Because We Met: How Florella Strings changes the way Black kids see musicians

The Detroit-based duo violinists opened up about their careers and impact

Florella Strings presents music in a unique fashion. The Detroit-based duo violinists, composed of Jasmine James and Carla Rivers-Johnson, travels the country to perform at private events, showcasing class and elegance through instrumentation.

At Because We Met, an event in Atlanta hosted by Genesis and rolling out, the members of Florella Strings spoke about their careers and influence on the next generation.

When did you first get interested in music?

Rivers-Johnson: I started piano at the age of 4. I picked the violin at the age of 7. I come from a very musical family. My mother is the oldest of eight girls; all of them played musical instruments, and so because of that, it became a kind of legacy for everyone to come after had to play an instrument.

James: Very similarly to Carla, I was introduced to music at the age of 5. My grandmother was an accomplished pianist, and my mother was also a cellist. So, music definitely runs in the family. I’m the oldest of eight children, all of whom played musical instruments at some point in their lives.

What do you think early exposure to string instruments like violin does for Black kids?

Rivers-Johnson: Growing up, there were not many African Americans we saw playing stringed instruments. My aunt, who was an accomplished violinist, auditioned for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and was denied because of her skin color. So growing up, we saw a lot of Asians, a lot of Whites, Caucasians, but very few that looked like us. So that’s how we gravitated towards each other and really got to know each other because there were so few of us.

I think now we have a responsibility as African Americans to show children of color that you can pick up a stringed instrument … we take classical instruments and play R&B, pop, and hip-hop. We take it and make it a soulful experience … music, we’ve seen it benefits you mathematically, it benefits you socially. There are a lot of educational benefits as well as social benefits, and artistic benefits as well. And that’s something that our children desperately need; we need a means of self-expression. This is a way that we can do that, and I share that with the next generation.

James: As an educator for roughly 18 years … I began at a very small institution where children would come to learn the violin. As a cellist myself, I felt it was important to be multi-instrumental. Learning the violin, in tandem with already knowing the cello, was crucial so that I could take on more students and show them what it’s like. Similar to what Carla said, classical instruments don’t necessarily mean classical music. That really gets the kids going; I really try to incorporate beats and things that are really interesting to them to get them to stick with it. Having done that for [nearly] 20 years, my process has changed a little bit with social media, [and] Zoom. I teach online, and I teach in person. It’s something that has come from my grandmother, who is a [professor] at Wayne State University; teaching is in my blood. It’s something that’s important to me. I’ve been passionate about it for a very long time. And I don’t think I’ll ever stop teaching as much as I do these private events with Carla and perform all around the country at this point. I will always be a teacher, bottom line. I will never let the children go, and they won’t let me go either.

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