Nico Segal and Nikko Washington Join Play Together to Mentor Chicago’s Next Generation of Artists
Written by Vocalo Radio on November 18, 2022
Play Together and the Merit School of Music teamed up with acclaimed Chicago musician Nico Segal and painter Nikko Washington to give Chicagoland kids the opportunity to create an original piece of music or art in collaboration with a professional.
Segal and Washington stopped by the Vocalo studios this week to break down their role and how kids can get involved.
Nico Segal didn’t know making music was a career path. That is, until a musician arrived in his middle school classroom for career day — not too long after he had taken up the trumpet.
“Somebody, I remember her perfectly, actually, came in and told the class that you could be a musician,” he recalled. “It just really blew my mind that somebody could play an instrument for their livelihood.”
Fast-forward a number of years, and Segal is a Grammy Award winning musician helping kids realize the same.
Beginning Nov. 1, Segal joined his longtime friend and fellow Chicagoan, painter and muralist Nikko Washington, to give Chicago children the opportunity to work with either of them on a collaborative project with Play Together, a nonprofit organization working with the Merit School of Music to equip kids with the confidence and resources they need to express themselves creatively.
Play Together invites young Chicago artists to send in their art pieces, using prompts provided by Segal and Washington, through Dec. 31 for their chance to be hand-selected to flesh out their project — either finish a song with Nico Segal or a visual art piece with Nikko Washington.
“I think I was most sort of inspired and excited once I saw Nikko’s sketches of the piece that he was working on,” Segal explained. “I feel like the [music] piece brings forth a lot of the same elements of the childlike joy and discovery and exploration that I felt in his piece.”
Both Washington and Segal’s prompts are inspired by the question, “Who inspires your creativity?” Washington created an example painting optional for applicants to take inspiration from, encouraging students to either match his brushstroke style or come up with something completely different. Segal composed a song available for download, asking students to add to his original composition, remix it, download the song stems or post a duet to his TikTok.
All submissions will be personally reviewed by the artists. Three applicants will be hand-selected by each artist, six total, to receive a $500 arts scholarship and create a single-edition piece of digital art, or NFT, with Segal or Washington. All sales of the NFT will fund other scholarships for future Play Together students.
Both Segal and Washington hope the initiative will continue the cycle of mentorship and creativity they benefited from throughout their childhoods.
“I’m excited to help produce the next generation,” expressed Segal, reflecting on his own experiences growing up with teachers at Merit School of Music.
“It’s really important to mentor the next generation that comes about,” Washington agreed. “That’s how I got here… if it wasn’t for the people who came before me, art teachers, my uncles, my mom, my dad, you name it… all the things that I learned from them, I absorbed it as a sponge, I’m spitting out now.”
Segal and Washington stopped by the Vocalo studios on Nov. 16 to sit down with Vocalo afternoons host Nudia Hernandez and break down the collaboration, their artists origin stories and the importance of giving back to future generations. Stream their conversation now.
Nudia Hernandez: With me today, I have two very special guests. I think you could assume who it is — we got Nico Segal in the building. Hello.
Nico Segal: What’s up! How’s it going?
Nudia Hernandez: And we have Nikko Washington.
Nikko Washington: What’s up everybody?
Nudia Hernandez: I was gonna say — we had a couple of questions from the people in the building. And you already know, but did you guys choose to work together because your names are the same? Did you think the branding was gonna be good?
Nico Segal: No, more of just a happy coincidence. And yeah, luckily for us, we know each other, go back a long way. So it was an exciting opportunity to work together.
Nikko Washington: We’ve been in it for a long time. So we’ve had the same name and we’ve known each other for a while. So we don’t really think about it like that. But it is good branding opportunities, as well. [Laughs]
Nudia Hernandez: No, we definitely, when we were reading the press release, we all thought it was so cute. We were like, “Oh my gosh, that’s adorable.” And then, it’s all “N”s in this interview. We all got the “N” in our name. So we already knew that was gonna be good.
What exactly is this project? I know… we’re encouraging students to submit. The deadline is December 1. What exactly is the criteria for students to submit?
Nico Segal: Yeah, so this is an opportunity to collaborate with either one or both of us. And the music side looks like downloading a song that I started for us and using whichever parts of the song you want to use, or are inspired by, and then adding your own twist and flavor and essence onto it. So if that just looks like singing or rapping or playing an instrument on top of what I’ve created, cool. I’ve also provided stems to the beat, which basically just mean all the parts that make up the music. So you can just collaborate with the drums, if you like just the drums. Or if you just like the chords, you can just use the synths, or just the horns, you can manipulate and mess around with just the horns from the beat. So that’s how you’d collaborate with the music.
