By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
At the dining room table in her Bronzeville home sits a talented teenager who has enjoyed more success and met many more celebrities than most people her age Motown founder Berry Gordy, NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Michelle Obama. In her short career, 17-year-old Mae Ya Carter Ryan, a child prodigy with a mesmerizing voice, has given at least 65 performances across the country while rubbing elbows with the rich and famous. She attends a gifted high school where the children of Bruce Willis, Robin Williams and Demi Moore were once enrolled. These children are offspring of the rich and affluent. Mae Ya is the daughter of a single mother who is rich in spirit, but that’s it.
Behind the success and the big lights, Mae Ya and her mother live another life – one that’s not so rosy.
Few people are aware that her mother is struggling to pay for an education that would help her daughter succeed in a tough industry where the rich and affluent have the advantage. After experiencing racism and a string of disappointments, Ina Carter, a single parent and a teacher’s assistant, made personal sacrifices to help her daughter become the next Mahalia Jackson or Ella Fitzgerald by enrolling her in the Interlochen Academy for the Arts, a world-renowned boarding school in Interlochen, Michigan.
With top notch instructors and a challenging curriculum, Mae Ya is growing professionally, but her growth has come at a cost to her struggling mother. Piano and vocal lessons have exhausted Ina Carter’s savings. Last year, Ina Carter scraped up money to pay the remaining portion of her daughter’s tuition after Mae Ya won a $52,000 annual scholarship. Annual tuition at the prestigious school is $62,000.
Unlike last year, Carter is unable to make up the difference this year. This fall, Carter and her daughter may be singing the blues.
She must have thousands of dollars to pay for the education her daughter needs to finish her final year at a school that has refined Mae Ya’s talents in ways no other institution has done. Now Mae Ya’s educational career is in jeopardy and her mother has nowhere to turn for help.
On Saturday, August 25 at 6 p.m., Carter will hold a fundraiser at the University of Chicago’s David Logan Center for the Arts, where her talented daughter will sing jazz, classical, rhythm and blues and gospel. Unlike so many other performances, it is an event that’s perhaps the most significant for Mae Ya as she joins her mother’s fight for a quality education.
Mae Ya’s financial problems are another hard lesson in Reality 101. Coupled with broken promises and rejections, it’s the African American struggle that has given this budding young singer an education that she cannot get in the classroom. They need money for school, and they don’t have much time.
For Carter and avid fans of her daughter, the sacrifices are worth it. Mae Ya was eight years old when her mother first learned that she had a voice. She was in the kitchen of their Bronzeville home when she heard her daughter singing from upstairs.
“I was stunned,” Carter said. I said, ‘Mae Ya, you can sing.” I’ll never forget it. I said it four times and on the third time, Mae Ya said, “uh, yeah.”
A year prior to discovering her child’s talent, Mae Ya had asked her mother if she could take voice lessons.
“I didn’t pay her any attention because she was so young to be asking about lessons,” Carter said.
Mae Ya is Ina’s only child. Not only is she talented but also smart, earning top grades in school. Carter did not know where to find a quality instructor who could help her daughter reach her potential. She called music schools and was told that Mae Ya was too young to take voice lessons.
She reached out to Jade Maze, a voice coach and music teacher at the Merit School of Music in the West Loop. At just nine years old Mae Ya would practice with Maze at Merit for hours on Saturday and then drive 23 miles south to Harvey, Illinois. She would spend three hours there learning piano composition and sound engineering from Bruce Thompson, a Baptist minister who played for the late songwriter Isaac Hayes. Thompson once said Mae Ya sounds like gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, whom he met many times, according to one article in the Chicago Reader.
At a young age, Mae Ya has been compared to many legends, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn.
She’s an alto singer with the voice of a seasoned professional. Mae Ya’s voice is deep, rich yet feminine, and supple. She amazes instructors with how much discipline and control she has over her powerful vocals that are soulful yet elegant. She can sing jazz, R&B, classical, gospel and even opera. During an interview with the Crusader, Mae Ya sang a two-song medley that include Rhianna’s “Diamonds” and Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” Minutes later she sang Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy,” her mother’s favorite song.
Eyes widen and heads turn when she transitions from singing, to talking in a high-pitched voice of a teen-
Mae Ya has performed at numerous concerts and venues, including WGN, CBS 2 Chicago, WCIU, the Chicago Theatre, the Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park, the DuSable Museum, and the Bud Billiken Parade. In 2015, she performed at the 75th Anniversary of the Chicago Crusader at the Loews Chicago Hotel in River North.
When she was 12, Mae Ya also performed at New York’s famed Lincoln Center, where she opened for the Jacksons in an event honoring Berry Gordy Jr. She has also performed at galas hosted by NBA star Dwayne Wade and rapper Common. In 2016, Susan L. Taylor, former editor-in-chief of Essence magazine invited her to New York to perform at her birthday party.
Mae Ya earned first place in Chicago Has Talent, a competition sponsored by Wade’s foundation. Destiny’s Child’s Michelle Williams, who served as a judge, joined the audience in giving Mae Ya a standing ovation.
But there have been challenges that at times have left Mae Ya discouraged and ready to give up her promising career.
At Haines Elementary in Chinatown, an Asian student told Mae Ya that he didn’t want to sing with her because she was Black. At the Chicago Academy for the Arts, Carter said teachers there told her that her daughter wasn’t really singing, but “imitating.”
At Kenwood Academy, Mae Ya and her mother said she wasn’t getting enough instruction to grow and take her talent to another level. Through a friend they discovered the Interlochen Academy of the Arts, a school where just 20 of the 598 students are Black. Renowned singer Josh Groban attended there. There is talk that Willow Smith, the daughter of Hollywood’s Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, will attend Interlochen this year.
Mae Ya enrolled in 2017 after attending summer camps there for three years, when the school paid half of the $5,000 fee. Her mother paid the rest.
“I fell in love with Interlochen,” Mae Ya said. “It’s an open environment. There are 12 students in a class so you really get a lot more individual attention. They would push me to be a greater singer than I believed I could be.”
Mae Ya’s progress has come at a cost for her mother, a teacher’s assistant at Robert Nathaniel Dett Elementary School on the near West Side.
Last year, Carter sacrificed so much for her daughter to attend Interlochen that she went without paying her ComEd bill for six months. Her power was eventually turned off for an electric bill that ballooned to over $600.
This year may be even tougher for Carter. Her daughter’s generous $52,000 scholarship still leaves her with a $10,000 bill.
Mae Ya’s father is not in her life and will not be contributing. Ina doesn’t make enough to pay the difference on her own. There are also Mae Ya’s travel and personal expenses to consider. Because this is her senior year, Mae Ya will need money to pay college application fees. She wants to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston and enroll in a special music program that includes Harvard and the prestigious Boston Conservatory of Music.
“This is a very important year because it’s my last year and I want to go to college,” Mae Ya said.
“I’m hoping this fundraiser comes through,” Carter said.” We’ve come this far. Hopefully, we’ll find a way to get through this.”