Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A thank you to musicians across Milwaukee after a trying 2023

Three side-by-side images of musicians, including a man singing passionately into a microphone and two other men holding drums.
Saralé Lizdas
Kings Go Forth; Facebook
(From left) Black Wolf, Cecilio Negrón, Jr., and Jahmés Finlayson were among the Milwaukee musicians who died in 2023.

This year was cruel to Milwaukee’s musicians. I’m not a core member of the community, yet I’ve been touched by multiple losses of rare and brilliant humans who felt as if they had so much more to give.

Master percussionists Jahmés Finlayson and Cecilio Negrón, Jr.

Soul and funk musician Black Wolf.

Choral director J. Mark Baker.

This is obviously not a complete list, nor is it intended to be. These are people who I was connected to personally and whose absence I still feel. Unfortunately, we also lost many other treasured Milwaukee musicians — too many. Death left its mark on the city’s music community in a particularly significant way this year.

In the weeks and months following each loss, I witnessed friends and loved ones process the brutal pain of losing a member of their musical family — a chain reaction, rippling beyond the stage and rehearsal spaces. Yet through that pain, they’ve continued to perform and create and share their grieving with us. Acts of communal healing are so needed in this fractured time.

I also know the pain persists for those musicians, as people, away from audiences and microphones. During this darkest time of year, I hope that our city’s musicians know they are a gift. And appreciated. And loved.

Embracing the challenge

Milwaukee is a place where it’s hard to be a serious musician. We rarely make it easy for you to give us your gift, yet you persist. You make yourself vulnerable in front of us, sharing your art and opening yourselves to judgment. The price of making music here inevitably involves some form of sacrifice, and you make that sacrifice not because you’ve calculated that you can afford it, but because it’s who you are.

Thank you for the light you share with us, as well as your invitation to face the darkness. In this chaotic time, our city needs you as much as we ever have.

I also want to thank you from a place of personal experience.

I worked at Radio Milwaukee from 2008 to 2011 doing Community Stories. While my role at the station wasn’t music, the job meant my coworkers were DJs, and all of us frequently worked with musicians. So I got to know that community in the anxious moments before a performance, the giddy ones following and the quiet moments away from it all. Through those relationships, I connected with beautiful people and also got to know everything they went through to get on that stage.

The artist working multiple support jobs to pay the bills so they can keep gigging.

A parent juggling whatever life throws at them to protect moments of bliss sharing their craft.

A career musician revered as a culture bearer while performing but still waiting for respect in negotiations.

My day job as a producer at Radio Milwaukee also brought me into conversation with good people doing community work throughout the city. I interviewed talented, brilliant and committed folks who keep this city afloat. Looking back, I can see something clearly now:

The grind a musician goes through to make their life here is remarkably similar to the grind many Milwaukeeans experience to pursue their passion.

A few things we could all learn

When I was hired at Radio Milwaukee, I was 24. I’m 39 now. I’m comfortable saying I was both very young and outrageously lucky to have that job. In a formative time in my life, it allowed me to swim through the stew of Milwaukee and share stories of our neighbors who inspire and lead and show us how to fight for this city.

Since leaving Radio Milwaukee, more than any other calling, Milwaukee’s musicians and artists have been my example. Does that mean I followed my dream to become a drummer or DJ and faked my way into their ranks? No. But I’ve sought to commit myself to this world and to myself in ways our artists do. And here are some lessons I’ve learned through their example:

  • If you have to fight for a place to be yourself in the world, be the fullest version of yourself you can be.
  • Do not be afraid of your light or the light of your neighbor. 
  • Be vulnerable. 
  • Be whole. 
  • Care for your friends, especially away from the spotlight. 
  • Care for yourself, especially away from the spotlight. 
  • Fight for culture. 
  • Fight for style. 
  • Honor requests, but never let them smother what you need to express. 
  • Flinch when the darkness is too much to take, but know that the darkness is more gentle when we face it together.

Thank you for sharing your gift, Milwaukee musicians. May the beloved souls who transitioned rest in the sweetest peace. And in 2024, let’s make a resolution to show the ones still with us the gratitude they deserve.

Adam Carr is the director of strategic partnerships at the Milwaukee Parks Foundation and previously worked as an independent journalist, historian, artist and community organizer.