Nikko Washington: Similar to the music side, on the art side, you could collaborate with what I’ve already drawn, or create your own based off what inspires you and who inspires you creatively. So I went for jazz and went for music, and that’s a big part of my practice. So whatever inspires you, you can create that, work with me on it, use the pieces that I’ve done, the color scheme, or create your own. And we can find a way to seamlessly make it cohesive.
Nudia Hernandez: And that’s amazing, because I think one of the biggest things that I’ve admired about Chicago, the mentorship from people who have had success. So Nico Segal, you are a Grammy Award winning — snaps, we’re snapping in here, very quietly. You’re a trumpet player, music producer, you won the Grammy for your production on Chance’s mixtape Coloring Book. And I know, Nikko Washington, you’ve also had the chance to work with Chance; you’ve done album cover art for Vic Mensa, and this Nico [Segal], and Chance and Peter CottonTale, who we’ve recently had in the Vocalo studios. So you guys have both worked with Chance, and we had him come by our studio a minute ago. And I’ve seen him merge the music and the art. So did that kind of inspire you guys, because I know you guys are good friends with him, did that inspire you guys to kind of do the same, the merging of music and art?
Nico Segal: I think it’s more so we’re all just kind of influenced and inspired by each other across different mediums. It’s not always like, “I’m only going to check out the baddest trumpet player to be inspired to create some music.” Sometimes it doesn’t even have anything to do with music. Maybe it’s just taking a walk and seeing somebody with a fleek coat on, and that can be inspiring… so I think we’re all sort of influenced by lots of things in life, and obviously in art.
And speaking to the mentorship aspect of it, Merit has been a really important place for me and one of my sort of main teachers, Michael McLaughlin, also taught somebody very important and influential in my life there, named Victor Garcia. So big shout out to Victor Garcia, he’s always been one of my favorite trumpet players and mentors and somebody who’s picture I would see on the wall at Merit and I would hear and be super inspired by, and then got lucky enough to study with and learn from. So the mentorship is real. You see sort of all these generations of Merit producing… me. So I’m excited to help produce the next generation.
Nikko Washington: I think it’s just how we came up. Honestly, I mean, we have been around such a creative force, and this nature around us in Chicago, growing up in public school, that I was lucky enough to know musicians, artists, and we are all in arm’s reach from each other. Chance is our brother, so we just worked together naturally. And for mentorship, I mean, it’s really important to mentor the next generation that comes about. That’s how I got here, I mean, if it wasn’t for the people who came before me, art teachers, my uncles, my mom, my dad, you name it. Or just people on the street, doing graffiti… all the things that I learned from them, I absorbed it as a sponge, I’m spitting out now. So I think that’s how the art world works, whether it’s master and pupil, student teacher, that dynamic is from the beginning of time of how we carry on these skills, and these practices and these techniques.
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Nudia Hernandez: And I think that’s so important, because I know, growing up, I’m sure you guys felt it as well, you have a goal, and you have things you want to do. And especially if they aren’t, quote unquote, “normal,” a normal job or things like that, you don’t know how to make that successful. You see people you want to be like, but you’re like, “How did they get there? How do I, where do I even begin?” And I think that’s when it comes to… you talk to mentors, or someone sees something in you, they’ll see talent in you, and they’ll help foster that. So are you guys excited to do that for someone else? You’re gonna be able to see that talent and help nurture that — because I heard you guys are going to be a part of the judging process, right? Are you guys going to review every single submission that comes in?
Nico Segal: Yeah, we’re gonna review them, we’re gonna talk about them amongst each other, and with Play Together and try and figure out which ones we want to highlight and feel most inspired by.
Nikko Washington: Hand-select, hand-pick. And I think, like you were saying, it’s like, fan that flame of people… I feel like there’s no winner or loser. Winning is you participate and you’re doing something that you’re comfortable with and you like, making a great project. So… I think winning, in an art sense, is a little bit confusing sometimes. So I think, it’ll be cool to hand-pick and talk to people and talk about why we liked it and what they’re doing great about it. Even people who didn’t get selected for the final, I don’t know. That’s important, as a young person, to get that.
Nico Segal: I think just sort of lifting the veil a little on what collaboration or what it means to be a professional, like you were saying, in these various art fields. It can mean doing cool projects like this with your friend, and opening these submissions to the greater public and seeing what sort of happens. It’s a lot of experimentation, it’s a lot of discovery. And it’s also sort of just, again, hammering this point home of working within your community and working with people that you already are friends with, and are inspired by.
Nikko Washington: 100%.
Nudia Hernandez: And exactly how many submissions are you going to work with? Because… I was taking a look at the website. And I think it’s something like three submissions you’re going to pick? Or what exactly do people need to submit to be considered for being chosen?
