12-Year-Old Violinist Inspires Community

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by Michelle Hoffman

If you ask Sinfonia violinist Raphaël Coly, 12, what he likes most about playing music, he will tell you it is “to make people happy”….which makes him happy.

Raphaël’s mom, Yolanda, works with the non-partisan non-profit Transformative Justice Coalition which helped organize the local John Lewis “Good Trouble” VoterCade March. Named for Rep. John Lewis after the congressman’s death in July 2020, the marches popped up in cities across the country.

Back in October 2020, Raphaël was quarantining at home, and feeling rather dejected because he was unable to come to MYSO. Yolanda had a last-minute idea: to keep Raphaël motivated and engaged in music during this time, she arranged for the local John Lewis March to drive by the Coly home. (It took place in vehicles for social distancing and was livestreamed.) The marchers and viewers were treated to a surprise concert by Raphaël who played the first piece he could think of that he had memorized. A week later, Raphaël offered up a performance when the March banner was installed before an audience at Milwaukee’s Lakefront.

This led to invitations to perform virtually for the national Transformative Justice Coalition 5th Anniversary Black History Month Forum, and a statewide Community Speaks Youth Event/DPI Candidate Forum.

Raphaël’s performance at the national meeting began with a harrowing moment. Immediately before performing his piece, one of his violin strings broke. In a matter of seconds, Raphaël pivoted and reached for his viola, the instrument he had been playing for only a short time. Without even a practice run (and thanks to remarkable composure), Raphaël was able to perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the Black National Anthem, before a national audience (with more than 5,000 views online!).

Civil rights and social justice attorney Barbara Arnwine, Founder/President of the Transformative Justice Coalition, one of the national organizers of the October march, was present for Raphaël’s impromptu front yard performance, and describes him as “a remarkable and brilliant young man.”

“In addition to the tremendously positive community response in Milwaukee, Raphaël’s performance was just icing on the cake…a wonderful gift,” said Ms. Arnwine.

“He found a way to make a difference while homebound, and it is a testament to his persistence, creativity, and fortitude.”

A violinist and violist herself, Ms. Arnwine stated enthusiastically, “Music is transformative! It holds the power to transform minds, hearts, vision, and aspirations. I can’t wait to see how Raphaël inspires others in the future.”

Raphaël began Suzuki violin at age 3. Now in his third year of MYSO, he is a sixth grader at Milwaukee Montessori School. In addition to being a musician, he is an altar server at his church and is fluent in French (courtesy of his dad who is originally from Senegal).

Raphaël has a keen interest in the sciences. In addition, he has stellar grades and some serious goals in mind; Raphaël has set his sights on Marquette University High School, Stanford University, and eventually, medical school. Ultimately, he would like to become a neurosurgeon. (Raphaël’s dad, Dr. Gèrard Coly, MD, MPH, is a clinical research manager at the Froedtert/Medical College of Wisconsin Cancer Center.)

Raphaël has strong family support for his musical and educational endeavors. Yolanda says, “I’ve always told him ‘having that background in violin will sustain you in anything you choose to do.’”

Raphaël says he is hoping to continue to make an impact in his community–both through music…and science.

Photo courtesy of the Coly family.

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