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President Obama surprises MBK Alliance summer grantees at Chicago music studio

Barack Obama smiles and looks on as several men laugh. They are in a room with the walls painted shades of blue and purple.

When Nathan Ellis showed up for a session at his favorite recording studio on Chicago’s South Side, he and his fellow aspiring artists got the surprise of a lifetime: a visit from President Obama! Learn more about Nathan, his experience at  Guitars Over Guns (Opens in a new tab), and his plans for the future.

A Black man with short hair and glasses clutches a microphone and appears to be singing or speaking into it. His eyes are closed. Behind him are green and blue out-of-focus lights.

“I really don’t know where I would be without music,” Nathan Ellis reflected.

Nathan says during his freshman year of high school he was introduced to the studio at Guitars Over Guns, a Chicago nonprofit that exposes youth in underserved communities to music and mentorship.

Now, Nathan is studying music at Columbia College Chicago. He credits his creative growth to the support he’s received from the program.

“I enjoy the space and the family aspect of it,” Nathan said. “It’s an environment that I’ll never get tired of. It’s fun and I learn so much. A lot of the things I know today, I’ve learned there.”

Barack Obama stands in a room with young people. They are looking a person seated in the center, back to the camera. The wall behind them is painted in flowy blues and purple.

Guitars Over Guns is an MBK Alliance  Freedom Summer 2022 grant recipient. The award has afforded them opportunities to create new programming–which Nathan says he’s grateful for.

“Since I started, there have been many new programs and equipment. We’ve got speakers, microphones, and interfaces that are worth $10,000, so not having to pay out of pocket for this experience makes the studio space worthwhile,” he said.

Last month, President Obama  surprised a few participants of the program. He heard from mentors and even listened to the students’ freestyles and beats.

“It’s not every day you get to meet President Obama,” he reflected with a smile. “It was a genuine experience. I appreciated getting to level with him and share my music.”

He says Guitars over Guns provides him a free space to collaborate with friends, share ideas, and enhance his craft.

“It’s been an undeniably great experience. My lyricism and collaboration skills have improved just by being in that environment,” he said. “They also opened our eyes to the business side with corporations and labels. We now know how to maneuver in this industry.”

The rapper-producer says his work at Guitars over Guns is putting him one step closer to his dream.

“I want to win Grammys, obviously,” he shared with a laugh. “But I also want to make an impact in the city I love. I want to bring a sort of honor to it.”

President Obama poses for a photo with Guitars Over Guns participants. He is surrounded by 17 others with a range of light to deep skin tones.
A young man with a dark complexion wears a gray jacket. He appears to be hanging from the rim of a basketball hoop/

Freedom Summer Initiative 2023

This $1 million grant program aims to support local organizations that are working to reduce violence in Chicago communities this summer by creating and expanding spaces and programming.

Learn More