2023 Scholarship Recipient
UCLA Ethnomusicology & Music Industry Program
Our board members sat down with our scholarship winner, Isabel Folkers, to get to know a bit more about her impressive background. Between working with renowned artists like Mariah Carey, managing her career as a gymnast at UCLA, running her own independent photography company and assisting with her local non-profits, it became very clear to our Board just how determined and kindhearted Isabel truly is.
Can you explain Ethnomusicology to the every person?
It's really interesting when people ask me what major I am. I’ve always been like;
“ethnomusicology music industry” ... and then they're like, “huh?”. It’s very much a
mouthful. Essentially, ethnomusicology is the study and performance of global
music. So, obviously we have musicology, which is much more westernized and
western-based and western-focused; whereas ethnomusicology is more
all-encompassing of world techniques and world music. Some of the things that
I'm studying right now involve music theory from other cultures of music. The music of Thailand, Armenia, China; you name it, generally we have a program here for it. The ethnomusicology program at UCLA is one of the biggest in the country.
Tell us about how you got to work with Mariah Carey and what was it like working with such a big name?
In high school I was the leader of my acapella group. It was all women's and I did all of the arrangements of our pieces. Kind of like Pitch Perfect style, but high school. That was a really great opportunity for me to get my hands into helping with some non-profit organizations. We performed with a lot of different local organizations around Marion County, which is where I'm from. Then going to UCLA I immediately hopped on the acapella train, and was super excited about it. It's one of the more competitive groups on UCLA's campus, I was their co-musical director as well as a performer for them. I believe nine months into my work with the group we were offered to work with Mariah Carey's team as they were releasing their new Christmas single called “Fall in Love at Christmas”. She did that as a collaboration with both Kirk Franklin and Khalid so it was a really crazy thing! Her team reached out to my group and essentially said “hey we’d love for you to be the face of the project” because I also do a lot of activism work. The idea with the project, obviously a lot of people are tied into it, so we had Sony Music University help (kind of a branch of Sony music with a lot of student ambassadors). They work with a lot of nonprofits in the area to bring music to communities that aren't able to access it as easily.
Around the country, Kirk Franklin, Khalid and Mariah were all going to different schools and surprising students who were making arrangements of their song. So my job with UCLA's portion of this was to make an acapella arrangement of their new Christmas single and then I organized with the videography team and Mariah’s team to have a flash mob type video performance on UCLA's campus. She surprised us all as a promotional part of it. Essentially this performance was part of other large Universities. Kirk Franklin went to Morehouse College, Mariah Carey went to UCLA, and then within those branches of the US they also attended a lot of community schools and non-profit organizations to give keynote speeches and a whole bunch of other amazing opportunities for underserved communities and younger kids who are hoping to pursue music. UCLA was one of the bigger faces in the project just promotionally and it was just overall a very-very incredible opportunity. I'm still in contact with her team which I'm very grateful for and I was initially very starstruck but they're all amazing and so down to earth and they were less celebrity-like than I thought they would be. Now I'm kind of extending my work with Sony Music University to my own original music. I'm working with them to get my original music added to catalogs where they use it for like promotional materials in regard to gender disparity issues, LGBTQIA+ issues, etc.
Ironically, your involvement in acapella and a lot of your musical influences aligned with Kyle. So what do you believe makes a truly good artist and how do you exemplify that?
I really think authenticity and originality are two of the key concepts that people need to embody when they're going into this business. I feel like recently with platforms like TikTok and other really big social media platforms, music has become very oversaturated and it's become very like clipped down to short segments that are eye-catching that are going to draw audiences in, but not necessarily through like… often times I feel like authenticity is lacked within those moments, especially because you're only like 10-15 second videos, you know what I mean? I feel like the most successful artists in our business today ( and something that I'm trying to embody as an artist myself ) is that aspect of authenticity and genuine connection with your audience. If you’re not connecting with your audience, there may be some excitement around a viral song that you have, or some other kind of aspect that's taken off for you, but it's not necessarily going to be sustained, right? So building a strong fan base and having a connection with your audience is something that's super, super important to your success as an artist in the industry, and it's still something that I'm kind of feeling out myself. I'm coming up on one of my original releases pretty soon so I'm also trying to figure out how to connect with people.
