Series creator and producer Monica Kelley explains how it’s done.
Everyone has a dream—Chasing the Dream seeks to make a few a reality. The new music reality series transforms the lives of underprivileged, at-risk or physically-challenged individuals who have amazing talent, but who may not have had the opportunity to be taught or trained in a specific area.
Series creator and prolific TV producer Monica Kelley tells EBONY: "These are great singers, but have never had a voice lesson, or incredible dancers who never took a dance class.” Through the power of mentorship, they can forge a path to success. And the list of mentors is impressive. R&B and Broadway artist Fantasia, rapper and entrepreneur Fat Joe and hip hop legend MC Lyte are just a few celebrities who take on the role.
Chasing the Dream is sponsored by JPMorgan Chase & Co., which is sharing financial literacy tips with viewers. “A lot of my team didn’t feel that JP Morgan Chase really supported African Americans in their communities,” Kelley shares. "Through this partnership, my goal was to open that door and change that narrative to help people in our community, through financial workshops and other programs to understand wealth management and the power of credit.”
Here, Kelley reveals more about the show, its first round of celebrity mentors and a very special child who helped to inspire the series.
EBONY: Congrats on the new show! How is Chasing The Dream structured?
Monica Kelley: In each episode, two different people will be mentored by our celebrities. The mentees get an opportunity to learn and talk about their experiences. At the end of each episode, we present them with different opportunities based on what they need in life. We’re giving them a hands-up so they continue moving forward.
Who are some of the celebrity mentors involved with the first season?
We had two celebrities that signed on from the very beginning. Kirk Franklin is phenomenal; I love his work. I respect him as a human being, first and foremost. I said to my husband, Kirk's not where he is by accident. He took this mentorship process very seriously. Alessia Cara made me cry right off the bat for her dedication to this. Jermaine Dupri came in right away and he teaches. You can learn from him just by sitting there with a pen and paper. Every celebrity has come in with the right heart and I am so grateful for that. And then I've had a lot of celebrities say they're finishing a project, but please come back to them for season two, because this is something that they really want to do. So I'm excited over the thought of a second season to help as many people as I can.
Can you share the story of one of the people we’ll meet on the show?
We have one gentleman who was raised in foster care. Every time he went to a different foster home, he taught himself how to play an instrument in order to cope, since he was 9 years old. He's now college-age and plays nine instruments proficiently, but he's never had a lesson. He wants to produce and he also wants to go to college, but the state that he's in foster care doesn’t pay for the children to go to college. We have a celebrity mentor who comes in and helps him on all fronts.
Did you have mentors growing up?
It’s because of the mentors that I've had in my life that I can do what I can do today. I started in the industry at 14 years old. There's a woman named Linda Haynes, who was a producer at a radio station in Queens. The first day—I'll never forget—I asked, "What would you like me to do because I'm eager." I was that kid. Ans she said, "Your title is Associate Producer." I had no idea what that was. But I rolled with it. Linda has been someone that I can always call on; she ended up being Senior Vice President of Publicity for Motown Records for publicity. I got a full scholarship to Syracuse University to study drama. But then I got there, in front of the camera, and thought, "You know what, this is not for me!” One of my first jobs, after I graduated, was working for Vi Higginsen. I was the assistant tour manager for Mama, I Want to Sing! Working with Spike Lee, I realized that we need more Black writers and producers, and we needed more women making decisions. All my mentors would tell everyone to take care of Monica as I passed from job to job. So, for me, it’s about giving back. I can't mentor everyone, but I can grab who I know to mentor other people.
What personally inspired you to create this show?
As I mentioned, I had great mentors throughout my life. In addition, my husband and I are foster parents. We had one child who was 8 years old at the time and would just follow me around. He would sit in my office and he'd say, “Mommy”—because he came in calling me Mommy—“I want to be a writer just like you.” He had a little area in my office that was his and he would take his little pen and paper and start scribbling. I encouraged him to write and I was mentoring him to tell his story, to feel free to express himself the way Mommy did. This was his safe space as he had some harrowing issues in his short life. I realized that I wanted to create family programming that would really help people. When we grew up, we only had one TV that the family watched together. I believe if you can share stories that show that we are all human, that we all love the same and feel the same emotions, that we could learn from one another. That’s what I believe a producer and storyteller should do.
What do you hope the show delivers to viewers?
My goal is for us to build each other up in this show. I want people to walk away with an understanding that is absolutely necessary. The most powerful thing that we can do as human beings is to help somebody or your legacy means nothing. I want people to walk away with an urge, a burning on the inside, to give a hand-up to someone else. If we do that, I will be one happy person and the world would be a better place.
Chasing the Dream premieres July 30 on NBCU LX and other streaming platforms.