Making a Difference West Edition

ICYO gives inner-city youth a chance to perform


In the summer of 2009, DaQuan Robinson, 15, was worried. His summer music program was canceled and the young bass player could not imagine going the entire summer without playing. 

Determined to not let that happen, he reached out to Charles Dickerson, who was a conductor at the program. 

Dickerson agreed to do a special summer course for Robinson and eight of his fellow music students. By the time the summer was over, there were 24 participants. 

At the conclusion of the program, they put on a summer recital that was well received by the community. While Dickerson expected it to be a one-time thing, the youth had other plans. 

“One of the young people invited me to come to their birthday party and when I got there I realized I had been set up,” Dickerson said with a chuckle. “All 24 of my students were seated in the backyard, ready to play, and they told me that they wanted the program to continue beyond the summer and I said OK. By the end of the year we had 50- 60 young people participating.”

That was the start of the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. The little group was making big waves. In 2011, the orchestra was invited to play alongside the Morgan State University Chorus as part of the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue on The National Mall in Washington D.C. Caught off guard, but thrilled, Dickerson quickly went into fundraising mode and incorporated the group into a 501c3 nonprofit organization. 

As the executive director and the conductor, Dickerson keeps expanding the reach of the organization. In 2011-12, the orchestra hosted its inaugural concert season playing primarily at various churches around the city and concluding with their first concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall. 

Today the orchestra is the largest majority African-American orchestra in America. I

t offers three programs: the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles Orchestra Program, an annual concert season that features both the standard orchestral repertoire and contemporary music that resounds within the community; the Inner City Youth Orchestra Academy that teaches students at Los Angeles Unified School District elementary schools how to play an instrument; and the Los Angeles Orchestra Fellowship, which trains emerging professionals to take and win auditions with American orchestras, in partnership with the USC Thornton School of Music and the League of American Orchestra. 

The organization is also the official orchestra of Cal State Dominguez Hills. There is no fee or audition process to join. All participants just have to have a love for the music and a willingness to work hard.

While African Americans make up about 13 percent of the population, a study done in 2016 by the League of American Orchestra found that only 1.8 percent of those in the American orchestra industry are African American and Dickerson acknowledges that the vast majority of classical musicians that are celebrated are “dead white guys,” but notes that there are brilliant black writers and composers in this field.  

“When people say that classical music is not ‘our music’ that is bull,” Dickerson added. “Look at black composers such as Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, who lived at the time of Mozart, (look at) William Grant Still, Adolphus Hailstork, Michael Abels, who composed the ‘Get Out’ soundtrack, H.B. Barnum. … Unfortunately, a lot of our contributions in this field are not appreciated by the larger choral community, or even by us. When we say black people only play a certain kind of music we limit ourselves to a certain monolithic way of thinking.” 

Dickerson hopes to see a packed house on July 7, when the orchestra performs at Walt Disney Concert Hall, and that attendees will get a new appreciation for orchestral music. In fact, it is an appreciation for this musical art form that the orchestra plans on spreading throughout the world. 

This summer, the organization will host a series of intensive music workshops in the Southside of Chicago in hopes of creating a year-round music program in the predominately black community. The organization is also currently shipping musical instruments to Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth in South Africa, in preparation for music programs they will be helping to create.

The pride that Dickerson feels about the growth of the organization is only second to the pride he feels in the students who have come through the program, many who have used what they have learned to improve and uplift their communities.

“Learning about classical music teaches you about life,” Dickerson said. “There is a rhythm in classical music that mirrors the rhythms of life. With classical music, there are times when the dynamic is extremely soft and quiet, or loud and bodacious, and life is often that way. Our youth learn those complexities of music, and are able to transfer those qualities in a way that makes them complete and whole and more competitive in every aspect of life.” 


Name: Charles Dickerson

Title: Conductor and Executive Director 

Organization Name: The Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles


By Angela N. Parker 

Contributing writer