Kids these days are doing some pretty phenomenal things in the Chicago arts. There’s 19-year-old Bronzeville wordsmith Patricia Frazier, who was named the National Youth Poet Laureate in 2018, and 12-year-old Vincent Molden, a guitar savant from Skinner North Classical School, who spent half the year touring as the lead in the off-Broadway hit “School of Rock: The Musical.”
Both of them — along with hundreds of other young creatives — will be part of the YAS! Youth Arts Showcase on Saturday at Millennium Park that caps off the Year of Creative Youth, designated by the City of Chicago in 2018. The free festival, put on by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, wraps up a year of exhibitions and events that also has included a $2 million investment by the city into youth arts organizations.
YAS! Fest promises to be the largest one-day celebration of young artists in the Chicago history. Performers include The Second City, Storycatchers Theatre, Guitars Over Guns and Beverly Arts Center Dance Program, as well as headliners including hip-hop star Desiigner and Chicago artist Ravyn Lenae. There will also be interactive activities with About Face Youth Theater, MCA Chicago and Global Explorers Kids.
When: 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph
“In this age of social media, it’s a great way to highlight that there are different ways to express yourself and to get involved,” says John Rugel, senior vice president at Allstate, the presenting sponsor of the festival, which also contributes to more than 125 youth-based organizations in Chicago. “YAS! Fest really aligns with our desire to empower the next generation of rising stars and leaders.”
Rugel is also a board member with Young Chicago Authors, which will be taking part in YAS! Fest. The after-school program is renowned for producing some of the most eclectic performers in the city’s current hip-hop regime, including Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa and Noname, and was where Patricia Frazier honed her craft.
“I’m really very proud of what they do,” he continues. “Young Chicago Authors has programs that impact 10,000 teens in 180 zip codes, allowing them to tell their narrative in their community and showing how art can have influence. There’s a great sense of community that you can also build up through programs like these as kids come together and learn about each other. … Having the YAS! Fest is so vital in the city of Chicago at this time.”
The Sun-Times caught up with three of the main acts playing the finale in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, speaking to teachers and students about why this festival is so important.
Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center (5:10 p.m.)
Having taken root in the basement of the Dearborn Station for the past 29 years, the dance center is “the best-kept secret in Chicago,” jokes founder and artistic director Homer Bryant. The studios teach various forms of dance including African, Latin, jazz and creative movement. Instructors trained Malia and Sasha Obama for many years and even snuck in Lady Gaga for some private lessons, but Bryant is perhaps best known for creating Hiplet, an advanced dance program combining classical ballet with hip-hop. It’s been featured on “Good Morning America” and Paris Fashion Week runways, but more important, it has brought diversity to the traditionally Eurocentric dance form.
“Classical ballet can be so uptight; girls have to have long necks and look very unhealthy, but not here,” says Bryant. “My girls come in all shapes and sizes and from all backgrounds. … A whole lot of people have never seen black girls do anything on the tip of their toes like they will be seeing at this festival, and hopefully it will inspire so many kids.”
One of Bryant’s students, 16-year-old Jayda Perry, who attends the Chicago High School for the Arts, has been in Hiplet classes for four years and says it’s helped build her self-confidence. “It helped me start to believe in myself and know I can do these things that seemed out of reach,” she says. “And it’s given me so many opportunities like being part of a Versace fashion video and heading out of town to places I’ve never been before. To have those experiences at a young age is really cool.”
Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater (4:50 p.m.)
This dance company is in residence at Northeastern Illinois University and was originally founded in 1976 by Dame Libby Komaiko, who was knighted by the King of Spain for her work in promoting Spanish art, music and dance in the United States. Unlike other dance schools that may solely focus on flamenco, Ensemble Espanol “presents and promotes all three styles of Spanish dance, also including folkloric dances and classical ballet with castanets,” says youth ensemble instructor Jose Torres, noting that kids as young as 4 are able to sign up for community classes.
Ensemble Espanol also has strong ties to the National Ballet of Spain, whose dancers and instructors come often to Chicago to provide instruction. “We keep a close connection to the artists and dancers who live and breathe this art form every day in Madrid,” says Torres. Because of the strong ties with education, Ensemble Espanol also provides scholarships to Northeastern Illinois University for those pursuing dance as a career track.
One of Torres’ dancers, 17-year-old Chicago High School for the Arts student Abigail Mosquera, has been with the company for three years and dancing flamenco since she was 6. “Having guest artists come from Spain for workshops and master classes is a great opportunity to further our training, which is very intensive. The teachers really push and challenge all the dancers to do their best,” she says, adding that she’s proud of the city for putting together a program like YAS! Fest. “It’s a good opportunity to show Chicago that we are the next upcoming thing and to get ready for us.”
Little Kids Rock (4:30 p.m.)
Chicago is one of the top markets for this national program that provides music teachers with grants and a classroom full of donated instruments (partners include Epiphone, Pearl Drums and Casio) so they can lead modern band programs and give kids the chance to hone their performance skills on real stages. It’s currently in 180 CPS schools serving about 40,000 kids in kindergarten through high school in our city alone; some of the all-star students have performed at Lollapalooza and Buddy Guy’s Legends and have worked with Sir the Baptist and John Mayer’s guitarist, Isaiah Sharkey.
“I think a lot of the kids don’t get as much recognition as they should be getting. There’s a lot of negative press happening in Chicago and kids can see their reflection as just that, but having these types of events where they get to be celebrated and take themselves out of those environments is so important,” says Joe Panganiban, Chicago Regional Program Director. “We ask our kids why they love music, and it’s because they relate to it and find themselves. It’s great to see them in their element.”
One of the program’s biggest stars is 12-year-old Vincent Molden, who wasn’t engaged in rock music at all before joining Little Kids Rock but now counts AC/DC and Guns ‘n Roses as his favorite bands and has dreams of being a touring musician some day.
“Little Kids Rock is bringing music and performing arts to schools so that kids can learn real instruments, and that to me is really important,” he says. “I want every student in CPS to have the opportunity I have had.”
Molden’s experience with the program led him to apply for an open audition for “School of Rock: The Musical,” where he played the lead guitarist role of Zack Mooneyham from March up until recently (so he could head back to 7th grade). “I give Little Kids Rock almost all the credit for where I am now,” Molden says, adding his thoughts on YAS! Fest: “I feel like kids need a big chance to showcase what they can do. It’s really important to see that not just adults can do amazing things but kids can, too.”