Nico Segal: Yeah, so the music element, I know, can be as simple as doing a duet TikTok with the song, that can be one way that you submit, because I’m gonna go through those and listen to all the different duets. Or it can be as involved as going to the website, downloading the stems, making your own sort of version of it and then submitting it on the website, and then we’ll sort of field from there.
Nikko Washington: Same as our side, I mean we just hand-pick them, select them and go from there.
Nudia Hernandez: So people just submit their piece of art? Okay, that’s really exciting. I know you’re saying stems, and every audio nerd that’s listening is like, “Oh my gosh! Stems!”
Nico Segal: No, that’s true, though. It’s a good point because there’s a lot of steps that go into making a piece of music, and the same thing for Nikko making his art. There’s a lot of detail and different moving parts and, for music, we have this luxury of being able to actually piece it together however you hear it, you can speed things up and you can really individually grab the different elements that move you and inspire you. I’m excited about that.
Nudia Hernandez: And it’s so funny you say that, this is slightly off-topic. We recently had Hannibal Buress in. And I know he’s taking music so seriously, and he talked to us about that. But he performed his song at 20x speed, he sped it up by 20 BPM. I know, it sounds crazy! And he performed it at his show, which is wild! But that kind of crossed my mind when you were talking about, you could speed it up or slow it down. Because I mean, I never even thought you could perform something adding 20 BPM to it. I was like, “Oh, okay!”
Nico Segal: That’s hard. I don’t know how he did that but… yeah.
Nudia Hernandez: I don’t know, either! But this is such an exciting opportunity. Were you guys excited to collaborate together? Or, how did you end up collaborating with Play Together?
Nikko Washington: I had spoken with Aneesh from Play Together for… I think our first conversation was like two years ago, right before the pandemic. So I’ve been familiar with them. Then I saw the work they did with Fem[dot], and — I’m blanking her name, but amazing artist, visual artist, murals, as well — Liz Flores. And then we’d just been cultivating the conversation. And when they were talking about who they were trying to get on the music side, I was like, “Oh, say less… we’re gonna do it.” I don’t think they knew that we knew each other like that. So it was like, yes, it’s perfect. And yeah, we’ve been in correspondence with Derek ever since. So it’s been a long time coming. But it’s been great.
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Nico Segal: I think I was most sort of inspired and excited once I saw Nikko’s sketches of the piece that he was working on. When we did the first sort of talking through at Merit, I got to see sort of the direction he was going in and just led me to this place that I was really excited about musically. And I feel like the piece brings forth a lot of the same elements of the childlike joy and discovery and exploration that I felt in his piece. So yeah, feels like a unique synthesis.
Nudia Hernandez: A marriage! I’m super excited to see the entries you receive, the submissions you receive…. they just submit on the website, right? On Play Together’s website? So if you want to submit your piece, or you know someone who would be great to submit, playtogether.co is where you could go to submit that, playtogether.co.
And it’s so cool, it’s so exciting, because I look at all your guys’s… merit. I don’t want to be funny! But I look at all your guys’s accolades. And it’s really exciting that whoever gets to work with you, that could be them one day. They could have merits and accolades and Grammys, and work with huge artists and do their cover art and things like that. What exactly are you kind of hoping to get out of this experience, besides mentoring someone?
Nico Segal: Well, I always kind of go back to this moment of “career day,” in, I think it was sixth or seventh grade, and I had just started playing the trumpet. And somebody, I remember her perfectly, actually, came in and told the class that you could be a musician. It just really blew my mind that somebody could play an instrument for their livelihood. And we didn’t talk super in-depth about what that meant…
Nudia Hernandez: All the struggle that happens sometimes!
Nico Segal: But no, I think just reinforcing, or finally sort of understanding that I could follow something I was already really passionate about and turn it into my career. And I think opportunities like this just further sort of instill that truth, that you can do it. Anybody can sort of wake up and decide to put in the work and to reach out to their community and to create something unique and special to them. And so I think this is just an opportunity to show that we can be sort of in this professional field or in this professional light with these accolades and such, but it really does just come from the same sort of spirit and feeling of creativity, inspiration that that everybody has. And especially young people, going to a place like Merit or various art programs around the city. Just further instilling that concept, that you can do this, that you can collaborate with people that are doing it on a professional level, and… there’s no Oz behind the curtain, so to speak. It’s really… it’s that simple. We’re just friends from high school. Now we’re able to collaborate in this much more professional sort of setting and do interviews about it. It’s really cool. It’s a beautiful opportunity. And it all sort of starts from that same sort of inception of just like, “Can I do this? Yes, I can do this.”
