The Arts are Alive in Charter Schools: Meet “The String Queens”

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The String Queens, made up of KIPP DC teachers

Earlier this year, we began a series introducing you to the Washington, D.C. based music group The String Queens (TSQs), comprised of three members: Élise CuffyKendall Isadore, and Dawn Johnson. All three women are known faces to the next generation of arts education students—they are the orchestra directors at various KIPP DC campuses.

In the hallways of KIPP DC, you’ll find members of one of the music industry’s hottest entertainment groups—The String Queens. The highly-acclaimed string trio has shared the stage with many award-winning artists and today they continue to change the arts education landscape in our nation’s capital.

The String Queens define themselves as three Black female string players and music educators who are breaking down barriers of what it traditionally means to play a stringed instrument. The group is a proponent of music as a universal language that connects and captures the essence of the human spirit.

So just who are The String Queens? The String Queens are three teachers and mentors with KIPP DCÉlise Cuffy, Kendall Isadore, and Dawn Johnson. Dawn Johnson is the orchestra director at KIPP DC KEY Academy. Kendall Isadore is the orchestra director at KIPP DC Valor Academy . Élise Cuffy is the orchestra director at KIPP DC Northeast Academy. The String Queens hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Howard University and The Juilliard School and have matriculated the ranks of the music industry together.

The String Queens are making waves in the music industry for their “authentic, soulful, and orchestral sound.” The Washington, D.C. based trio has performed in nearly every major city from New York to Shanghai and Moscow.

Not keeping their musical talents to themselves, in their roles as Orchestra Directors with KIPP DC, The String Queens use music as a vessel to cultivate and inspire the next generation of young performers and audiences while simultaneously continuing to grow within the music industry. In February 2019, the trio made national headlines for their present-day rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” with Grammy-nominated R&B artist Aloe Blacc.

The String Queens

To learn more about The String Queens, I sat down with the group for Q&A.

What motivated you to create the present-day rendition of the Black National Anthem "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing"? What role does the Black National Anthem play in your lives? In society?

We wanted to make the meaning, melody, and lyrics relevant to today’s generation of young African Americans and arranged the string parts for the recording accordingly. We also wanted to bridge the gap between different generations of African Americans who have shared experiences related to injustice, racism, and oppression that has plagued this country for centuries. But the Black National Anthem is not just a message of struggle and pain. We also wanted to musically convey the anthem’s spirit of faith, hope, and optimism. Our string arrangement was inspired by Melba Moore, Beyoncé, and Whitney Houston’s renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” We also listened to various recordings of “America the Beautiful,” and did research on several renditions of musical anthems from around the world, in addition to renditions of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”

What would you tell those that look to cut music programs in schools?

The String Queens are a strong proponent of a comprehensive music education curriculum as a core content subject area in all schools. Our message to those who seek to eliminate funding that supports in-school music programs is simple: Imagine living a single day of your life without water or oxygen. Physically, you cannot survive. In a similar sense, music education provides students with life-saving social, emotional, and academic skills that they need to be smart, perceptive, compassionate, and respectable leaders in their own communities and the world at large.

Research shows that screen time numbers are on the rise while face-to-face social interaction is on the decline among youth. When students participate in in-school music programs, the experience goes far beyond learning how to read and play various sequences of notes and rhythms on a page. The music is merely a means to an end. An end that teaches students the value of human interaction, team building, leadership, and resilience, all of which are necessary skills in living connected and productive lives. To any policymaker or school leader looking to cut in-school music programs, The String Queens extend a personal invitation to you to attend any of our music classes, so that you can experience first-hand the powerful benefits and magic of music education before making a blind decision to take this life-line away from students.

To hear more from The String Queens

The String Queens recently performed at the Democratic National Convention gala opening for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico). Coming up, The String Queens will perform at the Kennedy Center during the world-premiere run of the live stage adaptation of the Coretta Scott King Award-Winning novel “The Watson’s Go to Birmingham” March 15-24, the Washington Women in Jazz Festival on March 27, and the DC Jazz Festival on June 15.

A complete list of their upcoming performances can be found on their website at To learn more about The String Queens, follow them on all social media outlets at @TheStringQueens.


Kelsey Nelson is the manager for campaigns and publications at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.


In the next part of the series, Kelsey talks with Kendall Isadore, the orchestra director at the KIPP DC Valor Academy.


March 6, 2019 - 08:38am
Sunny Sumter, …

Thank you for raising the profile of The String Queens. One of DC finest. Utmost respect for their walk, Individually and professionally.