Growing up in West Englewood, on Chicago’s South Side, Andre Daniels ’08 was surrounded by violence, poverty, and drug abuse, with nearly every one of his friends engaged in some type of negative activity. Music became his refuge at an early age. He began rapping at 13 and has been perfecting his craft ever since.
Andre recently launched a music based after-school program, utilizing his Valpo education to pursue his intense passion for mentorship and continue to foster his love for music in service to his community.
“Andre is an evangelistic figure in the black community who unselfishly practices philanthropy as a part of his own life purpose and philosophy,” says DeQuan Jackson, mentee of Andre’s. “Through the arts, Andre is managing to transform youth lives and perspective on the world.”
When Andre was in fifth grade, a neighbor was killed due to gun violence and a friend was shot, but survived. These incidents gave Andre a different perspective on and appreciation for life. Shortly thereafter, he turned to music as a way to escape the negativity permeating his environment. He explores many important themes, including social and personal issues, political topics, race, and relationships in the music he writes.
“My music is my comfort zone — a safe place filled with memories and feelings, where I can vent and express myself,” says Andre. “It is the therapy that my parents were never able to afford.”
Andre found Valparaiso University to be quite different from Chicago, but it was the differences that “inspired” him. He embraced it and immersed himself in the close-knit Valpo community. Andre became driven to bring the love and connection that surrounded him back to his childhood community in a city often divided by difference rather than united by it.
“As a student, Andre stood out as a kind, humble, service-minded young man who shared his time and talents with the campus community,” says Stacy Hoult-Saros, Ph.D., associate professor of foreign languages and literatures. “He is extraordinary not only for his musical talent and work ethic, but also for his motivation to use his considerable gifts to help others.”
A communications major and journalism minor, Andre explored various interests during his four years on campus and was extremely active in multiple areas — as an artist, radio show host, member of the Black Student Organization (BSO), and through community service. He served Valparaiso area residents at Hilltop Neighborhood House, a daycare in Valparaiso, providing care and education for their youth. Overwhelmed with feelings of appreciation, love, and need, it became evident to Andre that he was making a difference in the lives of the children as well as their parents. The difference they were making in his life was most significant — revealing his true passion for youth development.
“Andre knew how to maximize his impact as a member of the Valparaiso community when he was a student. He used his voice to bring awareness to situations that few wanted to address, and he used his ears to learn from others,” says Paul Oren ’02, ’10 M.S., lecturer in communication. “There were days when I was his professor, and there were days when I was his student.”
In 2015, Andre was invited to campus to perform at the BSO’s Black History Month dinner. This was a “full-circle moment” for Andre, transporting him back to his time as a student when he participated in every Black History Month dinner either reading a poem or performing. BSO supported Andre as a student and encouraged him to “stay on this path of inspiring others.”
While Andre refers to music as his “first love,” there is a “certain joy” he finds as a mentor that gives him more satisfaction than anything else. His engagement as a mentor is extensive, from teaching rap to middle schoolers with Guitars Over Guns, a music mentoring program, to co-hosting a weekly writing workshop called Wreckshop for teens and young adults through Young Chicago Authors.
“The most important things you can do are for others as to opposed to what you can do for yourself,” Andre says. “If I can help someone feel better or enhance their life in any way then I feel I have fulfilled my purpose.”
In July 2016, Andre partnered with his church, Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, and Guitars Over Guns to launch Haven Studio, a free after-school program in Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side. Haven provides a positive environment where teens can express themselves creatively; learn the basics of recording, engineering, and producing songs; and grow as young women and men. Perhaps most importantly, it provides an alternative to teens who are in dire need of positive influences and might otherwise be drawn to gangs and the streets.
As a teen, Andre recalls spending his evenings at a friend’s house, using his computer and microphone to record music and avoiding the negativity spread throughout the environment and attracting nearly all his friends. He hopes Haven will enable him to replicate that experience for other young adults and decrease the violence in the area neighborhoods.
“For the young adolescents who have experienced perilous trials and tribulations, Andre offers an outlet at Haven Studio — a vessel for self-expression and self-discovery,” DeQuan Jackson says. “As his mentee, he will forever have his mark on my life, and I will forever be thankful for his guidance and wisdom.”
In its first six months, Haven has touched the lives of more than 100 teens and young adults who have entered the studio. Rival gang members have come together in the same room and have learned not only how to communicate with one another, but developed friendships and created music with one another. Andre hopes Haven will continue to grow and benefit as many kids as possible without losing its personal touch and familial atmosphere.
“The success of Haven is defined by the small, but impactful victories that put our mentees on the right path — kids staying in school when once on the verge of dropping out, rectifying their relationships with their parents, taking responsibility for their actions, taking care of each other and their community, or just being able to smile again,” Andre says. “I don’t care if any of them turn out to be musicians. My main concern is that they end up as better people.”
In recognition of his extensive humanitarian work — Guitars Over Guns, Young Chicago Authors, speaking engagements, community work, and Haven Studio — Andre was honored with a humanitarian award by The Arts of Humanity at the Fashion and Arts Humanity Fete in November 2016.
Andre is a self-proclaimed “driven, ambitious individual who wants to make this world a better place.” He is an inspirational force, using music as a platform to transform his community.