CitySongs program

Mark Baumgarten

The anticipation in St. Paul’s Martin Luther King Center was almost as prevalent as the sound of singing children that filled the building’s hall.
Both came in preparation for the CitySongs Kids’ Friday night concert “One Voice.”
“I’m very excited,” said Isaiah Thomas, an eighth-grader at Murray Junior High School and CitySongs Kid. “This is the only time I really get to show my emotion in public.”
CitySongs, a program developed by the University’s School of Social Work in collaboration with the Hallie Q. Brown-Martin Luther King Center, gives culturally diverse children from third to eighth grade an opportunity to receive musical instruction while making a positive impact on their community.
“Our program is not about preventing the kids from doing bad things; we don’t want to address the issue negatively,” said Helen Heathcliff, founder of the program. “We want to increase the children’s strength and show them and the community that they are competent people.”
In the process of helping at-risk kids become a productive part of the community, CitySongs has become a pillar of community service. Since its inception in October 1992, the program has involved 500 young people and given more than 100 public performances. These performances include a concert at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul and a performance at Gov. Jesse Ventura’s inauguration.
“That was by far the highlight of our year,” said Managing Director Bethmarie Ward. “They reviewed over 3,000 people, and we were the ones they chose.”
But singing in front of thousands of people is not the reason most of the children become involved in the program.
“My mom made me join to get better at school and get more friends,” said 10-year-old Mounds Park Elementary student Tashira Miller. “This is my third year; I’m glad she made me join.”
Students in the program are taking the opportunity for self-improvement given to them and spreading it to anyone within earshot. Along with composer J.D. Steele, the CitySongs Kids wrote the lyrics for the song, “Same Blood,” to show listeners what the world would look like without racism.
The song, featuring the lyrics, “eliminate hate before it’s too late,” will be one of the many challenging songs included in Friday’s spring concert.
“We don’t do easy stuff,” Ward said. “A lot of our songs have a lot of soul, and that is very hard for kids this age to get a grasp on.”
The fact that CitySongs is composed mostly of children who have not had any formal music training makes the task of producing a quality show even more difficult.
“We don’t audition,” Heathcliff said. “When you audition, you are only getting the kids who have already identified their talents and have confidence in themselves.”
With the help of five paid staff and 15 volunteers from the University, the CitySongs Kids have built their confidence and are ready for their seventh annual spring concert at Metro State University’s St. Paul campus auditorium at 7 p.m. on Friday.