Musician Henri Muhammad has been teaching young African-Americans how to play strings and piano for nearly 20 years in the city of Buffalo. The Muhammad School of Music’s continuing mission to provide inner-city youth with an instrumental education has led to generations of Buffalo-bred professionals in various vocations.
Henri Muhammad grew up in downtown Buffalo starting violin at the age of 7. Through the lens of classical music, he developed a passion to express himself artistically.
“Growing up, even in college, there were many times I’d play in an orchestra or ensemble where I’d be the only black or minority player,” said Muhammad.
After graduating from the University of Rochester in 1998, he moved back to Buffalo.
“When I came back to Buffalo, people began to ask can you teach my child to play the violin or piano.”
With African-Americans making up less than 2% of larger orchestras, Henri stood out in a community looking for accessibility. What started out as just one or two interested parents became larger and more organized.
“People began to come around us to organize the classes in to a school and that’s really how I got started,” said Muhammad.
Jameelah Hemphill was one of his first students. Her family knew his family and at the age of ten, she picked up the violin.
“I actually grew a love for classical music. It’s very rare, especially in our community,” Hemphill said.
It was her own exposure to other musicians of color that kept her striving to improve.
“He often took us to concerts. So when we went to a concert in Rochester, there was an all-black orchestra. So I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness I’ve never seen that before.’ It was so amazing. So I was like, ‘I need to be on that stage.’ And eventually I did play with them,” she said.
Hemphill is referring to the Gateway Music Festival, a biannual festival in association with the Eastman School of Music that features over 100 African-American musicians from across the United States.
Hemphill has been teaching with Henri since she was 16. Growing up, she wouldd have friends who would see her play and want to learn more.
“All my friends were like, ‘Oh you play violin? I want to try it.’ So they used to come over and I used to show them little things. So now those same friends, I teach their children.”
Hemphill’s three-year-old daughter has already started too.
“A lot of children don’t normally say, ‘Oh I want to play the violin.’ I think it’s a good exposure to them. Something different. They’re used to doing sports or playing outside or things like that,” she said.
Hemphill is one of many students whose path to a career has been influenced by Muhammad.
“I have graduate students who have graduated from my program who are now in every profession,” said Muhammad. "Doctors and lawyers and politicians and teachers. I had a student message me on Facebook a couple of weeks ago saying, ‘Mr. Muhammad thank you I know I was a knucklehead then, but I thank you for sticking with me.’ And I looked at his Facebook profile and he’s touring with Gary Clark Jr. He’s his keyboardist.”
Keyboardist Jonathan Deas is a graduate of the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, a former student of Muhammad’s, and in just the past few weeks has been on SNL, Howard Stern, and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert performing with Gary Clark Jr. to promote his new album This Land.
He said he met Muhammad when he was in fifth grade.
“The first thing that struck me about Mr. Muhammad was the way he dressed. I didn’t know anything about him. So the first time I seen him he’s in a suit, bowtie, clean cut,” said Deas. “He was just so well put together, well spoken, well educated. He was definitively a role model, somebody to look up to.”
“I sent him a message probably two weeks ago just telling him thank you for being an inspiration to me as a student. I know I was probably a pain in the ass a lot of times as a kid,” he said.
Deas, who was a drummer first, was introduced to viola and cello through Muhammad.
“It helps me today because I understand how they move. I understand what they are supposed to sound like, where they go. How to change the mood with those instruments when I’m doing production with those kinds of stuff,” Deas said. “So those are things I didn’t think about as a kid, but I appreciate it now because I can look back and see that those things were in the lessons. But you don’t pick up on certain nuances when you’re so young… I use them today. I use them in the studio with Gary.”
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING VIDEO CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE
While he only spent two years with Muhammad, it provided him an introduction to orchestra music and playing in a band. Deas is one Muhammad’s several students who have gone on to become successful in their professional field.
“I think that the discipline that they get and the skill, even down to the fine motor skills, I think all of that is transferrable to any field of endeavor,” Muhammad said. “I always encourage if they look for an instrument. They can pick any instrument but I think the violin and the piano are excellent choices.”
Twenty years later, Muhammad is still going strong.
“It doesn’t feel like 20 years. I still feel like I’m 20 years old. But there’s a saying that when you do what you love, it doesn’t take the kind of toll on you. It’s like time flies,” Muhammad said. “I meet students now that are adults. So it’s kind of shocking. I just want to stay young and keep sharing this gift as long as I can.”
Fourteen-year old Nailah Kent currently attends the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts and is one of Muhammad’s current students. She said music won’t be full time career, but she will carry it with her for the rest of her life.
“Music is like everything. It’s like my passion. I love music. It’s just like different. It’s not like what everybody else is doing. It’s like something that I like to do and something that make me stand out,” Kent said.
“It’s good to put on like resumes and for people to know that you play it,” she said. “They’re going to be like, ‘That’s different. That’s good.’”
She sometimes rehearses with Muhammad’s 14-year-old son Akbar.
“I’m not going to play (violin) professionally, because my dad already does that,” Akbar laughed.
Muhammad has four children. All of them started on violin. His daughter is now a pre-professional ballerina. Akbar is a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo.
“These art forms. It’s my expression of art, my daughter’s is ballet, my son’s is martial arts,” said Muhammad. “Being able to express yourself artistically I think is one of the most beneficial ways to share what you have inside.”
Kent said watching the BPO growing up has inspired her to continue playing.
“I think with an instrument like the violin in classical music, which traditionally you don’t see very many if any black minority, brown people of color playing in professional orchestras. I think that’s one of the reasons why we started Muhammad School of music,” Muhammad said.
“As I would perform around Buffalo, there was a desire for parents and families to want to give their children the instrument. I think when they see our students perform in various places… we go and perform in schools and churches and outdoor events. We perform at art festivals and they see young black children playing the violin, then it kind of lets them know the audience, the parents, and the young people that see that they can play that instrument as well. It’s like Barack Obama becoming the first black president. He kind of let the genie out of the bottle. And now, children can see that they too can achieve the highest political office. Within the country I think classical music is experiencing a breakthrough like that as well. Here in Buffalo I think we have a unique position to offer that to our community and that’s what we want to keep on doing.”
Muhammad does a couple joint ventures a year with the orchestra. He thinks whatever inroads the BPO can make and open up will be beneficial for community.
“I had an opportunity to conduct and play a violin concerto with them,” Muhammad said. “I think until (we see more representation in the orchestra), the Muhammad School of Music is in the trenches. In the communities and churches. In community centers. In backyard parties bringing classical music to the East Side, to the West Side, to wherever classical music will have us. I think that’s what it’s all about. And if it makes its way in to Kleinhans, then that will be great.”
For the past three years, Muhammad has taught at Public School 61, the Arthur O. Eave School of Distinction, which teaches pre-k to fourth grade students. He’ll continue to teach there in addition to his own school.
Later this spring, Muhammad plans to put on a 20th anniversary concert.