A week in the studio with American Dreamers

When Studio Music and Jazz department chair John Daversa asked me to photograph his “American Dreamers” recording session last March, I thought I was signing up for a fly-on-the-wall kind of job.

“Just a couple hours to grab some shots of the band,” he told me. But when I showed up with my camera, it became clear that this was not that kind of gig. This was something much bigger and more crucial than I had expected.

I knew very little about the project before I arrived, and learned quickly that was entirely the point. It wasn’t until Kabir Sehgal, one of the album’s producers, found me and said, “All these musicians here, everyone you don’t know—they’re all DACA recipients,” did I understand the situation’s sensitive nature. At the time of the session, not even a year had passed since the Obama-era legislation had been rescinded, stripping nearly 800,000 early childhood arrivals of their protected legal status. And there I was with my camera. Documenting the undocumented.

Understandably, some of the Dreamers were initially uncomfortable having their pictures taken. Not knowing what to say and unable to empathize, I relied on members of the film crew and some of the older DACA recipients to quell their fears. Está bien, I heard one say. It’s okay.

I spent a lot of time with the Dreamers, learning about their lives and stories. Originally, I thought this was the best way to secure their willingness to be photographed. That motivation quickly disappeared, and in its place grew the utter joy of simply being with them. After a couple of days, whenever they saw me with my camera they would strike a goofy pose and say, “I’m thinking this for the album cover.”

I spent most days that week in the studio, for several reasons. My photography responsibilities multiplied. I ended up recording percussion and vocal tracks. But more than anything, I was overcome with respect and adoration for the dozens of Dreamers—several of whom were flown in from across the country—whose musicality and fearlessness make “Dreamers” more of a revolution than a record.

Since the album’s release just a few weeks ago, politicians from both sides of the aisle have lauded its critical and timely message. U.S. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi stated: “May the soaring melodies and harmonies of these courageous Dreamers remind everyone who hears them of the beauty and resiliency of the human spirit and of our responsibility to honor our heritage as a nation of immigrants.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham added, “Dream Act children have known no country other than America. ‘American Dreamers’ features a heartfelt expression of patriotism by talented Dreamers performing the songs of our country.”

I will not soon forget the week I spent witnessing this project come to life. “American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom” is available everywhere. Oh, and a note about the music itself: If you haven’t heard anything by John Daversa, prepare to be thunderstruck.

And don’t forget to vote.

Mackenzie Karbon is a senior majoring in jazz performance. Here’s That Rainy Day runs the third Tuesday of each month.