Cincinnati Music Accelerator turns hopeful artists into business-savvy musicians

People's Liberty funds musician training course

CINCINNATI -- Imagine hearing a song you produced on the radio and realizing somebody else had licensed it out. Or making a deposit to compete in a beat battle and having the organizers disappear with your cash.

Either scenario could break a young musician’s spirit, but music producer Kick Lee took them on the chin and grew wiser.

Kick Lee

“It's a learning experience, and more things kind of similar to that started happening, and it just fueled me,” Lee said. “A lot of folks have a tremendous amount of musical, creative skills, but they lack the business knowledge in that realm. And it kept pushing me to be like, ‘What can I do?’”

His answer is the Cincinnati Music Accelerator. Lee, whose given name is Rolando Martell, earned a $10,000 grant from People’s Liberty earlier this year to kick-start a training program for local artists to learn every realm of the music industry, including all the business, legal, financial, professional and personal secrets to success.

The program’s first five students are wrapping up the six-week training session with a showcase at 7 p.m. Thursday at Elementz (1100 Race St.).

RELATED VIDEOS: Meet the Cincinnati Music Accelerator's first five students

“Though this is it, our last class is today, that does not mean we are gone. That does not mean that it's over for you. You have mentors. You have a team,” Lee said during the program’s final class on Sept. 21.

The accelerator seems to have struck a chord with Tri-State musicians, as Lee is sorting through more than 90 applications to choose no more than eight people for the next session, set to begin Nov. 8. Participants pay a $250 fee for the class, which Lee said covers materials, field trips and dinners at the weekly two-hour sessions.

“Whoever is in the music arts community and struggling, we are here for you. If you can't afford it, don't worry about it. We'll work it out and aren't asking you to pay all that upfront,” Lee said. “The goal for us is to be able to help you, and whatever you pay actually goes right back into you."

The program’s first students all fall into different spaces, from a rapper/lyricist to a singer-songwriter to a teenage jazz pianist. Lee said he has seen them all transform from that “horrible” first pitch night into discovering their own strengths, weaknesses and ambitions.

Onyx Johnson

Onyx Johnson, an aspiring R&B/hip-hop artist when he puts down the scissors in his Downtown barbershop, said Cincinnati Music Accelerator challenged him to think more about marketing himself as an artist.

“Without a brand, if you don't know who you are, you have no market,” Johnson said. “You have nobody to connect with, so really dig deep down into who you are as an artist and as an individual and everything else should flourish itself."

Hiram Yukunoamlak

The class also helped Hiram Yukunoamlak, a daughter of Eritrean immigrants from Colerain Township, narrow in on 20-somethings as her audience. She has wanted to sing since staying up late as a 7-year-old to watch Whitney Houston belt out “I Will Always Love You” in that iconic tarmac scene from “The Bodyguard.

“It's important to pick an age range and who you cater to, who your crowd is and to know them because you can't get to everybody,” Yukunoamlak said.

The Cincinnati Music Accelerator is not simply finance tips and music-writing techniques, said Tyler Yeager, 22, of Newport. It has become family.

Tyler Yeager

“We all have this presumption that everything in life we have to do it ourselves. We have to get out there and do it. Nobody's going to do it for you. And we forget to ask people for help,” Yeager, who is finishing his first album, said. “There are people here who are just like me who want to be involved in things. That want to do things. That want to see things happen. That want to help people. All you got to do is ask.”

Jazz pianist Adanya Stephens, a sophomore at the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Over-the-Rhine, juggles homework with Cincinnati Music Accelerator’s weekly meetings by heading to school early to practice and working through lunch. She has spent recent mornings listening to YouTube jazz savant Jacob Collier’s 11-track debut album from start to finish.

Adanya Stephens

“The musicians who really speak to me are the ones that have a deep story. Something that means something to me that impacts me in a positive way,” Stephens said. “I want to be able to impact somebody like that where they want to wake up and listen to my album or however it is that I influence them and make them feel good.”

Musical activism is the phrase Stephens and several of the students used to describe what they would like to do, and one that Lee also uses in describing his own work.

The Cincinnati Music Accelerator's first group of students work at their final class.

Lee said it wasn’t just the students who’ve changed through the accelerator’s first session.

“I have more support than I thought. I’m thankful for the students because they taught me I am good at this, and I can prevail,” Lee said, admitting his own nervousness at the outset.

That reinforced confidence has translated into big dreams for where Lee would like to take the program.

“Cincinnati, for me, is a trial. Build it here. (If) we can build it here, we can build it anywhere,” he said. 

Lee said he would love to replicate the program in other cities or take alumni on tour around Ohio to perform and host workshops. Turning the program into a paid residency with its own facility and studio is another of Lee’s daydreams.

“I want to see the community come together, and I want to see the community support the music arts community,” Lee said. “If you create something that's visible, then folks will be more willing to get involved and support it, so that's all I'm trying to do is bring it to light.”

Read more about the Cincinnati Music Accelerator on its website here and at the People’s Liberty website here.

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