Toronto-based singer/songwriter Vanessa Lu appears onstage from behind a black curtain. Standing tall and tranquil in an olive bomber jacket and black leggings, she shows no signs of nervousness. The crowd gathered inside the city’s Union Station transit hub awaits her, speaking amongst themselves, yielding a quiet sort of clamour. Her instrumental comes on — a slowed-down piano version of “Lean On” by Major Lazer and DJ Snake feat. MØ — and the talking, although weakened, persists.

“Do you recall, not long ago. We would walk on the sidewalk?” sings Lu. Her voice commands attention, and the audience recognizes that. For the first time this afternoon, the audience is completely silent. She goes on to perform two original songs and another cover, charming the audience more and more with each song she performs at the celebration of the 2016 recipient groups of the MusiCounts TD Community Music Program.

Vanessa Lu // Photo © Jimmy Kakish + Urbanology Magazine

“[Programs like The Remix Project] are really important because [for] kids, especially the kids that are living in neighbourhoods that aren’t the best you kind of need a distraction to help you.”

Lu is an alumnus of The Remix Project, a Toronto and Chicago-based urban arts organization focused on giving artists from marginalized communities a better chance at succeeding in their creative endeavours.

“[Programs like The Remix Project] are really important because [for] kids, especially the kids that are living in neighbourhoods that aren’t the best,” says Lu, “you kind of need a distraction to help you and you need someone to tell you that you’re amazing and that if you keep pushing it you’ll keep going further.”

Since 2013, TD Bank Group has been a partner with MusiCounts, a Canadian music education charity focused on ensuring that Canadian youth have access to reliable music programs. The partnership donates things like instruments and equipment to Canadian public school and community arts/music organizations like The Remix Project, which received $19,000 in musical instruments and equipment this year, and Toronto’s award-winning ArtStarts program, which received $10,000 worth of instruments and equipment.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orillia, Ont., Girls Action Foundation, Montreal, of Quebec and the Regent Park Focus Youth Media Arts Centre of Toronto, were also among the 33 initiatives selected as recipients across Canada this year. Overall, the MusiCounts effort has donated $1.2 million worth of instruments and equipment to over 11,000 youth participants benefiting from the program.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Claudine Dupont, VP of Global Brand at TD, says that music education is vital to young people, as it gives them things like access to instruments and a foundation for their music. “It’s super critical in getting their passion and love for music started at an early age.”

A 2014 research report conducted by Canada’s Royal Conservatory of Music says that the introduction of music to kids benefits their development and increases emotional resilience, empathy and their attention span as well as improves things like their language abilities and self-confidence.

Self-confidence is an important yield of these initiatives in an era when, according to global insights firm, Kelton Global, 27 per cent of American teens admit to having low self-esteem. Rayon Grey, a.k.a. 3gs Ray, a hip-hop artist who participated in ArtStarts, is a perfect example of what these music programs can do.

Toronto artist 3Gs Ray // Photo © Jimmy Kakish + Urbanology Magazine
Toronto artist 3Gs Ray // Photo © Jimmy Kakish + Urbanology Magazine

“The environment [at ArtStarts] makes you think differently about life.”

Emerging from the green room, the 19-year-old floats slyly across the stage in a black ArtStarts T-shirt and a vintage-looking pair of gold eyeglasses. He moves to the mic and introduces himself. He then performs “True Story,” an original song.

Offstage, he’s quiet. He’s humble. He’s thankful. “[ArtStarts] got me performances, one. It made me a better person, two,” he says, reflecting on his journey with the organization.

“The environment [at ArtStarts] makes you think differently about life. When you go into this program, you’ll just look at people and you’ll see so [many] talents and you’ll want more for yourself and them,” he said.

After his set, Grey joins the crowd to experience a surprise performance by JUNO-award winning artist Kardinal Offishall, who many years ago got his start from the now-defunct Fresh Arts program in Toronto, as did filmmaker, Director X, and countless others.

“[The Fresh Arts program] helped get me where I am today,” stated Offishall in a MusiCounts press release. “That’s why it was so important for me to participate and make noise in Union Station to celebrate the MusiCounts TD Community Music program. We must continue . . . to empower youth and keep music alive in Canada.”

Photos © Jimmy Kakish + Urbanology Magazine