Flea Says Revisiting His Old High School Sparked His Crusade for Music Education

Flea at the 2017 Silverlake Conservatory of Music Annual Benefit.
Gary Leonard/Courtesy of Silverlake Conservatory of Music

Flea at the 2017 Silverlake Conservatory of Music Annual Benefit. 

The Silverlake Conservatory will hold its annual fundraiser on Saturday with guest performances by Anderson .Paak, Randy Newman and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Since 2001, the non-profit Silverlake Conservatory of Music founded by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and childhood friend Keith “Tree” Barry has been a bastion for children's music education in and around Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood. Through reasonably priced music lessons with scholarships to students who qualify, the intent has always been making music easily accessible to any child in the community as a means to inspire and enact positive change. Now, preparing for the school's annual fundraiser on Saturday -- featuring performances by Anderson. PaakRandy Newman and an acoustic Chili Peppers set with the school's children's choir -- the superstar rocker says the timing is crucial to support music education, as public funding of the arts appears to be in jeopardy under Donald Trump's presidency. 

Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed a budget with significant funding cuts for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. With the Trump administration threatening to cut support for the arts, Flea believes the school’s role is now more important than ever.

“It just makes zero sense why the Trump administration would want to cut that stuff," he tells Billboard. "I don't understand it. It doesn't make any sense to me and it's very sad to me but it just reconfirms my commitment to doing my best to helping our little corner of the world, our community, our thing flourish.” 

Just as past years' fundraisers have featured some of music's biggest names for the sake of making music education accessible to everyone, so too will this year with Newman and Paak onboard. It will also have an art auction with work by artists such as The Kills singer Alison Mosshart, Ed Ruscha, Thomas Houseago, Shepard Fairey and Jonas Wood. As well, this marks the first year the event will be held at the non-profit's new, larger location, allowing donors to tour the upgraded facilities.

Talking about the Conservatory's inception, Flea explains he's always considered music education to be vital. “[Barry] is a music teacher and has been teaching for a long time," he says. "And I thought, ‘God, it'd be really cool to open up a little music school in our neighborhood where we live, you know, in Silverlake.”

He realized the magnitude of accessible music education after meeting a music teacher in New York at a Knicks game, who taught at his Los Angeles high school, Fairfax High. “You know, it was such a wild coincidence out of that big Madison Square Garden because the music program at Fairfax High was a huge part of my life,” he says. “I mean, it was the only reason I went to school. Otherwise I would have been a complete ne'er do well pothead. You know, a petty crime-making f-ck-up.”

She invited him to return to his alma mater to speak to her music class about having a career in music. What he witnessed when he walked into the music room stunned him. Whereas he remembers the classroom being fully stocked with all kinds of instruments during his time at the school, but when he returned he said there was none of that. 

“They had no instruments, not one violin, not one horn, not one saxophone, they have a boombox and a volunteer teacher basically teaching a music appreciation class," he says. "I was shocked, it was just like a ghost town of what used to be, a shell of its former self.”

After learning the school had lost all the funding for its music program and talking to the children, Flea felt it was crucial he help change this. 

Reading Horace Tapscott’s memoir Song of the Unsung during a lonesome trip to Mexico served as the ultimate catalyst for the decision to turn his dreams of making the school into a reality. Tapscott founded a music school himself and his way of describing what it meant for him to create a place that could bring a positive change to the community inspired Flea to take matters into his own hands.

“It was such a compelling and poignantly written book, I remember closing last page and I was like, ‘I'm going home tomorrow from Mexico and I'm starting this f-cking school,’” he says. “I went home and I called my friends, I called Tree, I said, ‘You're going to be the dean, you're going to do it,’ I called my friend Pete Weiss, ‘Come on, I need help getting this together logistically,’ and just started that day. I said, ‘Whatever it costs, I will pay it, I will do it, we're starting a music school,’ and that's how it went down.”

The school offers private reasonably priced music lessons on orchestral and band instruments. It also offers scholarships to kids who qualify, providing them free lessons and instruments, making music lessons easily accessible to any child in the community. The organization is planning to expand its scholarship program in order to continue to easily provide this opportunity to students. 

Looking back at his own childhood experience with music education, Flea recognizes the large role it played in shaping his life. He was part of his school’s music program as well as the LA Junior Philharmonic, one of the most distinctive orchestras for children that was free of cost. “I took part in everything that I could. Had there been a music school like [Silverlake] where there were free lessons, you know, [I would have been part of it] for sure, 'cause my parents couldn't afford to pay for that kind of stuff,” he says.

Given that much of his time is spent touring with Red Hot Chili Peppers, the hours Flea can contribute to the school being physically involved is limited, yet he often tries to help out whenever he can. There, he has witnessed first-hand the overwhelmingly positive opportunities that having a school like Silverlake has brought to the community.

“There was one six-month period where I was away from work and I taught there regularly and there was one kid I had, he had been living in foster homes and had been kicked out of a few and then was living in like a municipal run home for youth, which is pretty rough,” he says. Flea would drive him to and from the school, taking him out to Lakers games and making sure he was taken care of. “When I started teaching him trumpet, he ... had a wildness to him; going through a really hard time and kind of scattered. But I noticed when he picked up a trumpet, there was determination in his face to play the thing,” Flea continues, his voice cracking as he emotionally recalls this. 

This summer, Flea expanded his efforts southward with a new music program he started with friends in Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood and is looking to open music schools in other parts of the city.

“A lot of these kids down there are growing up in really extreme violence, gang culture and stuff," he says. "They were so happy to be playing music, you know? I mean, all kids are different, all communities are different. All places are different. But every kid deserves an education in the arts. To not have that really is tantamount to child abuse. It's a drastic, drastic mistake.”


The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.

To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.