Tapestry

This busker wants you to take the money he makes (if you need it)

New York Busker, Will Boyajian, didn’t let COVID-19 stop him from playing music to raise money for people-in-need. He just moved his charity online.

Busker goes from NYC subway platform to online audiences to raise money for those in need.

Will Boyajian performing at a New York City subway platform. (Submitted by Will Boyajian, shot by Optimist https://optimist.co/ )

Will Boyajian's bluegrass, rockabilly busking has likely earned some $20,000 —  but, he says, he hasn't kept a penny. 

He plays music to make money for folks in need.

It's been nothing but fun for me.- Will Boyajian

Before the pandemic, Boyajian would bring his guitar to a New York City subway platform and prop up a cardboard sign that read: 

"If you're homeless or need help, take as much as you need from the case. I just like to play."  

Boyajian estimates that about $100 an hour would circulate through his case while he strummed and crooned up-tempo sea shanties.

WATCH/ Filmmaker follows Will Boyajian as he busks around NY subway.


 

But he didn't take any of that money home, he says, despite not having much income himself, between periodic acting gigs and waiting tables. 

"It's been nothing but fun for me. It's just fun," Boyajian says. "That's what I get out of it."

He calls his project Hopeful Cases, and has inspired other musicians to take up the philosophy  - play music while people take as much money as they need. 

Surprising reactions 

Boyajian wasn't sure what reaction he'd get when he tried his first take-as-much-as-you-need set on the platform of 42nd Street subway.

A friend had warned that someone might, selfishly, just take everything. Clear out his case. 

That didn't happen. 

Instead, people would intentionally leave some for others, Boyajian says. That surprised him. 

So did other interactions — like a man who arrived on the platform with "his life on his back" in a bag swung over his shoulder, and his dog at his side. The man hesitated at first, surprised to read the sign, then took some money and turned to his dog.

Boyajian recalls the man spoke to his four-legged companion as they walked away, saying, "We're going to be okay tonight. We can go to one of those places that lets dogs in."

Another encounter brought Boyajian to tears —  which, he says, is rare. "Nothing gets me emotional." 

The man appeared to be in overwhelmingly bad shape. The worst Boyajian had seen.

"He was wearing rags, his clothes were in tatters," says Boyajian, "He had big sores on his legs, big open sores … His legs were all swollen. He was just really in rough shape and he walked up and he took a look at the sign and took a couple dollars out, didn't say anything and just kept walking by."

Boyajian says he didn't think anything of it. That happens all the time.

"And then maybe 10 or 15 minutes later, he came back," Boyajian says, "and he put two Gatorades down in front of me and he said, 'You look thirsty.' That was it. And walked away."

Livestreaming from his parents' basement 

Today, Boyajian slaps a standup bass and improvizes rap lyrics, riffing off a request from a stranger watching his livestream "extravaganza" on Reddit. 

Boyajian jumps from instrument to instrument on his near-daily live streams out of his parents' basement in Albany, New York —  piano, bass, guitar, banjo, mandolin, concertina, drums harmonica, washboard, kazoo —  whatever gets people to donate money to Hopeful Cases.

He hadn't expected to play for an online audience. Until now, Boyajian had thought Internet culture was "icky" and "self-absorbed and kind of gross."

But the pandemic forced Boyajian back home with his parents — his cruise ship and casino gigs cancelled, and New York City's core no longer a safe place to sing. 

"I definitely stumbled into that heavy, boring, dystopia kind of depression that seemed to strike so many of us," Boyajian admits. He stopped playing music at the outbreak of the virus. 

Will Boyajian during his marathon livestream performance on Reddit. (Reddit)

Then, he says, he realized he needed to play music to stay "happy and sane." So he began streaming on Reddit Sessions.

These days hundreds of thousands tune-in to the multi-instrument livestreams he calls "Rockabilly Bass-Slappin Bluegrass Sea Shanty Freestyle Extravaganzas" sometimes adding: "Charity Fiesta Power Hour of Niceness."

They differ from his subway sets. Boyajian now has the mustache and wild hair of Frank Zappa ("a product of my weird coronavirus basement-dwelling"), and mixes genres as per viewers' requests. 

"People want to see me do gangster rap songs as Johnny Cash," he says. "And they want to see me do dirty rap songs as Bob Dylan — something about Dylan singing like a Nicki Minaj song is very, very popular."

But he's kept the charity component. Through his website, Hopeful Cases, viewers can donate money or ask for help. 

"Internet Magic"

Boyajian now gets emails from those affected by the pandemic.

Of the requests he gets, "it's a lot of, 'COVID has made it so I can't work'," says Boyajian. "There is a lot of, 'I'm about to get evicted.' There's a lot of, like, 'Hey, I'm sleeping in my car and I was just browsing because it was late and I can't do anything because of the virus, and I saw your thing and I heard you can help'."

"It's definitely a different animal now, online," he says. "It feels like a little bit of Internet magic."

Boyajian admits he'll need to get some "grown-up" administrative support to help him keep up with demand. He'd like to grow Hopeful Cases as a charity, while getting to do what brings him joy: playing music and helping people who are suffering improve their lives, even a little.

Written and recorded by Kate Adach. Produced by Rosie Fernandez.

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