DJ Antonio Cesar keeps finding money to evolve house music | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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DJ Antonio Cesar keeps finding money to evolve house music

The Chicago DJ and producer has used tens of thousands of dollars in grants to travel the world, exporting the city’s sounds and importing new influences.

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DJ Antonio Cesar, aka Cesar Almeida, at the North Park Village Nature Center in summer 2020 - COURTESY PLANET CHAMBO AND 630FFICIAL
  • Courtesy Planet Chambo and 630fficial
  • DJ Antonio Cesar, aka Cesar Almeida, at the North Park Village Nature Center in summer 2020

Cesar Almeida, aka DJ Antonio Cesar, says it's impossible to create new music. "Something new is something old that has been reinvented," says the 25-year-old house DJ and producer. And with his blends of traditional rhythms and contemporary production, he shows us exactly what he's talking about.

A Chicago native, Almeida grew up bouncing between different city neighborhoods. Because he didn't have Internet access as a kid, he couldn't look up his favorite songs on AZLyrics.com—instead he'd babysit the play, stop, and scan buttons on his CD player, writing down all the words for hours at a time. A decade later, he's got no shortage of gear: in a video he directed last summer that pairs his music with a performance by dancer Lailah Cabell, he has a pristine digital DJ rig set up in the woods of the North Park Village Nature Center.

Produced with filmmaker Isaiah Rodriguez, aka 630fficial, the 16-minute clip is part of Almeida's Planet Chambo initiative, which aims to showcase the city's green spaces. House music's staple boom-tap, boom-tap reverberates through the video, paired with what sound like hand drums in the background—influences Almeida picked up on travels to Ghana and Ecuador between 2017 and 2020.

  • Almeida directed this video of himself DJing at North Park Village Nature Center with dancer Lailah Cabell.

Almeida has a keen eye for the kind of projects that look good on grant applications, and he's learned where and how to apply for those resources—information he's eager to share. Since beginning his studies at Northwestern University in 2014 (he graduated with a bachelor's degree in learning sciences in 2018), he's received more than $40,000 in grants, including from the Davis Projects for Peace and the Fulbright Program. Much of that money went to finance his trips abroad.

"When I'm in Chicago, I'm like, 'Let me produce the Chicago stuff,' 'cause I'm in that vibe. But when I'm in Ghana, it's like, 'Yo, I gotta produce some Afrobeats, Afro-house-type stuff, 'cause I'm in Ghana!'" Almeida says. "If I'm in Ecuador, let me produce some reggaeton! Because I am international in my heart and in my lineage too, I do produce many styles."

Almeida's dad was born in Ecuador and raised in Chicago, and his mom is Greek. "She was born in Chicago, and her father was born in Greece," he says. "He deadass looks like Zeus."

Almeida's mother, Joanne Melissinas, was raised on house music and played it in their home. So did his dad, and it rubbed off on their son in a big way. "I would be in the house cleaning, playing house music," Almeida says. One Christmas when he was in high school, his mom dropped $500 to buy him a MIDI keyboard he desperately wanted, and then he was ready for takeoff.

In 2019, he landed on the stage name "DJ Antonio Cesar," an inversion of his first and middle names. He also likes to link the name "Antonio" to one of his inspirations, Antonio "Tony" Montana, the drug lord from Scarface—he "makes boss moves," Almeida says. The Chicago kid learned piano in his residence hall at Northwestern and then joined the campus radio station, WNUR 89.3 FM, DJing a shift of its Streetbeat show, which focuses on hip-hop and electronic music. The first track he ever played on the air was "Can You Feel It" by Larry Heard, aka Mr. Fingers.

"House is groove, like Mr. Fingers said in his song," says Almeida. He starts reciting what he can remember of the famous track's lyrics. "House music is groove, but it came from the groove of all grooves. . . . And in my house there is only house music. Once you enter my house, it then becomes our house and our house music!"

  • The 2020 DJ Antonio Cesar EP Do You Love Me?

Almeida's first trip to Ghana—a stay of six months in 2017—was financed by a scholarship arranged via Northwestern's partnership with the nonprofit Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). He credits his choice of destination to a Ghanaian man who worked in the cafeteria and became a sort of uncle figure to him, giving him a lot of positive energy that helped sustain him during his undergraduate years.

Once in Ghana, Almeida took classes in piano and in the drumming style associated with kpanlogo (PAHN-logo), an urban Ghanaian form of music and dance that's been connected to the country's national identity since the 1960s. (Ghana became independent from UK colonial rule in 1957.) He also learned what his drumming teacher, Godson Atsu Sopor, calls the African philosophy of music.

"Music is Black," Almeida says. "Like, all music has come from Black origins, and so this is some real knowledge that I'm receiving." In 2018, he used $10,000 from the Davis Projects for Peace to return to Ghana and launch a workshop about music conservation and ownership, teaching locals how to record and remix the country's traditional sounds in a modern way. He worked closely with Kwashie Kuwor, head of the department of dance at the University of Ghana in Legon (a suburb of Accra), and collaborated with the U.S. Embassy.

On Almeida's third trip to Ghana—a 2019 visit that was supposed to last eight months, but got cut short at five due to COVID—he dropped in at the country's top radio station, YFM, with one of his mixes in hand. Somehow he landed a slot spinning records on a show DJed by well-known Ghanaian artist Winston Michaels.

