Student Feature: Using music to ignite social change on campus
By Nicole Cischke
Every April, SpringFest brings artists and innovators from both creative and philanthropic student organizations at the University of Michigan together for a day-long festival on U-M’s central campus. SpringFest, which is hosted by the student-run nonprofit MUSIC Matters, was inspired by the annual South by Southwest festival held each year in Austin, TX. The event is designed to promote innovation, creativity, and community by displaying the achievements of U-M students.
Ayla Ahmed with the rapper Desiigner, one of the headliners from the 2017 SpringFest benefit concert.
The proceeds made from SpringFest are given back to the community each year in the form of MUSIC Matters’ many social ventures. In addition to regular monthly volunteering events, the group has successfully developed and implemented a need-based “Big Thinkers Scholarship” for incoming U-M students and the “Michigan Overnight Experience,” a pre-college summer program for regional high school students.This year’s Springfest will take place on April 4, 11 a.m.–4 p.m.Nicole Cischke from U-M Arts & Culture recently sat down with Ayla Ahmed, a junior at the U-M Ross School of Business and head of the SpringFest committee, to talk about her experience with MUSIC Matters and expectations for this year’s festival.NC: How did you first get involved with MUSIC MATTERS and SpringFest?Ahmed: I joined my freshman year. I was walking around FestiFall and I heard a booth playing Kanye West music—and I love Kanye—so I went up to them. And I’ve always been really into music and performance. Unfortunately I’m not musically talented, but I love listening to it and going to concerts. What drew me in was the music element, but what made me stay was the greater purpose that the organization serves. When I first came to U-M I remember being a little overwhelmed and sad because there were so many cool things to do—but you just can’t do them all. What’s been great about working on SpringFest is that you kind of can. You get to learn about, promote and work with lots of amazing organizations at U-M.NC: Can you tell me more about what happens on the day of SpringFest?Ahmed: SpringFest has two components. The first part happens during the day, and that’s what my work encompases. For that portion, we shut down the Diag, North University, North and South Ingalls Mall, and we fill it with the best Michigan has to offer across a range of disciplines—art, music, innovation, technology, fashion, and food. We also build a big stage on North University and host local and national acts performing throughout the day. We put on a Shark Tank-style pitch competition every year. And we bring food trucks. It happens right after the weather breaks, so it’s not freezing anymore. Students can really come out and celebrate being at U-M. That night, we also host a ticketed benefit concert. The main acts that will perform this year are Louis the Child and Lost Kings, which I’m really excited about. The proceeds that are made from ticket sales and our fundraising efforts over the year go towards our social ventures, which is what I think really distinguishes us as a student organization.
NC: What are some of the social ventures that have been started by MUSIC Matters?Ahmed: MUSIC Matters has a whole team dedicated to building and implementing our social ventures, like the first-of-its-kind, need-based, student-funded and student-selected scholarship. We have a few students on campus that are current recipients of that, which is really amazing.This summer we premiered our MOvE camp, which stands for Michigan Overnight Experience. We brought in 50 10th graders from Detroit’s Henry Ford Academy to campus for a night and invited them to stay in the dorms. We talked to them about the feasibility of college—no one that attended had ever visited U-M. We led them through financial workshops and did some fun things as well, like taking them on a tour of the Big House.At the start of this school year we implemented our third social venture which we call the Community Partnership. For this venture, MUSIC Matters partners with a philanthropy based student organization. We encouraged a lot of different organizations to apply, and we chose Books for a Benefit, which is focused on improving literacy in local communities. We give them a grant of money, the resource of having all of our members as volunteers and all of our marketing power. They’ll also have a whole area dedicated to them at SpringFest to see how we can empower and scale their organization. So yeah, we do a lot in order to accomplish what you think would be a simple mission, but we really try to reach out to all of campus to create the biggest impact possible. NC: MUSIC Matters has a board of professional executives that work with the students involved. Can you tell me a little bit about that?Ahmed: MUSIC Matters is a seven-year-old organization, and we’ve managed to grow quite a bit in those seven years. We’ve been able to do that by focusing on engaging with student communities on campus, but also by thinking utilizing U-M’s amazing alumni base to create a lot of connections within the industries that are useful to us. This all kind of began around three years ago, when alumni of MUSIC Matters wanted to give back to the organization in some way. So now they donate an annual Los Angeles trip to the organization. Every year we choose 6 leaders who go to LA for a week. We set up meetings with a bunch of different industry leaders in entertainment, media, and philanthropy.It’s grown into us being able to put on SpringFest in partnership with Universal Music Group, which is one of the world’s leading music companies. Through this partnership, we’ve been able to really forge a professional relationship with a lot of companies, and we’re able to keep the path of communication between us and these companies clear because MUSIC Matters now has their own board of advisors. We were covered in the Hollywood Reporter and Billboard about our board, which consists of professors from U-M that believed in us when we first began, all the way to Gary Gersh, who is the global president of talent at AEG Presents. It’s really just a list of talented, amazing people who have been able to advise us through all the different issues that we confront, and really provide a backbone for what we do. It’s been a really great way to prove that U-M alumni are always there for you. They’ve been a valuable resource in helping us put on our events in a more professional manner.NC: MUSIC Matters sounds like it’s a lot of work. How do you balance that with your life as a student at U-M?Ahmed: It’s definitely been tough and it’s been a bit of a transition—especially as you get more and more involved, it’s more work and it’s more exciting. What I try to do is, say, when I’m in class or when I have my study time, I’m dedicated to that. I won’t get bothered by other things, I won’t keep my GroupMe chat open so I can see what we’re talking about, and I won’t check my email. But honestly, what I’ve found is that my MUSIC Matters work has been useful to me in a lot of other areas. I’ve learned so many amazing skills from it. My freshman year I learned how to send an email correctly, which I didn’t realize I didn’t know how to do! I’ve learned a lot of important time management skills and people management skills that I have found to be invaluable. It does get tough with timing sometimes—and I will admit I don’t sleep a ton—but I have found it to be so worth it to be able to stay involved with such an inspiring organization.