Music is life for street-performing cellist Aijee Evans. When her family takes a trip to the beach, she plays her cello on the boardwalk. When her mom had a kidney transplant, Evans played in the hospital room.

And when she heard about Mouhamed Cisse, 18, who also played cello, being fatally shot in West Philadelphia earlier this month, she reached for her instrument to offer a tribute, which she performed on June 7 at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“There was a rally for black arts that I was invited to perform at,” Evans said. The rally was organized by two of Evans’ friends and took place during a larger protest against police brutality. “I wanted to make my performance a tribute to [Cisse] because I hadn’t heard his name enough.”

Dancer Kai Supreme joined Evans for the tribute. Two days before the performance, Tyrone Proctor, one of the original Soul Train dancers from Philly, had died. Supreme told Evans that he was mourning Proctor’s passing. “I thought Kai would be the best person to share that moment with,” she said.

Cisse first learned the cello through a Penn program called Music and Social Change. He played cello with the nonprofit Musicopia String Orchestra from 2013 to 2019. Evans was involved with the same program in 2015 but only knew Cisse in death.

Being a black cellist on the predominantly white orchestral-music scene, “I saw myself in him,” Evans said.

On the day of the tribute, before a crowd of at least 200 people, Evans took her seat on the Art Museum steps and rested her honey-brown cello against her shoulder. The organizers gave a short speech that outlined the intention of the rally, which was to amplify the talents of black artists in a show of solidarity to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Her bow was coated in rosin dust as Evans glided into the first note of her song — a moment she described as sublime. As she played, marchers from the larger protest stopped to watch. She closed her eyes while emotions of sadness and hope sank into her like water into sand.

“It felt like the world had stopped,” Evans said. “I felt all the emotions and wanted to put all of it into the music.”

Since the start of the protests following George Floyd’s death, Evans had not performed at a march or demonstration due to concerns about the safety of her instrument.

“I want to make sure I’m in a situation where it’s safe to sit and play my cello,” she said. “I also want to make sure it’s the right time for me to share my talent.” The rally felt like the right time.

When she performed in ensembles during middle and high school, she was often the only black person. This disparity, “takes a toll on you,” by sowing seeds of doubt and raising questions about belonging. But street performing has helped Evans overcome these feelings.

Evans makes a living by performing at weddings, prom send-offs, restaurants, and other events. But since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, opportunities for gigs aren’t as plentiful.

On Friday, in celebration of Juneteenth, Evans will be performing at City Hall’s Dilworth Park alongside vocalist Christian King.

The performance will include solo sets from Evans and King, both being accompanied by a few singers and other string musicians.

“It’ll be like a small ensemble,” Evans said. “This is our weapon and our way to show love at this moment.”

Evans began street performing as a ninth-grader at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. Seeing singers, dancers, and musicians performing on the Market-Frankford Line during her commute from school, “[my friends and I] saw them making a few bucks so we thought we’d try it.” Evans has been at it ever since.

After playing clarinet in the marching band at Stonehurst Hills Elementary School, she moved to Jay Cooke Elementary School and there were no woodwind instruments available, only strings. When Evans heard a music teacher perform the prelude from Bach’s First Cello Suite for the first time, “I knew I wanted to be a cellist — immediately.” That was in sixth grade.

She admired her instructor’s poise and the simple yet sophisticated dexterity the instrument called for. So she practiced until she got the hang of it.

She hasn’t studied cello formally since graduating high school in 2017 — she’s currently an architecture student at the Community College of Philadelphia. “I realized going to a conservatory wasn’t for me, but being an entrepreneur [and] a performing musician with creative freedom was,” Evans said. “My grandfather is an architect and I’ve always been fond of his projects.”

On the day of the rally, Evans said she worried her cello wouldn’t be loud enough to carry sound through the crowd, but because of the near-silence of the moment, “you could hear the cello speaking.” When her tribute to Cisse was over, the crowd erupted in cheers. Evans said that several people walked up to greet and thank her and Supreme for the performance.

“Music is a universal language,” Evans said. During the rally, “I was telling my story, I was telling Mouhamed’s story. It was a conversation and I think people really understood that.”