Jay Julio Uses Classical Music to Advocate for Bail Reform

By Heather Chin
January 9, 2023
Profiles

In the summer of 2020, as people around the world joined racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd, classical musician Jay Julio felt galvanized by both frustration and hope. “2020 was obviously a huge low point,” they said. “But it was also a more fertile point than it is now. I think many of us were thinking there may be hope that summer.”

Wanting to take action beyond supporting daily protests, the 25-year-old Filipinx American multi-instrumentalist decided to organize local concerts featuring musicians of color and cultures not typically highlighted in classical music. This led to the creation of “Sound Off: Music For Bail,” a collective of musicians, activists, and thinkers dedicated to raising money for bail funds across the country, rethinking notions of public safety as they relate to real-life communities, and playing great music.

“It was important for me to create a real and lasting format for classical musicians to perform across all cultures,” they told me after the group’s most recent show in November. In Julio’s experience, concerts have the ability to reach people who might not ordinarily participate in events like rallies. These events are a way to meet people where they are.

“Our methods of action are playing pieces, hosting speakers to give talks, and having organizations be beneficiaries both of monetary donations and of connections with audience members in our community,” they explained.

“No orchestra would function without people of color.” - Jay Julio

Julio cites Solange’s 2016 album, A Seat At The Table, as a major inspiration for the concert series. “It left me in tears,” they said. “I’m obviously not a Black woman, so I don’t know that particular experience, but for me it was a huge turning point in understanding that music could be so powerful. That album gave me an idea of how you could present things.”

Since launching in July 2020, “Sound Off”’s community partners have included the Bail Project, which works nationwide on bail reform; the Justice Committee, which serves families of those lost to police brutality and violence; and, most recently, Red Canary Song, which gained mainstream recognition after the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021, but which has worked to advocate for the rights of Asian women and migrant sex workers and allies for years.

For Julio, “Sound Off” is also an opportunity to come to terms with the socioeconomic realities of classical music. “No orchestra would function without people of color,” they stated. “We are a huge part of the industry and we feel the effects of poverty and criminalization.”

Julio’s commitment to using music as a way to build bridges and catalyze action has been a motivating theme since their childhood. “The question of equity, fairness, and evening the playing field always came up,” they said. “It’s been very important to me that I not leave anybody behind and I always remember where I come from.”

Growing up in a single-parent Filipino household in Long Island’s majority-minority Uniondale neighborhood, their early musical influences included their mother, who they described as being a “lovely singer” who had some school chorus training while growing up in a rural community in the Philippines. Julio was also deeply influenced by church karaoke, opera, and Mozart. In adolescence, they were drawn to neo-soul, rap, and jazz; sounds that remind Julio of church music and harmonies, “even if the content is totally different.”

“My greatest dream would be for ‘Sound Off’ to not need to exist.” - Jay Julio

They learned to read music early on and started teaching themself violin at age 11 but didn’t have a chance to study formally until they were 14 when they participated in a school partnership with what was then the Long Island Philharmonic. Then, it was off to Mannes School of Music, followed by Interlochen Arts Academy, the Manhattan School of Music, and finally Juilliard for a masters degree.

These days, with a career as a violist in orchestras around the world and as a teacher, performer, and composer everywhere from Broadway to the Hollywood Bowl, Julio doesn’t take their success for granted. “I’m just happy to be here,” they told us. “I had a very early awareness growing up in a single parent household, that there were things I didn’t have that others did, and things I did and they didn’t.”

“I feel so lucky to have been able to do so much more than I dreamed of,” they continued. “But my greatest dream would be for ‘Sound Off’ to not need to exist.”

Heather J. Chin is a digital producer at the Philadelphia Inquirer and freelance journalist whose writing on the arts, heath, and Asian America has appeared in publications across her native Brooklyn, NYC, and the country. She serves as co-director of the Asian American Journalists Association’s Freelance affinity group, co-founded a women-led hyperlocal audio storytelling called Local Switchboard NYC, and has soft launched a newsletter/calendar tentatively called “What’s Up In Asian America.” She can be found @heatherjchin on all social platforms.

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