Venisha Buckley seems nervous. As she slowly climbs the stairs to the stage at Wire, a combination music venue/school/production incubator opened on Roosevelt Road in Berwyn in 2013 by a group of Oak Park and River Forest investors, Venisha doesn’t look like someone thrilled about the prospect of performing for the camera.
But once the music starts, Venisha, an eighth-grader at Beethoven Middle School on Chicago’s South Side who goes by “Famous X” when she’s performing, flips a switch. Photographer Kevin Ryan’s job is easy as he clicks away a few feet from the stage.
Venisha is among a group of seven budding middle school musicians involved in a nonprofit organization called Guitars Over Guns, an after-school music mentoring program that provides structure and a positive outlet for at-risk kids in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods.
The Wire photo shoot on May 1 was to get images for a print advertisement in an upcoming issue of Downbeat magazine, which is donating space in its publication for Guitars Over Guns to reach a wider audience.
A creative team from Edelman, a worldwide marketing and public relations agency, took Guitars Over Guns under its wing as a pro bono client after fielding proposals from several nonprofits.
The head of that creative team, Riverside resident Steven Slivka, himself a musician, was drawn to what Guitars Over Guns was trying to accomplish. The hope, said Slivka, is to introduce Guitars Over Guns to more Chicago schools.
“It shows the power of music to teach kids discipline, to give them something to look forward to and believe in, in places where things like this are missing or no longer exist,” Slivka said.
Slivka said his introduction to music in grade school in Berwyn – the band director was a working jazz musician – was transformative.
“My life was changed by my music director in grade school,” said Slivka, who is chief creative officer at Edelman Chicago. “He helped me out when no one needed to. Music was the entry point into what I do now.”
In order to give the Downbeat photo shoot an authentic feel, the organizers reached out to Wire co-founder Chris Neville, of Oak Park. The young musicians got to spend time on the stage of a professional club and Wire’s staff donated their time.
“It’s the kind of cause we’re very much behind, so it was an easy sell for me,” said Neville, whose club has hosted and whose band, Tributosaurus, has played at Concert Across America to End Gun Violence for the past two years.
Started by Chicago-area native Chad Bernstein in 2008 in Miami, Guitars Over Guns spread its reach to Chicago four years ago, connecting working musicians with children who are looking for an alternative to the violence of their communities through music.
“The presence of a caring adult is essential for everyone, but especially for those who have experienced trauma in their lives,” said Andrew DeMuro, regional director for Guitars Over Guns.
DeMuro is himself a working musician. In addition to being a member of an acoustic trio called The Shades, DeMuro appeared on the TV show “The Voice” in 2016. Prior to joining Guitar Over Guns, DeMuro taught at Urban Prep Academy, an all-boys charter high school on Chicago’s near Southwest Side.
Music wasn’t part of the curriculum at Urban Prep, but kids would find a way to incorporate music into their everyday lives at school, according to DeMuro, from spontaneous singing in the hallways between classes to drumming on desk tops.
DeMuro sought to give those musical impulses structure in the form of an after-school choir program.
It was important for kids, DeMuro said, “having people who are there every day and giving them this space and telling them it’s OK to be you.”
In Chicago, 11 musicians from Guitars Over Guns work with about 300 students twice a week after school in two South Side schools as well as a church-affiliated music studio in Bronzeville.
“For a lot of these kids, it’s the only positive thing they have going,” Slivka said. “I wanted to take the opportunity to show the kids as they are – as artists — and make them look like everybody else in Downbeat.”