Nikko Washington: I mean, just to echo that, I want to get out of it just having people feel inspired, and leave knowing that this is a career path, like Nico was saying. That you can go and work with your friends, you can reach across your community and reach with the people that are next to you, that’ll do different things with you. And it shows people how you can collaborate with other people, and brands. There’s opportunities out there that you can do, as an artist, to not only support yourself, but put yourself out there and believe that you can actually do it. It’s a “career day” moment, as well… especially in the arts, I mean, it’s very — and music — very underfunded, very neglected, most times. And it’s very shunned, sometimes, by family, thinking like, “How are you going to support yourself?” And it’s not always just a hobby, sometimes it’s a passion. Sometimes, I look at it as: I don’t have a choice but to make art. I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. Luckily, I’ve been able to do it, and try to reach new goals with it. And you can show kids that you can do it.
Nico Segal: And now there’s actually sort of another layer, by turning our favorite submissions into a product, an NFT product, that will then support programs like Merit and Play Together to do stuff like this in the future. I think that’s also sort of a new opportunity to start discovering and start talking about what this new sort of format of releasing products even looks like, and does for the art community.
Nudia Hernandez: Yeah, the transfer of, especially with NFTs and things like that, I do think that’s really cool. The transfer of a different way of monetizing art is pretty dope. I forgot what exactly you said, but it made me think about this point I had written down. For anyone listening, [if] you know someone who is a creative or has creativity in them and you think they’d be perfect for this, the most important thing to do, especially if you’re listening, is… it’s scary, but you have to put yourself out there. The hardest part is to hit that submit button, right? In anything, it’s hard to make that one call. It’s hard to go up and talk to that one person.
The first step is always the most difficult one and the scariest. And a lot of people don’t make that first step. And so you just end up having a more narrow playing field, because some people are too scared to take that first step, to click that submit button. So even if you have doubts in your creativity, in your artwork, whether it is within music, or whether it is within painting or being an artist, you have to just submit first. That is the hardest part. So if you’re listening, again, go to Play Together’s website. You can submit. Nico and Nikko, I did want to talk to you guys about what you guys are personally working on right now, what projects.
Nikko Washington: At the moment, I’m working on… we’re unveiling a new mural in Hyde Park. Been working on it for a long time. I’m from Hyde Park, so I was really excited about that. Then a solo show, coming at the beginning of next year. I’m working on a book.
Nico Segal: Wow.
Nikko Washington: Just locked that in.
Nico Segal: That’s fire. That’s a lot of stuff.
Nikko Washington: That’s some stuff! Been happening for a minute.
Nudia Hernandez: You just named five stuff, and he’s like, “I think that’s it.”
Nikko Washington: There’s some more stuff, I can’t think about it, but yeah. [Laughs]
Nico Segal: I’m part of a band called The JuJu Exchange, with fellow Chicago musicians Julian Reid and Nova Zaii. And we have a project that we’re slowly releasing called JazzRx, where we basically prescribe people music like medicine, like vitamins. They send in prompts, and how they’re feeling, what’s ailing them, something on their mind. And we construct a sound that we hope will heal and help them through whatever it is they’re going through. So JazzRx is a project that is being slowly released, we just dropped… we’re dropping them sort of in segments, and we just dropped one called Hope Dose, so get you a dose of some hope!
Nudia Hernandez: Oh, that’s so cool.
Nico Segal: And we’re also working on a sort of more full-length album entitled Behold. So that’s going to come next year, as well. And I’m also working on my own personal album, first solo album, entitled, Tell the Ghost Welcome Home. And so that’s what I’m also working on.
Nudia Hernandez: Oh, wow. Congratulations to both you guys.
Nikko Washington: Thank you.
Nico Segal: Thank you.
Nudia Hernandez: I mean, that’s great you guys are working on something, because if not, that question would have been really awkward. [All laugh] Like, “I’m actually taking a vacation right now.”
Nikko Washington: Like, “I’m finding myself right now.”
Nudia Hernandez: “I’m on a sabbatical right now, okay?” Again, so we have Nico Segal and Nikko Washington in here right now, if you’re just tuning in… they have partnered with Play Together and the Merit School of Music, and, again, they’re launching a city-wide collaborative art project. They’re inviting Chicago students and kids to submit to work with them. And so if you want to learn more, if you are into music or into art, you could submit your projects and possibly, this could be really exciting for you. So again, Playtogether.co.
Well, thank you guys so much for coming in. I know you guys are busy. We heard all the stuff you guys are working on. So we appreciate you taking some time to come through to Vocalo.
Nico Segal: Love it. Big shoutout to Vocalo. Thank you guys.
Nikko Washington: Thank you for your time.
Follow Nico Segal and Nikko Washington on Instagram, and visit Play Together’s website for more information on the initiative and how to get involved.
Interview and audio production by Nudia Hernandez
Video filmed and edited by Joshua X. Miller
Written introduction, transcription and photography by Morgan Ciocca
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