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By Billboard

Songwriters like Justin Tranter and Jesse Saint John discuss the impact of The Music Fellowship, a 10-week program at the L.A. Center.

The Los Angeles LGBT Center has served as a safe haven and inclusive hub for the last 50 years. Founded by gay rights activist Morris Kight in 1969, the Center provides diverse programs and services aimed at enriching the lives of people in the global LGBTQ+ community, including some of its youngest local members.

One of those initiatives is The Music Fellowship, an intensive 10-week music program which kicks off its fifth cohort in August. Launched in Fall 2017 and aimed at LGBTQ+ youth and allies ages 17-24, the program is dedicated to nurturing members’ creative aspirations, skills, growth and talent while providing a “safe space for self-expression, mentorship, education, and creativity” alongside a special collaborative curriculum.

“The mission of the program is to foster individual identities while encouraging the creative process,” says Jennifer Gutierrez, who is the Center’s Youth Development Supervisory. “Regardless of a young person’s skill level, The Music Fellowship is a space where they can find their voice, passion, and community.”

One of the ways in which The Music Fellowship has reached young members is by providing practical, face-to-face access to working musicians. LGBTQ+ artists like Justin Tranter, Parson James, MNDR, Daphne Willis and Jesse Saint John are just a handful of acts who have volunteered their time working with members of the program through various skill development workshops for songwriting, production, and vocal training; studio training sessions; musical instrument lessons; and educational insider music industry discussions.

In July, the Center held a writing camp for its Music Fellowship members at Big Noise, a music media company that specializes in artist development. The day-long event, which took place at Big Noise’s studios in Los Angeles, involved recording sessions, performances and a music industry panel led by talented artists, including Saint John.

“It was an incredible experience co-writing and talking with the [youth member] musicians because they were so eager to get their ideas heard. And I was excited to learn from fresh energy,” the pop artist reveals.

Saint John, a songwriter who has worked with Lizzo, Britney Spears and Kim Petras, among others, adds that his work with the Center has also allowed him to “participate in and curate OUT sessions in which we are able to collaborate in the studio with members of The Music Fellowship program.”

“By having successful LGBTQ music professionals work hands on with our members, they are providing a space where youth can feel supported and be open about expressing their identities through music, just like any other artist,” Gutierrez shares. “It’s important for youth to hear the challenges these professionals have faced to make it in the industry and as an LGBTQ+ artist because it gives them a realistic understanding that nothing gets handed to you — no matter how talented you are.”

But professional artists who volunteer at the Center become more than just teachers and mentors -- often, the connections they make last long after the course concludes. “We want the youth who come to the Center to see that support and positive role models exist beyond our doors and how important it is to give back to the community that supports you. Knowing someone within their community or identity who succeeded gives hope to our youth,” Gutierrez says, though she adds “what they appreciate more than anything is the ability to create with artists. Making a new beat or a new song is always the highlight of any music session.”

The experience is often “life-changing” for youth members, a number of which have confidently pursued music professionally following their time with the Fellowship. Gutierrez explains that one young student, who will remain nameless per the center's policy of privacy for their youth members, started the program with an unspecified interest in music and performance. “He’s now performed in front of an audience on multiple occasions and is actively writing new music," she says. "Another youth shared that, after participating in our event with Big Noise Studios, he feels he can work in the music industry and be successful.”

These mentorss act as exemplars for the possibilities ahead of young, queer artists—as well as the importance of visibility and solidarity. Tranter, for example, tells Billboard that he views it as his responsibility to give back to his community. “I have the privilege of a music education, industry connections, financial freedom and my time,” he says. “To be able to pay all of those privileges forward to members of our magical LGBTQ community who need it most is a blessing and a lot of fun! No matter the cards society has dealt us, we all still deserve a chance to make music and chase our dreams.”

Saint John agrees, saying that he wants queer youth to see him and feel understood. “I hope I can inspire and show that you can come from extremely humble beginnings and make a name for yourself in a notoriously difficult industry,” he shares. “I hope to make connections and continue making donations, giving mentorship, and providing opportunities, just as I have been.”

Though the program, much like its members, is still young, the Center’s rich legacy of impactful LGBTQ+ community advocacy — as well as the staff’s deep commitment to uplift its hundreds of thousands of members worldwide — signals continued growth.

“Our hope is to expand by providing more music-based programming, bringing more skilled volunteers, and offering more opportunities outside our space for members to get connected to the music,” Gutierrez shares. When it comes to cultivating tangible real-world opportunities for queer youth, representation is key: “The more LGBTQ+ youth can see that it’s possible to be ‘out’ in the industry and still be supported and successful, the more they will be empowered to live their truth and pursue their dreams.”

“We’re always stronger together,” Saint John adds. “I don’t look at any of my success as singular. I hope that I can open a door for someone else and that all my opportunities funnel out to them and back to us. Our community is stronger as a whole.”


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