ENTERTAINING, ECLECTIC, EXUBERANT EZINMA: From Cornhusker to Classical Bae, she’s merging the sounds of violin and hip-hop By Angel Jennings in Nebraska - Lincoln Alumni Quarterly Fall 2021
In a tiny Manhattan apartment, Meredith Ezinma Ramsay propped her iPhone on an Ikea shelf and pressed record. She stepped back, cradled her custom Italian violin under her chin and allowed the melody of Future’s 2017 trap hit Mask Off to wash over her. Her bow jumped across the strings to the rhythm of the song as she jammed out, putting her own classical flair to the hip-hop beat. A mountain of golden curls stacked atop her head bounced along. Satisfied, she uploaded the one-minute video to her 5,000 followers. The next day, her Instagram following grew to 22,000. Then 100,000. Now more than 360,000.
“What do I share? What do I post to all of these fans?” she recounted during a video interview from her hotel room in Mexico in early June, where she is working on new music. “Now I have fans. Before I just had friends.”
That viral video commanded an audience that could have filled a concert hall or arena many times over — and catapulted her from an unknown violinist to the Internet-crowned “Classical Bae. “Her sound reached the ears of megastar Beyoncé who invited Ezinma to join her all-girl band at the Southern California music festival Coachella in 2018. She has toured Europe, played with Stevie Wonder, Kendrick Lamar, SZA and the late Mac Miller. This spring, she released her debut EP Classical Bae.
At first glance, it appears Ezinma’s success happened overnight, but it has been decades in the making. And it all started at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where her parents met and fell in love, where a community embraced, nurtured and challenged her and she gained the skills and confidence to upend the classical music world.“UNL genuinely prepared me for life,” Ezinma said, reflecting on her time on the sprawling campus. “I feel like I was given a really safe incubator to be myself. After that, I felt like I could do anything.”
Ezinma has been a fixture on Nebraska’s campus since she was a baby. Her mother, Dr. Lisa Knopp, would rock an infant Ezinma in her arms during her office hours in Andrews Hall when she was a Nebraska doctoral student earning her Ph.D. in creative nonfiction and American literature. Her father, Colin Ramsay, would strap a toddler Ezinma on his back as he taught actuarial science courses in the College of Business Administration. She would peer out into the class of students and wave, her father recalled. They would wave back. “I remember drawing on the marker board in my dad’s class,” she said. “In many ways, I feel like I grew up at UNL.”
Back then, everybody knew her simply as Meredith. She fell in love with the violin when her teachers at Prairie Hill Montessori School brought in violin instructors who taught the Suzuki method. “These little kids were playing these tiny violins and she bugged us,” Knopp, now an English professor at University of Nebraska Omaha, recounted over the phone. “She wanted one.”
She was 3. Her parents assumed it would be one in a long line of interests their young daughter would take up as she explored and found herself. They conceded and rented a miniature version of the string instrument that could fit her tiny fingers. Practice, for preschoolers, consisted of learning how to hold the instrument, playing the musical scales and learning to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. It would take a young Ezinma five minutes to complete. Her mother got an idea. Knopp, who studied the piano and flute as an undergraduate in Iowa, would pull out her flute and join Ezinma in her practices. The time would fly by as they played folk music, soulful church hymns and freestyled. “She and I would just screw around and have fun,” Knopp said. “I think she had the association that music could be really enjoyable. Then to go from five minutes to 30 minutes (of practice) when you’re six, that’s a huge deal. At a very early age, she was practicing way more than the other kids.”
