'Music Gives Me A Voice:' 12-Year-Old Cellist Julia Soto On Performing at Obama Foundation Summit

The People's Music School
Courtesy of The People's Music School

The People's Music School perform at the Obama Foundation Summit.

Five students from The People's Music School, a Chicago-based free music school founded by Dominican Republic musician Dr. Rita Simó, opened the first-ever Obama Foundation Summit performing an instrumental version of Coldplay's "Viva La Vida."

Cellist Julia Soto, 12 years old, was among the five-piece ensemble that performed in front of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama who sat front row.

Before Soto stepped onstage, she was cheered on by the Obamas who wished her good luck backstage. "They were so genuine," recalls Soto, who has been playing the cello at The People's Music School for five years and whose family emigrated from Mexico.

The other young musicians onstage were Melanie Moran, 17, Amy Orellana, 15, Kelly Reinoso, 17, and Jason Soto, 16, Julia's brother. They had 48 hours to learn the song and perform it in front of global leaders and influencers where Prince Harry was also in attendance. 

"Three days before the summit, I received an email from the Obama Foundation," Jennifer Kim-Matsuzawa, president and artistic director at The People's Music School, tells Billboard. "It was a huge honor but I was skeptical that we would be able to pull off such an event in such a short period of time."

After going back-and-forth, the school agreed to perform at the summit when five students insisted they could learn the song in time for the big day. "'Viva La Vida' is a song that our students hadn't learned before, and they all said that they wanted to do this. They stepped up and said this was important,'" Kim-Matsuzawa says.

Billboard caught up with Soto in a candid Q&A where she talked about meeting the Obamas, pressing issues that worry her the most and which artists inspire her. 

What was it like to open the Obama Summit? Were you nervous/excited?

I was really excited! We perform a lot with The People’s Music School all around the city, but I was definitely nervous. We had less than two days to learn the song. I was so nervous backstage before we played that President Obama and the First Lady actually came up to me and helped me calm down. It was so cool! They were so genuine and told me I would do great and wished me luck. It also really helped that my older brother Jason was playing in the group with me. He plays bass. We play a lot at home together and since he was performing with me, I really felt like I could do it. All of us in the group felt so honored to perform at the Summit. I feel like I’m part of making a better future for the world, which is what the whole event is about. 

As a young musician in Chicago, what are some pressing issues that hit close to home? 

Chicago has always been my home, so I don’t really know anything else. But I am scared about things that are happening around me too, like gang violence on the streets. My mom always tells me to be careful when I am outside. Also, with everything going on in politics right now, I worry about deportation stuff. I worry that something might happen to my family. I worry about my aunts and uncles that weren’t born here and what might happen to them. But there is so much culture and diversity in the city, and I love Chicago for that. I feel that especially at The People’s Music School, we all have such different backgrounds but we come together through music. When we are playing, nothing else matters around us. This is why I felt so honored to be at this event -- it’s about bringing people together, we are supposed to be the United States of America. This event was all about unity, bringing people together and not dividing people. Playing for the Summit made me feel like I was part of something really important in the world. 

What role, if any, do you think music should play when it comes to social justice issues and activism? 

I think that music can play a big role in addressing issues around me that matter, and that’s something we talk about a lot at The People’s Music School. Music gives me a voice and a way to express myself. Often music can be more powerful than words. It is a universal language that so many people can relate to and feel a connection to.

What do you take away from this experience? 

I met the Obamas! It was amazing. This experience taught me that I am part of something bigger than myself. I am part of a movement that is happening to make the future better, to make the world a better place. It also made me feel like anything is possible. We only had two days to learn this piece and I worked so hard and really had to focus to make it happen. Just two days ago, I’d never even played this song and now I’ve performed it live on a national stage in front of hundreds of people. I felt so proud of our group for believing in ourselves and working together to make this happen. 

Which artists inspire you?

Beyoncé! I also love Chance the Rapper, because he was born here in my city. He makes me feel like anything is possible, like I could do what he is doing some day. I was so excited that we opened the summit and Chance closed it! I would love to meet him.