Joseph Samuel Quisol, M.Ed. – known professionally as Quisol – was in the midst of telling me, over Zoom, that he describes his style of music as “just pop these days.”
“For so much of my career, I tried to say it’s a blend of indie rock and has some R&B and Latin influences,” he said. “But I’d rather just be ‘pop’ because I think there’s power to just saying I am mainstream and not some mishmash of different things.”
Quisol, 27, is a North Mecklenburg High graduate with roots in the Philippines and Puerto Rico. He’s a social justice activist and organizer in addition to being a singer/songwriter.
He takes his music to the streets – or anywhere he happens to be – but he’s got an Ivy League pedigree in addition to his street cred. He earned a master’s degree in education in arts at Harvard University, where he studied music activism with Esperanza Spalding.
What Heaven sounds like
Within minutes of our meeting via Zoom, Quisol panned the camera to the other side of the room to reveal a harp he recently bought – “my new obsession,” he called it. Then, he played it. I told him I thought that’s what Heaven might sound like.
And I thought: Quisol, you may be the only pop artist who plays the harp.
“The harp resonates with so many people,” he said. “I wanted to give people an experience that transcends – one that’s dreamy, hopeful and optimistic.”
While he can play the strings, percussion, sax (“I play everything, really”), he considers his voice his primary instrument.
You can hear that voice, paired with violin and cello, on the latest NoteWorthy concert on Wednesday, June 30 at 7:30 p.m.
WDAV Classical Public Radio and FAIR PLAY Music Equity Initiative, with funding from OrthoCarolina and the Arts & Science Council, have teamed up for the series that pairs a local musician of color with classical musicians. Charlotte Symphony violinist Kari Giles and cellist Jeremy Lamb join Quisol for the intimate performance.
The six-concert series aims to erase cultural barriers among music lovers. The first three concerts (Quisol’s is the third) are available for viewing via Facebook Live. All were filmed at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center’s Stage Door Theater.
The second half of the series may be performed live; WDAV will make an announcement via noteworthyclassical.org soon.
From Charlotte to Harvard
Quisol grew up performing at Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte. “And whenever I would visit my grandmother in her later years in southern California, I would play at her church. A family reunion always meant church – and a Quisol performance.
“Church wasn’t where I felt completely comfortable being myself, especially as a queer person,” he said.
But there was something about praise music that spoke to him. “I love the way it moves people and allows them to connect with something deeper in themselves and with each other,” he said. “That’s the kind of experience I want to provide.”
Microsoft provided a way for Quisol to go to college.
Actually, it was a scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (or, as Quisol joked, “it may be the Bill or Melinda Gates Foundation now.”)
The Foundation funded Quisol’s undergrad at College of Charleston and his graduate studies at Harvard. He had success before Harvard. He was writing and performing music in Charlotte, but he was also struggling.
“I was an Uber driver,” he said. “I was delivering groceries and food, and my bank account hit negative a lot. I had a lot of insufficient funds charges. Harvard kind of turned some things around for me and gave me access to a lot of work opportunities and jobs and gigs.”
Musicians need networks
“Now, I freelance and consult for different nonprofits in Boston and Los Angeles, and I have projects all over the country through the network I have just through being there. That allows me to keep doing music and to select which projects that I work on.”
One upcoming project is Eco, a makerspace he’s co-created at the Compare Food shopping center on Sharon Amity.
“Even after I left Charlotte, I stayed plugged in with Charlotte artists, including Georgie Nakima of Garden of Journey,” he explained. “She and I have been working together this whole time and have always wanted to build a multidisciplinary maker space. We actually just got the keys.”
“Georgie has a nonprofit called Learning Resources for Change,” he said. “I love the name because we want to see social change, and we need the resources to do it.”
The arts and community organizing are a natural pairing, Quisol said: “Organizers are artists in a way – they know there’s a dream and a vision for a life that’s better and worth fighting for. The very roots of this country are resistance – Indigenous resistance; Black resistance; liberation struggles throughout the decades, whether abolition or against police brutality or eradicating systemic racism.”
“There are ways for that to happen in the economic and political sectors,” he said. “But culturally, I’m interested in building venues where people’s authentic selves can be celebrated, where histories can be told – and not just the propaganda that leans toward nationalism.”
Quisol protested the Keith Lamont Scott shooting in Charlotte. He was in Washington, D.C. for a peaceful protest the day former President Trump was inaugurated.
And when Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos came to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to speak about school choice, Quisol was part of a silent protest. He and a couple of others stood and unfurled handmade banners.
“There was an international media lens on that event,” he said. “We wanted to make a point about not selling out public education to be privatized and to be this profit-generating thing when it should be accessible to all.”
He made his point. And, he made the news.
The importance of access
It took leaving Charlotte to give Quisol a taste of what he’d missed growing up here.
Living in San Francisco, as he did for a time, pointed out in stark terms the wealth gap that exists in this country. “I’d see wealth and opulence directly next to homelessness and people who don’t have anything. I mean, the disconnect there – how can you have both in the same block? In Charlotte, we have the opportunity to build something in a way that’s sustainable, abundant for everyone and that honors the people who are already here and honors the environment. We’re a new city, but we have a history to reckon with.”
“When I went to the Blumenthal to record the NoteWorthy concert, that was the first time I’d ever been there in person,” he said. “I lived here for 15 years before I left, and I’d never witnessed classical music until after I went to college. And all because of finances.”
“I didn’t have the money to go to college, but then the Gateses were like, here you go; go do it,” he continued.
“Suddenly [at Harvard], there’s free tickets to performances. Yo-Yo Ma was there; there was always something happening. And you’re invited once you have your foot in the door. Not everyone has access to these experiences.”
Hoping to give others a NoteWorthy memory
The issue of access is what motivated Quisol to participate in NoteWorthy.
“I’m hoping that through this collaboration and others like it, more people will be able to experience classical music.”
And WDAV hopes more classical music fans will experience R&B, rap and more.
“I think that institutions like the symphony and the opera have a responsibility to help pave that path for groups that have been historically excluded,” he added.
Quisol first met his accompanists, Giles and Lamb, over Zoom to begin rehearsing their NoteWorthy concert.
“They’re both amazingly skilled, and it was so cool for them to take my songs and see something in them,” he said. “Jeremy wrote this whole interlude between the first and second verses that was just gorgeous. it was very emotional to see that my music would… inspire them to create something that then inspired me.”
“I’m putting out a new album later this summer,” he continued. “And so [the NoteWorthy concert] was the first performance of some of the new songs, and they just really lent themselves to the strings. I could see the vision … but I couldn’t achieve this on my own.”
Previous NoteWorthy concerts have paired Charlotte singer-songwriter Arsena Schroeder with composer and pianist Leonard Mark Lewis, violinist Lenora Cox Leggatt and guitarist Chris Suter and GRAMMY-Award winning singer/songwriter/rapper/ producer Greg Cox with violist Matt Darsey and Charlotte Symphony Orchestra violinist Jane Hart Brendle.
Keep up with Quisol.
Check out his brand-new video for a song called The Dirt – a song about the Bay Area – from an earlier album called Revelations. Quisol cautions that there’s adult language in the song.
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