By the sixth grade, Ezinma’s skill had outpaced her mom and Knopp could no longer keep up with her on the flute. Others began paying attention to Ezinma’s musicality. She had a big sound and knew how to make mundane pieces musical and expressive. “There was something kind of extraordinary. She could really make her violin sing,” Knopp recalled. When Ezinma was in the eighth grade, she was yearning for a new challenge. Her parents signed her up to study under David Neely, a Nebraska professor of violin. She took lessons from him for five years. “She was skilled like any athlete would be and very focused on her routines,” Neely said. “She practiced very hard and I always loved that about her. She was very diligent about her music making.” “But now she’s doing it. That’s what happens when you really follow your heart and put the work in.” –Dr. Lisa Knopp
Additionally, Ezinma attended national and international music camps to sharpen her skills and challenge herself. She was often the only Black musician in the room. It was at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a prestigious music program in Michigan, where Ezinma encountered another Black string player for the first time. She was 14 or 15. “Seeing that I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a deficiency,” Ezinma said, reflecting on that moment. “I didn’t realize how underrepresented I was until I finally saw somebody. It’s kind of interesting. You don’t realize you’re lacking until you’re finally given water. And you’re like ‘Oh my God, I’m thirsty.’ That was a big moment for me.”
She called her mother. “It was like naming some obvious thing that you’ve never paid attention to,” Knopp recalled. “For the first time she saw another Black violinist. Doesn’t that make you want to weep with joy and sadness?” Ezinma would return from these prestigious training camps, eager to show others her growth. “She would go away to these international camps and come back and not be seated very high in the orchestra,” Knopp said. “So, I’m like ‘what the hell is going on here.’ ”
Ramsay, her father, who was raised in Guyana, a country on the Caribbean coast of South America, knew what it was. Before he had Ezinma, he had considered America the land of opportunity and said he did not fully understand the role racism played in the lives of Black people in America. Ramsay would have spirited debates with the late Michael Combs, a political science professor who taught at Nebraska for decades, about race and identity. But raising Ezinma showed Ramsay another side of his adopted home country. He saw, in ways large and small, how some minimized Ezinma’s talent, questioned her abilities and tried to chip away at her confidence. “It was like somebody breaking your legs, crippling you so when you’re an adult you can’t even walk,” Ramsay said, who is still an actuarial science professor at Nebraska. “Working hard is not enough. It’s necessary but not sufficient.” He would speak up for her, questioning the motives of her teachers. But at home, he would pull Ezinma aside and issue hard truths, “You’re Black. You just have to be better.”
When it was time to apply to college, Ezinma only submitted one application: To the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She had graduated from Lincoln Southwest High School a year early and at 17, she didn’t want to go too far from home. At this point, she was 14 years into a love affair with the violin. She could see herself pursuing a career in music but her dad pushed for her to study medicine. “I came from the Caribbean and in our culture, you only have three choices if you’re smart: doctor, lawyer or engineer,” Ramsay said. “Music felt like entertainment. That was never part of the equation.” Father and daughter reached a compromise. To make sure Ezinma was not attempting to shy away from the harder STEM courses, Ramsay said she could major in music if she took math and science courses.“ “After you get an A in all of these subjects then you can make a decision based on love and not fear,” he told her.
Ezinma arrived as a freshman in 2008. She declared a double major in biochemistry and violin performance and a minor in mathematics with a pre-medicine emphasis. She aced her courses. When she wasn’t studying, she was practicing at Westbrook Music Building into the wee hours with her musician friends. “We were really intense,” Ezinma said. “We would be there until the janitors came in and closed the building.” At the end of her sophomore year, she confessed to her dad: “I’m a musician.” He conceded.
“You don’t choose to do music. Music chooses you,” said Neely, Ezinma’s former violin professor. “There’s something inside your soul that you just can’t put it away. It just draws you back no matter what you do.” “Music called her and she couldn’t not do it.”
Glimpses of Ezinma’s talent in her interpretation "Ode to Hustle" https://youtu.be/n6q7QJOPmnU
About the author Angel Jennings, a Nebraska-Lincoln Alum is Assistant Managing Editor for culture and talent at The LA Times. She oversees our Metpro and internship programs as well as works closely with HR and department heads to help manage a broad range of responsibilities, including tracking, recruiting, interviewing and selecting diverse candidates for job opportunities and advancing the company’s efforts to promote diversity, equity, inclusion and access.
Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.