Cellist Experiences Summer of Adventure

Malik in Tanzania

by Ron Oshima

I had heard that recent MYSO graduate Malik Johnson had a big summer this year. But I didn’t know how big until I sat down and had coffee with him.

Malik graduated from Pius XI High School in 2017. He spent ten years with MYSO, initially joining Progressions, and played in Senior Symphony from his sophomore to senior years. He is currently a sophomore at DePaul University in Chicago, majoring in cello performance and performing arts management.

His big summer ironically started with the Sphinx organization six years ago. Sphinx provides training and competitions for Black and Latinx string players, ages 11-17. Malik attended a Sphinx Performance Academy in the summer of 2012, one of 32 kids selected from nationwide auditions. He befriended a classmate in the DePaul Orchestra, a young African-American violinist named Caitlin, who had been a Sphinx Competition participant.

Earlier this year, Caitlin insisted that Malik should meet Matt Jones, a young African-American pianist, composer, and string arranger based in Chicago. In May, Matt showed up at a DePaul Orchestra rehearsal. He and Malik hit it off immediately. A pizza dinner at 5:30 pm after rehearsal didn’t conclude until 1:00 am in the morning. A few days later, Matt asked Malik if he wanted to do a recording backup gig for a female Malaysian rapper coming to town. “We went to the studio, and we recorded the orchestra parts for this cool hip-hop beat,” said Malik.

From there, the relationship with Matt grew. In June, Matt asked if Malik wanted to appear on NPR’s Tiny Desk program. The Matt Jones Orchestra soon found themselves piling into a rented van and drove for twelve hours straight from Chicago to the recording studio in Washington D.C. They stayed in D.C. for 6-7 hours to record, then headed back to Chicago. “It was really a fun trip,” reminisces Malik.

Matt Jones started to get a lot more attention after Tiny Desk. During the summer, John Legend was looking for string arrangements for his Christmas album, and ended up selecting Matt. “We went to a studio in Chicago and recorded background strings, just the orchestra parts, for four or five songs on his album,” said Malik. “We didn’t meet him, but it was still a cool experience to hear some John Legend vocals that no one had heard before.” If you scan the credits for the Legendary Christmas album, released this fall, you will see “Malik Johnson, Cello.”

Matt continually preached the importance of networking to Malik whenever they were hanging out together. “You should go talk to them. Go introduce yourself…You need to be social if you want to succeed. You never know where your connections will lead you.”

In August, Malik went to Tanzania, courtesy of the Jackie Robinson Foundation whose scholarship makes it possible for him to attend DePaul. He spent ten days there working with the Maasai people of the Longido District.

He fondly tells a story of going on a water walk one time with the village elders, i.e., the mothers who do all the work. That walk is four miles each way, up and down Mt. Longido. They do that eight times a day. Goats and elders carry down the water in big plastic jugs.

“A lot of people, like kids, aren’t able to go to school because that’s what they’re doing all day, getting water,” says Malik. “Once I got back to the States, I started to see how blessed I was.”

Malik ended our conversation with a shout out to MYSO. “I love and miss everybody at MYSO. I definitely appreciate all you are still doing for the city of Milwaukee, and music in general.”

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