The Life of New York City’s Underground Buskers

Issue 282

Subway performers talk about their art, performing in public and making a living one tip at a time.

Lydia Wei Sep 19, 2023

It’s 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, and the Union Square L train platform is swarming with Brooklyn-bound clubbers. Over the heat haze of hundreds of tightly packed bodies, a strange sound, like a deep-bellied groan, rises from the center of the platform. Following the music that rings and echoes around the cavernous station leads to a mysterious man. He plays some type of instrument — more a contraption, really — that looks like one of those old light microscopes from a high school biology class. 

His name is Ken Arii, and he is the subway busker responsible for the haunting music tonight. Though his presence might get lost in the hubbub of the crowd, to stick around and listen to his music provides a chance for unexpected meditation on a late weekend night. Here, we speak to a collection of subway buskers — including a blues piano player, an experimental cello-maker, a singer-songwriter, and a psychic rapper — to learn more about their worlds.

Gabriel Aldort once received a solid ounce of gold as a tip and cashed it in for $1,300.
Laura Brett

Gabriel Aldort
New Orleans blues piano player; subway busking since 2010

I chose to commit myself exclusively to a path in music in 2010. That’s when I auditioned for the Music Under New York program. One cool thing that I’ll always remember is that the auditions used to be held in the esplanade level of Grand Central, which was the last year that they held them there. After that, the Apple store came in and took over that space. But it was cool, like a balcony that nobody really knew how to get up to. You had to find this little hidden elevator.

When I made the cut, I was overjoyed but super nervous. I’d never played in the subway before. The first spot I ever played in was Penn Station. That spot is still there; they call it Long Island Railroad #3, because there are multiple spots in the terminals. 

If you’re a consistent Music Under New York artist, the city will periodically throw you opportunities such as performing at luncheons, award ceremonies, station reopenings, ribbon cuttings. The MTA will cherry pick their favorite artists for those events. One of the coolest opportunities I’ve ever had was for Billy Strayhorn’s centennial. You know he wrote that famous song with Duke Ellington, “Take the A Train.” So the city rolled out the old A trains from like the ’30s or ’40s, and they peppered the cars with Music Under New York musicians. And of course we played Strayhorn, Ellington tunes.

If I told you the list of weird things that I’ve been tipped … Somebody tipped me an ounce of gold once. When I was packing up, there was a little green square envelope in my tip bag, with a little heart drawn on it in ballpoint pen. I could tell there was probably a coin in there, and it was really heavy. And I slid it out. It was really orange. I was like, What the hell is this? I don’t know if you’ve ever seen pure gold. It’s like really orange. And it had a maple leaf on it. Turned out it was a Canadian maple ounce of gold. I took it down to the frickin’ Diamond District, 44th St. Some [jeweler] behind a glass counter checked it, then fanned out $1,300 in cash. 

I’ve gotten all manner of food and beverages. Somebody put a six-pack of non-alcoholic beer in my bag. A bulb of garlic. I’ve gotten hot dogs, sandwiches, water. Bananas. I used to get little handwritten notes like, Thanks, you made my day.  

A key to increasing my tips is audience engagement. Acknowledgement is paramount. As humans, we’re all fundamentally afraid of each other on some level, especially in New York. But when I’m playing, I see someone, I nod my head and I smile in acknowledgement. Nine out of ten times that wall of defense comes down, and there’s a person there that just digs your music. But I like just having fun with people, keeping it light. Oozing love and positivity, because I’m a bleeding heart humanitarian to the max.

AlleXion X says it’s becoming harder to connect with commuters because so many now wear headphones.
Laura Brett

AlleXion X 
Live music performer and original songwriter; subway busking since 2009 on Instagram

In 2009, I had just come out of college. And even despite the financial crisis, those first few years — 2009, 2010, 2011 — were good years of busking for me, like the kind of money that just made me think, Man, I don’t have to get a job. Those were my playing-on-the-trains-and-going-to-restaurants days. Me and my best friend would go to every restaurant in New York City off the 1 train because we were making so much money. We’d just get off the train and go to a nice fancy restaurant and enjoy the best meal ever, get back on, and just keep singing. This is probably why I have reflux now. You know, in hindsight maybe I should’ve bought a house. It was just this beautiful excitement then.

My coolest experience was busking on the Staten Island Ferry. We were passing around the offering plate, and there’s so many people on the ferry, and we probably made $100 off one trip. We would just sing anywhere.

Back in 2009, the money was three times as much. Right now is a tough time for everyone, food is more expensive, so people will hold on to money more. I remember back then, I would get so much more change, like literally coins … Everyone has on headphones now, so they have the freedom to ignore what is happening around them. So I feel like you’re also competing with technology.

Being on the platform, you get to interact with a lot of the homeless people. They see you in that space, kinda hustling like they are, and they feel more familiar, so you’re more open to talking to them and they’re more open to talking to you. It sucks that sometimes they can feel invisible. You see people ignoring them, you know?

I remember one time I was playing and this homeless guy came up and gave me a bunch of his change. I was like Man, no, you don’t have to do that! And he said No, no, you made my day, I really enjoyed your performance, and he was giving all that he had. 

It’s important to not cast anyone out. Nobody should be forgotten. Busking in the subways does keep you aware, it keeps you grounded.

Jacob Cohen makes his cellos out of olive oil cans, tennis rackets, deer skulls and whatever else handy he can find.
Laura Brett

Jacob Cohen
Cellist and experimental ­instrument maker; subway ­busking since 2010
on Instagram

I started subway busking when I was living in this artist house in Harlem in 2010. I met a Brazilian violinist who was doing a lot of street performances. We got hired for some wedding, and to rehearse we went into the subway because he played in the subway a lot. I was amazed that we were making money.