So, you also run an independent photography company. Could you tell us more about that?
Growing up I made so many family videos and was very into digital media. I've always kind of been a very creative person, so photography was just kind of another outlet for that. I never really did it professionally until I came to UCLA and I was looking for job openings because, “I need to support myself, I got to get on that grind”. There was an opening at our Bruins Life photography studio, which generally hires graduates and professional photographers. So I had a couple shoots with a camera that I bought off Craigslist and edited them. It was very much a self-taught, spur of the moment kind of thing. Then I interviewed with them and somehow got a spot as one of their head studio photographers. That's what I did for a little bit my freshman year and then I had negative experiences within that photography business (lack of diversity, among others). I would have clients who were either plus size or wheelchair bound and there wasn't a very accessible way to give them high quality photoshoots. For example, I worked with a plus-size client and wasn't able to give her a gown that fit, and the sessions are timed and very short. So I had to go to my manager and be like “hey do we have a plus-size gown available for this client?” they responded “No we don't, she has to come back at a different time”. So I let her know, and then she spoke to the front and they essentially told her that she wouldn't be able to get a refund for the shoot that she was doing and that she would have to pay for a full new one moving forward, which I just thought was really not the vibe that I needed within my workspace. It was not inclusive, it was extremely demeaning to the client and she left completely heartbroken. That was something that was really hard for me to see especially because I began studio work to really utilize it as a creative outlet and connect with people whom I was taking their photographs for. From that point on, I kind of handed in the towel and was done with the studio environment.
I started my own business so that I could create a more inclusive and affordable option for students who are seeking photography. Especially in college, people are looking for fraternity or greek-life shoots. They're looking for graduation shoots, sport shoots, you name it. A ton of people are looking for professional photography but there are so few options that are actually affordable for college students like me. That was kind of the idea in my building of Folkers Photography. I began my work with student organizations and then extended it to nonprofit local organizations. For example, Made By the Downtown Women's Center is a wonderful non-profit organization that creates sustainable goods and offers employment opportunities for people without homes. I was able to come in and do some free product photography for them and help build their website as well as doing good with my company. From there I was hired out by more professional sports teams at UCLA and recently had some of my gymnastics photographs featured in the LA Times which was super exciting and super cool. So I'm redesigning my website, revamping all my social media now, and hopefully business will be increasing as we move into the next school year.
You’re clearly a very active and busy person so how do you stay motivated?
There are definitely a lot of moving pieces to my college life but being a
student athlete, especially for UCLA's gymnastics team, is something that's
really grounded me. I feel like I'm always on the go and I'm always mentally
overwhelmed, so getting to go into the gym and spend time with my
teammates and focus on the routines that I'm building in the competitions
that we have coming up is something that really keeps me grounded. The
way I stay motivated is primarily through my teammates. I began gymnastics
when I was pretty young and very quickly moved into pretty competitive
gymnastics, which I'm sure you guys have heard is a very rigorous environment. Perfection is drilled into students from a young age, and can oftentimes lead to mental health disorders, eating disorders, and really bad body image.This is something that I suffered from as a young gymnast. Moving to UCLA, I wasn't going to continue gymnastics at all. I love the sport, but was so beaten down emotionally and mentally by it that I just was like, “I'm not doing it anymore, I can't handle this”. Then I came to UCLA and saw the club gymnastics teams booth at a sports fair. They invited me to come to tryouts, and I'm so glad that I did. It's a welcoming family of gymnasts who have all been through very similar kinds of rigorous training and bad communities. We were all kind of able to bond over the fact that we had a hatred for gymnastics at the end, but then were able to rekindle that into a true love for the sport. Not because of perfection or competition, but because we wanted to better ourselves as athletes and community members of UCLA. Another aspect that really motivates me in my sport are the kids that I teach. My two primary jobs are recreational coaching at a Culver City gym called Jag Gymnastics Academy. and then I'm also a manager at UCLA’s gymnastics facility for open-rec and other programs that they host. At Jag, I work with kids from ages 2-18, and having the opportunity to work with such young children has been such a blessing because I've been able to really foster a positive environment for them; one that I didn't really have growing up. To see the way that it's brought joy and love and friendship to all of these kids is something that also really motivates me. Some of my kids will come to my gymnastics meets and cheer me on, and being able to bring that into my work environment with them, like coming back to coach them in classes, is something that is really exciting to me and something that I hope to continue working on in the future.
