World War II, many Americans assumed that Japanese Americans were no different from the Japanese and therefore constituted a subversive threat; more than 120,000, many of them citizens, were interned. Thirty years later, Vietnamese refugees faced hostility, including racist attacks on Vietnamese fishermen by the Ku Klux Klan in Texas. After 9/11, heightened American fears about Muslims led to violence that targeted anybody who appeared to be Muslim, including the murder of Sikh American Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Mesa, Ariz., whose killer identified him as a “towel head.” In 2012, a white supremacist killed six Sikh worshipers in Oak Creek, Wis.

[Books by immigrants, foreigners and minorities don’t diminish the ‘classic’ curriculum. They enhance it.]

Meanwhile, China emerged in the 1990s to replace Japan as a future competitor the United States must beware of. The “Chinagate” controversy involved alleged efforts by Chinese operatives, supposedly at the behest of the Chinese government, to influence the Clinton administration with donations. National Review turned to yellowface to depict Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al Gore as “Manchurian candidates” with buck teeth, foreshadowing how quickly Americans might turn to anti-Chinese stereotypes under sufficient fear or pressure, as Trump did. China obviously does compete economically with the United States. But so does the European Union, which Democrats, Republicans and the press do not characterize as a threat.

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