At first I was playing classical music, but the train would be interrupting the songs all the time. And I never loved classical music that much, so I started to improvise in between the trains. I just fell in love with improvising. I wanted to keep on exploring what the cello could do, so I would just sit in the subway all day playing, trying to make money but also just exploring the possibilities of this instrument. 

In 2015 I made my first experimental cello out of a small tin can. I used some twigs as tuning pegs, I carved them down; and I think I used toothpicks as frets. I just put it all together, I strung it up and it sounded pretty good. It really sounded like a cello. 

I started experimenting with different materials. I’ve made cellos from tennis rackets, deer skulls, horseshoe crab shells, old olive oil cans. I use a lot of sticks from old mop handles to make the handle, the body of the instrument. I went to Brazil in February and I met this other instrument maker who taught me how to use plastic soda bottles. I hit the plastic soda bottle with a heat gun and it wraps itself around the tin can. The heat tightens it up and it has this weird effect where you can make it into a drum head. Then I learned how to solder and make these little contact mics, which I could use to make an electric cello. I got carried away during the pandemic; now I have 50 instruments.

Most of these objects I find while I’m walking around. The deer skull, I found when I went for a hike across the George Washington Bridge. On the Jersey side there’s this amazing park that has cliffs, and there’s a section off the path where I guess deer go to die. There’s lots of bones. I found two deer skulls there. The tennis racket I found in the trash on the Upper West Side, it’s like a bit of a fancy neighborhood. And I always just have my eyes open. In New York City, people throw away so much stuff.

Ken Arii 
Ambient musician; subway busking since 2022
@ariijuice_missile on Instagram 

What I do on the subways is an ambient style of music, with a mix of beatboxing. I use a SOMA pipe. It’s made by SOMA Laboratory, a synthesizer maker from Russia. They make unique instruments. It’s not just a pipe, or even synthesizers. It’s more. I saw the demonstration video of the pipes, and it was shocking to me. It makes a big noise, a big sound. I was like, Yes, this is it. Right away I bought it.

My very first time performing was actually more than 10 years ago when I was playing noise music. I played guitar in Union Square with an old friend. We just wanted to make noise. Actually, a lot of people hated us because we were really noisy. We kept going for a while, until one day these undercover police showed up. They were like, What the fuck are you doing?! with handcuffs in their hands. They were about to arrest us. I just kept silent like, I don’t understand what you’re saying at all. They were looking at us for a while, and then I just left. I quit.

This guy, it was late night and he was maybe a bit drunk, he just sat on the stairs and listened to me for 30 or 40 minutes. He passed a few trains he was supposed to ride. That guy made me feel very good. Sometimes there’s this weird guy screaming next to me. I don’t know, I guess he’s trying to sing with me.

It’s always good on the L train platform late nights, like after 10. There are people like me all the time on the L train, so they like me more. Now I’m trying to make everybody know about me on the L train platform, all my L train people, my L train night people.

Motown Mahdi
Singer, rapper, producer, psychic medium; subway busking since 2016
@multimahditv on Instagram 

I’m a man of many talents. I’m a singer, rapper, producer; I can do everything when it comes to music. But I’m also a psychic medium. I can tell people what’s going to happen in the future. So to sum up, I call myself a lightworker. I just give off light and I give off energy. 

Actually, it’s weird because I’ve kind of been psychic my whole life. In church they used to call me a prophet. And I can honestly say that I never missed a reading for anybody. I hit the lotto over a hundred times. I just hit the lotto yesterday. Lots of people like me to predict the lotto for them. I never missed a reading. And I actually channel passed ones from the other realms; so I channeled Michael Jackson, I channeled Prince. I saw Young Dolph’s murder before Young Dolph’s murder came to light. And I predicted that Donald Trump would go to jail. That’s happening now. 

I am an earth angel on this planet. I come from the seventh dimension. And I tell other people who they are. Like, when I meet them and they tell me what day they were born, I let them know, like, You do know that you’re an earth angel, right? 

When I perform, I smile at people and I give all good energy to people. I say nice shoes, I give people a compliment when they walk past. So when I give off that energy, I get that energy back. 

I perform “Tennessee Whiskey” like 400, 500 times a day because that song actually brings in the most money. People love that song. Some of the MTA workers actually have to hear me sing that song back to back every day. Because a big mistake I made back in the day was singing my own songs, and people didn’t know my songs. Now, what I do is, I sing the songs that everybody knows for like four or five hours. And then five minutes before I shut down, I sing my own songs. So I put my own music to the background. Because people actually buy my albums while I’m singing other people’s songs. Which is backwards though, but I get it.

I dealt with racism with the police a lot. The police would shut down my shows all the time or they would meet me with the big police dogs. They liked to try to find drugs on me, but unfortunately I didn’t have to sell drugs because I made music.

The police discriminate on hip hop acts. I realized when I’m singing country music, or I’m singing songs that other people know, the police don’t bother me. But if you make it hip hop music, they discriminate on that. Because hip hop really don’t like the police. Like the whole hip hop song is talking about, don’t trust the police, and it really talks about police brutality and goes against snitching to the police. So the police discriminate against hip hop artists, or in general, all people of color. Unless you’re a black artist singing “Tennessee Whiskey.” They love that. When I’m singing “Tennessee Whiskey,” they don’t give me no problem. I learned that as well.

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