FLINT, Michigan—Next spring, Gabrielle Davis will walk in the Berklee College of Music commencement ceremony after completing her bachelor’s degree. She’ll also likely be the only graduate who is already a CEO and a locally prolific disc jockey.
Davis, 25, launched the Dream League Flint Music Mentoring Program in 2014. It’s a nonprofit organization that provides music lessons and after-school and summer programs to underprivileged students and connect them with mentors who will foster a lifelong appreciation for music. The inspiration for Dream League comes from Davis’ own experience growing up in Flint.
“The idea came from a lack of music in schools,” Davis said. “When I was at Doyle Rider, there wasn’t as strong a music program as I would’ve liked at the time. Now, a lot of the elementary schools are picking music back up, but there’s still some missing pieces. That’s why we offer an after-school and summer program, to fill those gaps.”
Davis grew up with music in her life. She began playing the drums at age 3, and began playing in her church’s band at age 12. Many of her family members are also musicians or singers.
“I grew up in the church, so a lot of my background is in gospel, but other genres as well,” she said. “Flint has always been a big part of me, especially the music scene here.”
Davis’ own musical pursuits have grown since founding Dream League — she’s also a DJ. Along with her background in the church, other genres and musical influences include Vulfpeck, The Internet, Arctic Monkeys, and Daft Punk.
“I’ve only been DJ’ing a couple years,” she said. “Because I have a background as a drummer, I’m able to beat match and hear patterns and scratch riffs a lot differently than other DJs. When I started, it was just like riding a bike. It’s the same God-given feeling I get when playing the drums.”
Davis has been able to connect with a variety of musicians and partners to help Dream League grow. She’s worked with schools, the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Flint, and the YMCA Safe Spaces program, among others. Dream League also recently received a grant from Flint ReCAST that will allow for the purchase of musical instruments and expanded music lesson offerings beginning in the summer of 2020.
The program also provides academic support to students who participate.
“We’ve been fortunate to impact youth who have hardships in school,” Davis said. “Our summer and after-school program incorporates academics and does academic enrichment through songs, games, and other activities.”
A major goal for the program is to simply build confidence in students. Many begin with no experience in music, so getting kids comfortable and patient with the learning process is key.
“To me, it’s a matter of peeling back layers through each lesson,” Davis said. “On day one, they might be kind of shy or they’ve never touched an instrument. From there, they go from not really knowing a lot to knowing some of the basics, then to eventually getting to really apply their creativity and be themselves.”
Building that process is rewarding for Davis and the mentors involved in the program, because it is easy to see and reward progress.Music mentor Anthony Feimster leads an after-school program session.
“Seeing them frustrated or saying they can’t do it, but just encouraging them to keep trying is rewarding,” Davis said. “It’s a process, everyone isn’t going to be Prince or Stevie Wonder overnight. When the kids do it, we celebrate those victories. Their whole perspective gets changed just by trying.”
As Dream League continues to grow, Davis says she’s still learning new things, including how to work with new partners.
“It’s kind of like your baby, seeing it grow up, you’re careful with who has hands in it,” she said. “I’m looking to be more open with partnerships, and trust and work with people in the community who have the same goals in mind.”
Leadership has been natural for Davis, even when she was attending school in Flint. She’s also always understood the importance of giving back to her community.
“It’s a calling,” she said. “Music is one of my passions, so I can give back through music one lesson or program at a time.”
She’s also planning to use her degree to support her community. At Berklee, her degree program is focused in music business, including contract negotiations, copyright infringement, and other issues that impact musicians and artists.
“There’s a lot of talented musicians in Flint, but they don’t really know the business said,” Davis said. “I saw a need for it, now with that knowledge I have something to offer and pour back into my city.”
Dream League is always interested in talking with new partners or mentors, including high school and college students with experience in music who would be interested in participating. Contact information and details about the programs are available on the Dream League website. Along with providing resources to young musicians in the city, Davis simply hopes Dream League adds to Flint’s rich music history.
“It’s carrying a legacy that’s already been established in Flint,” Davis said. “It’s our responsibility to carry the torch, carry it well, and keep passing it.”