Could you tell us a little bit of backstory on your new song “Devil's Praise”?
“Devil's Praise” is a song that I'm hoping to release as a single within
the next month or so (editor's note: she did release it and it's' out
everywhere now so go stream it!) and is eventually going to be one
single on an EP that I release this academic year. “Devil's Praise”
specifically is about the unhealthy cycle that abusive relationships
can form. When I was young, I was subject to a pretty hostile
relationship and didn't have the support system to help me navigate
that. Oftentimes as a victim of very violent sexual assaults and
growing up that was something that really altered my mind and I
truly believe changed me as a person. I was subject to this
manipulative cycle that I feel a lot of young women are thrown into
when they're not really as well educated about healthy relationships
and boundaries and consent. So that's what the song “Devil's Praise”
is about. It is this girl who's trapped within this manipulative cycle of
abuse and her efforts to get out of it, but then not being able to.
Oftentimes in those kinds of cycles there's a stereotype and norm
set that you are expected to receive the praise of whoever you are
with at the time. That kind of seeking of praise and approval is
something that can really hurt young women who get stuck in
relationships. “Devil's Praise” is one of the most influential songs that I've written I think and it speaks very closely to my personal experience with that but also other experiences of friends that I know, and other women within groups that I've met at UCLA. This song has been used in a lot of promotional material in connection with Sony Music University but also other UCLA organizations like the Bruins Consent Coalition, the LGBTQIA+ Affinity Space and is getting used as a means of connection of narrative with all of these other women who have experienced very similar things. I'm hoping that with the release of “Devil's Praise” I'm able to extend its outreach to reassure people that it's okay to talk about those experiences and it's okay to lean on others when you feel like you are in the middle of that sort of cycle.
Thank you so much for being vulnerable with us and sharing that experience, we know Kyle would really admire what you’re doing to help others. To round-up this interview, we want to know how this scholarship is going to help you achieve your goals and what can our supporters do to help you in the future?
For sure, thank you so much. Obviously first and foremost, this scholarship is helping me to continue to pursue my college degree. Without it and without the assistance that you guys are giving me financially, I wouldn't be able to do that, so seriously from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for the financial assistance that comes with it! This is what's allowing me to kind of pursue that “unrealistic” music major ( you know what I mean! ) that a lot of people oftentimes don't believe in. Having the foundation’s support is truly inspiring and motivational and really is just allowing me to do it. I also would love to become more involved in the organization. I love what you guys are doing, I love your mission and I love your message and if there's any way that I can become more involved in your organization, I am more than happy to become an active member of your community. In terms of my music, my biggest priority is just to get that music out and to also get performance experience. I've realized, in the process of releasing this music and getting my name out there, it is definitely more than just writing the songs. Right now I'm working on cover art for my upcoming EP, I'm working on marketing strategies, and I'm working with digital distribution systems to try and figure out when I'm setting my release date. So I think my biggest goal right now is to get my music out in a way that satisfies my goals and to create an audience. Then past that point, I'm hoping to extend to different performance opportunities around the California area. I know there are quite a few open-mics and show opportunities around the Beverly Hills/Bel Air area that I'm hoping to take advantage of. I would love to eventually go on tour with this EP and a couple other musicians and close friends. And obviously I want to get to, like, the Hollywood Bowl, and all of these incredible stages; but I think it's just about for me right now working up in that performance ladder and also still writing original music and releasing it!