Cesar Almeida (far right) in Ghana in 2019 with Winston Michaels and Ghanaian hiplife and hip-hop artist Stay Jay - JOSHUA SIMMONS
  • Joshua Simmons
  • Cesar Almeida (far right) in Ghana in 2019 with Winston Michaels and Ghanaian hiplife and hip-hop artist Stay Jay

Almeida is an extroverted self-starter, and on that same trip he met Ghanaian rapper Kwaku Bota, who owns a recording studio. He told Bota that he was learning kpanlogo drumming to incorporate it into his productions, and that kicked off a musical friendship. "He actually studied African drums," Bota says. "And for me, I'm a musician out here, and I don't even study African drums."

That 2019 trip happened because Almeida was awarded $25,000 through a Fulbright fellowship, part of which he used to make a podcast with Ghanaian artists about intellectual property, music preservation, and cultural identity; he finished six episodes. In 2020, he began spending the rest of that Fulbright money by working to create a music-artist network in Ghana. The U.S. Embassy is cosponsoring the project with the university in Legon and music-education nonprofit Solidarity Studios, whose work is rooted in solidarity between Palestine, Chicago, and South Africa.

The aim of the network is to connect visiting creatives and cultural institutions with collaborators in Ghana: beat makers, drone operators, dancers, vocalists, videographers, creative directors, and more. Almeida's role has been to recruit Ghanaian artists and get their bios onto the network's site. The project isn't yet complete, but in November 2020, Almeida launched a contest to encourage cultural cross-pollination: the Kpanlogo Riddim Competition, hosted at ghanamusicproject.com, invites entrants to make a short remix using a free sample pack of kpanlogo hand drumming.

Almeida also works to do right by house music's promise as a genre created by and for marginalized people—he sticks with its social justice roots. He's been DJing for Chicago organizations working in politics, education, and environmental policy. "I'm in these spaces DJing for, like, solar energy," he says.

Almeida is a virtual resident DJ for the EcoWomanist Institute, a group based in Chicago and Atlanta that promotes ecological awareness and community leadership by African American women. He serves as a teaching artist for Solidarity Studios, running beat-making workshops. And in March 2019 he produced a track called "Amplify" for the organization Amplify Chicago, which aims to address the racial wealth gap (and other inequities exacerbated by the justice system) by connecting young people to mentorship, education, and job opportunities. "Amplify" opens with the lines, "Cook County justice ain't justice at all / Can't make a change when there's one voice involved."

In July 2020, Almeida helped Solidarity Studios move its beat-making workshops and community-building efforts into a COVID-safe virtual space, launching the Beat Passport program in collaboration with Chicago label AfroBang and Oakland-based music-education program Today's Future Sound. (It ran till September, and the organization is bringing it back this year.) Solidarity Studios helps local and international artists with music publishing and distribution, and Beat Passport teaches producers to use rhythms from around the world, including Chicago house, Afrobeat, and reggaeton. Using the Citizen DJ platform developed by Library of Congress innovator in residence Brian Foo, participants can also draw on the library's vast public music archives and incorporate that material into their own original productions.

"Cesar was on board with figuring out a way of making [the program] happen and doing so pretty rapidly," says Solidarity Studios founder Ibrahim Maali. "We discovered some online tools that we could use for Web-based beat making that were provided by the Library of Congress." Within a couple of weeks, they'd spun up a sample curriculum, and Beat Passport was born.

Last November, Almeida DJed for a virtual environmental-justice rally hosted by the Illinois Environmental Council, which aimed to convince Governor Pritzker and state House and Senate leaders to pass the Clean Energy Jobs Act and the Lead Service Line Notification and Replacement Act, among other things. In the first week of 2021, he DJed a virtual thank-you celebration on the final day of a ten-day text-banking event that the EcoWomanist Institute hosted for Georgia senatorial candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. Participants sent 157,795 get-out-the-vote texts to 121 zip codes in Georgia's Black belt, specifically targeting Black women.

  • Some of the fruits of Almeida's travels to Ghana can be heard on his new EP.

Last month Almeida finally brought the fruits of his African travels to streaming platforms with the May 18 EP release Sounds of Ghana, whose six tracks feature seven Ghanaian artists. On the opening track, "I Will Go Back Home," soothing clave and bongo rhythms buoy the nostalgic crooning of Kwame Owusu and Kpodo.

Almeida could have even bigger projects on deck too—that video he made of himself DJing at the North Park Village Nature Center has apparently reached the right eyes, and he's waiting to hear whether he'll get a six-figure grant. He can't yet say from whom or for what, though, because he's bound by a confidentiality agreement until the money comes through.

DJ Antonio Cesar - COURTESY PLANET CHAMBO AND 630FFICIAL
  • Courtesy Planet Chambo and 630fficial
  • DJ Antonio Cesar

"These connections are not, like, about wealthy connections and things like that, about connecting to the hierarchy and shit," Almeida says. "Music has helped me connect to organizations. It's helping me not only DJ but really connect to their missions and values. . . . The type of connections that music makes for me is, like, personal, family, and also career. It's all of it."  v

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