Students, all-star cast of musicians collaborate to 'Believe in Baltimore'

How local students created the song "Believe in Baltimore" with members of Future Islands, Lower Dens.

On a Monday night in April, as tensions over the death of Freddie Gray reached a breaking point and led to rioting in Baltimore’s streets, 12-year-old Taniyah Kutcherman ran to her West Baltimore bedroom and turned up Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass" in an attempt to drown out the chaos outside her window.

As it always has, a pop song offered momentary solace. Now Taniyah and some of her peers, along with an all-star cast of Baltimore musicians, aim to return the favor. On Wednesday, students in the music-education program Believe in Music will officially release “Believe in Baltimore,” a song-and-music-video collaboration between nine students and members of high-profile local bands like Future Islands and Lower Dens. (The project's organizers released the song's video, which you can watch above, early to accommodate this piece.)

The goal of the song — the lyrics of which were written entirely by the students — is to help unify the city, Taniyah said.

“Music is something that people should be able to relate to,” Taniyah said. “I hope that people [who hear the song] finally wake up and realize the city isn't going to get better on its own. We should be able to come together as one community.”

These thoughts led Taniyah to write the song's chorus: “The city is where we live, the city is where we come from / won't let it crumble into mass destruction.”

The song’s initial idea came when Kenny Liner — who founded the Believe in Music program in 2012 after the breakup of his band, the Bridge — asked his students to write lyrics inspired by their feelings following the unrest. (Believe in Music is a part of the Living Classrooms Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has utilized hands-on education and job training in the Baltimore-Washington area for 30 years.)

Liner reached out to Sam Sessa, Baltimore music coordinator at Towson University's public radio station WTMD-FM, about turning the students' work into an actual song. What began as an exercise in self-expression quickly evolved into a partnership between WTMD and Believe in Music, and the result is one of the largest Baltimore music collaborations in recent memory.

Sessa, a former Baltimore Sun entertainment editor, knew he needed a songwriter who could work quickly, but who also had the talent to mold a collection of ideas into a three-minute pop song. He recommended Cara Beth Satalino, singer/songwriter of the indie-rock trio Outer Spaces, to Liner. Liner then sent the Station North resident the students' lyrics and snippets of their melodies recorded on his phone.

Like other local artists, Satalino had wanted to help the city after the unrest, but was unsure how. The song seemed like an ideal opportunity.

“It's hard to know what to do to help in a situation like that, beyond just trying to have conversation about it with people,” Satalino said. “This was especially cool because it involved young people in the community. I think it's important for their perspective to be heard by everyone in Baltimore and outside of Baltimore, too.”

In less than 24 hours, Satalino emailed Liner a demo that immediately brought him to tears.

“It was the first time I had ever heard someone else's voice singing my students' words. That's just huge. I got the chills from my toes to my head,” Liner, 36, said. “I realized how much potential this song had.”

Sessa asked other musicians to participate, and was encouraged by the positive responses. Artists like Caleb Stine, Letitia VanSant, Elena Johnston, Cris Jacobs and Ed Harris were soon singing and playing guitars on the song. Celebration's Katrina Ford and Sean Antanaitis provided background vocals and keyboards on the track, which was recorded throughout May at WTMD's studio in Towson and Remington's WrightWay Studio. Future Islands bassist William Cashion took on the role as music director, while drummer Michael Lowry assumed his position behind the drum kit.

Jana Hunter, singer/songwriter of Lower Dens, became the students' vocal coach toward the end of the process. She found their enthusiasm and talent striking.

“It was really fun because the kids are super talented,” Hunter said on the phone while traveling to Cincinnati on tour. “And they're kids! They're not quite sure what they're capable of yet, but they're willing to try a lot of [stuff].”

Money plays no role in this project, according to Liner and Sessa. Everyone involved donated their time and expertise for free, they said. The song and video (the latter of which was made by Chris LaMartina and the local production company 15Four) are not part of some bigger fundraiser. To them, it's a piece of art meant to be shared free of charge. On Wednesday, WTMD will put the song “in heavy rotation,” Sessa said.

"Believe in Baltimore" is not the only collaboration between Believe in Music and some of the city's most popular bands. On Aug. 29, Future Islands, Dan Deacon and Beach House will perform at Pier Six Pavilion for a festival called Windjammer. Proceeds from the sold-out show will be donated to Believe in Music, Liner said.

Everyone involved seems most proud of providing students an outlet to express their feelings about the city and its deep-rooted problems. Liner said the song sounds uplifting because of its chords and tempo, but the students' lyrics do not sugarcoat the reality here.

In the first verse, 12-year-old Amira Winchester sings, “Who's going to save Baltimore? There's not much opportunity knocking on the doors.” Then, another question: “Whatever happened to the city of charm?”

Too often after traumatic events, Sessa said, the perspective of youth goes unheard.

“We've heard from the politicians and we've heard from the media, but what about the kids?” Sessa said. “They understand a lot more than we give them credit for. ... There's some pretty painful truths in this song that are important to hear.”

Yamaudi Pinder, a 15-year-old from Barclay who wrote the song's bridge, plans to attend college for music, and credits the Believe in Music program for giving her the tools and confidence she needs for the future. She hopes “Believe in Baltimore” can help lead the city to peace.

“I was trying to show that we can all come together. We can fight against something that shouldn't have happened in the first place,” Yamaudi said. “I hope [the song] brings people together and shows them that it's not about being against each other. It's not black or white. We're all human, and it doesn't only affect this one race.”

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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