Hometown: NORWALK, CT / Now Queens, NY
Passion: MUSIC
Instagram: @sojustinesays
Website: justineleehooper.com

What is the current passion you are pursuing?

My passion has always been making and teaching music to be accessible. Ever since I began to learn the flute at age 12, I wanted to play what I heard on the radio or at the movies. Everyone who likes music shouldn’t feel afraid to learn it, to play it, to produce it, and have the opportunities to do all of that and more.

 I talk about Black music history—past, present, and future—on my Patreon account (patreon.com/sojustinesays). At first subscribers would exclusively enjoy content about Black classical musicians but it’s expanded to commercial music by Black artists and the intersections in between the two, plus slow releases of my own music.

This year, I was invited to play with an instrumental chamber music group called Sugar Hill Salon in Harlem, that highlights Black and brown musicians. The Founder and Artistic Director, Alex Davis, and I crossed paths auditioning for a fellowship six or seven years ago, and mutual admiration has led us here now. The first concert I played with him and another trailblazing flutist, Adrienne Baker (who has also paved the way for me), was during Black History Month, where we only performed music by living Black composers. Alex taught me, “Everybody shines in the right light.” And he and Adrienne shone that light for me.

I am passionate about uplifting Black music and musicians of every genre. I am passionate about helping young people experience the joys of learning music for the first time. I am passionate about music: period.

What sparked your initial drive to pursue your passion?

Honestly? I felt like playing the flute was the only thing I was “good” at for a very long time. Then I went to college as a music major and reality hit. I got humbled. But I was poked and prodded to fit into the very small, very inflexible box that is classical music. I was surrounded by very few other Black people and people of color. I was around so much physical wealth—many of my peer’s instruments cost well over $10,000, and that wasn’t something that my family could afford. Going to classical music concerts was really expensive, buying sheet music required for my degree was really expensive, paying for a pianist to collaborate with you weekly or monthly (which also was a requirement) was really expensive. The non-mandatory-but-definitely-helpful summer masterclasses were especially costly. Everyone equates Connecticut with wealth, but we didn’t have it like that. I worked a lot of jobs and maxed out a lot of credit cards to pay for this shit. Was having a lot of money a necessity if I were to ever play on the radio or on a movie soundtrack?

 The inequities and sheer issues in access when I studied at a music school—and later while working within the arts—drove me to envision a world where every aspect of music can be within reach to everyone. I could list a lot of really gratifying and affirming name-droppy opportunities I’ve had over the course of the pandemic, but truly the honor of teaching the flute at a school in the Bronx is unmatched. It feels full circle to work with majority Black and brown kids and share all kinds of music with them. Learning from the kids themselves is indescribable, especially in this wild year.

Can you describe an instance or a situation when you faced significant fear or doubt in your life in which you successfully came out on the other side?

I’m not sure if you want it to relate (I promise it will, those who know me know I love a good anecdote), but two years ago, I learned how to drive a car—at age 27. I’d kind of refused before: living in New York was, like, why drive? But I was working in northern Massachusetts right before Covid shifted the world as we knew it, and I had been strongly advised to get a car.

Being a student driver not at 16 (or whatever the age is these days) has its benefits. For one, I feel like older drivers have a purpose to need to drive, versus at 16 or 17 where it may solely be to fit in or feel cool (not knocking the teens who have to drive to work. Power to you, if you’re reading this). Although, it did feel like the stakes were higher to pass the driving test, especially as I was supposed to start work the following week and no one finna wait in that DMV line again.

Anyway, I was actually kind of afraid of driving. Having been in a few minor car accidents as a kid, those jolts and screeches still felt present. So when I passed my lil test, you couldn’t talk to me. I was MOBILE. I was OUTSIDE. And when Covid hit and I couldn’t travel by plane, which I’d grown to love, that love shifted to driving through lush green springtime trees or the filigree of snow, in the car that was my dear late grandfather’s. 

I also highly recommend writing a stand up routine and getting on stage and performing at an open mic. Does wonders for public speaking and nerves. I think many people want to be viewed as funny, especially if you compare it in a binary such as being laughed with or being laughed at. Nobody wants to be laughed at. 

I apply this head on approach with performing and educating. I took the leap to freelance last spring after being laid off, and I haven’t looked back (shout out to the CARES Act. Universal basic income does work!). More and more I take risks and go outside of my comfort zone, and my growth is tangible. Damn near edible at this point. My badass yoga teacher, Jyll of Urban Asanas (urbanasanas.com), always says, “You got to get uncomfortable to get comfortable.”

What is your overall mindset/mantra in pursuing your passion despite fear or obstacles that come your way?

Exactly what Jyll says! I have also experienced that people themselves can very much be obstacles to your success, especially working in an office setting as a Black person in a majority white environment. My mindset of advocacy has become part of my identity. It is necessary because of my identity, the many intersections that being Black, non-binary, queer, and disabled lie at.

I feel like people like me are expected to be afraid, to assimilate, to conform. For a while, I thought that’s what I had to do. To shrink myself. To become invisible, put my head down, and do my work, even though my colleagues would remind me of my visibility by touching my hair or being micro-aggressive. That saying of “working twice as hard to get half as far” was what my life felt like for so long. If it’s killing you versus adding to your life, you need to let it go.

I adore Nina Simone, who has said, “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear.”

 A favorite movie of mine growing up was Little Miss Sunshine, which I believe is Steve Carell’s breakout film. Its premise was fitting for me at the time (and probably still now, but you tell me): a little melancholy, a little quirky, family troubles, etc. There’s a quote that the, again, very relatable teenage character says toward the end of the film: “Do what you love and fuck the rest.” I’m really happy to say that I’ve been doing that.