They look as you might expect – triple-XL t-shirts, baggy jeans, baseball hats pulled low and to the side. At first glance, they appear the very definition of ‘at-risk’ youth.
They certainly don’t look the ‘participation’ type. Yet, there they stand, side-by-side, a large circle in one of the recording classrooms at Centennial College. Each person steps forward to show off a little dance move, which as a group they repeat together.
It’s a warm-up exercise. It’s a group-building exercise. Today’s the first day of recording and there’s a bit of nervous energy in the air.
This is Beats 2 Da Streets. They are Beats 2 Da Streets, all 20-odd of them.
Beats is the brainchild of Gwyn Wansbrough, who in conjunction with Touchstone Youth Shelter, has run the program since its inception.
The program, which started out in Touchstone’s basement three years ago, provides a place for ‘disadvantaged and at-risk’ youth to learn the art of making music.
They learn how to write songs. They learn how to lay down beats and melodies and what it takes to record an actual track. But it’s much more than that.
“A number of people have said to me, Beats 2 Da Streets is like a family,” Wansbrough said. “That’s saying a lot. That’s the type of thing we want to encourage. It’s a social network for people who, otherwise, are pretty isolated.”
Wansbrough is small and blonde and exudes an energy that just feels genuine. It’s obvious as she greets each kid in the room.
Jamal Bin Walee, 23, (aka Miracle Chyld or ShyTown) has been with Beats for the last two 15-week sessions. To him, the program is about self-discovery.
“Somebody who could have had some troubles (in the past) comes to this program and they can learn who they (really) are through their music,” he said.“That can change their perspective on life. It’s about a lot more than music.”
Wansbrough got the idea for Beats from a trip to Brazil where she witnessed similar programs working for similarly disadvantaged kids in that country. Beats 2 Da Streets started out as a drop-in program for the homeless and disadvantaged kids who came into the shelter.
A year later, as part of Centennial’s Open Access program, granting community groups access to the college’s facilities during off-hours, she moved Beats into the school. That’s where Sean Savage comes in. He’s the head of Centennial’s Continuing Education Recording Arts program, and donates his time and expertise to help Beats record the highest-quality music.
The program also challenged him to look at the world a little differently. In the beginning he used to get worked up about little things, such as the kids being late.
Then he realized, “some of these kids have more important things on their mind then being on time,” Savage said. “(Things) like, where they are going to sleep that night.”
He has big plans for the program. Their third showcase comes up in December, a DVD to be made and sold and maybe one day something very much like a record label, where youth can record and produce and release their own music.
“We want to get the crack or the weed out of their hand and have them sell the CD (instead),” Savage said.
There’s a love in the room
The Beat kids say the experience is like family. They say it’s about learning who they you are, about learning responsibility and taking control of their situation, even if it’s only for that one night a week.
“This isn’t the last stop on the train. (It’s) more like a launching pad,” Wansbrough said. “A lot of these kids are at the critical point where they’re deciding they want a change, that they want something better.”
Wansbrough isn’t just making music; she’s helping these kids find themselves in what they create.
The lyrics aren’t the same old gang-banging, drug-slinging, gun-swinging lyrics that dominate current hip-hop and rap albums these days, either. And the life experience is about getting out of the shelter and into an independent living environment. It’s also about mentoring the kids who come to the program after them.
Mario Murray, 25, (aka TheVoyce) is a great example of what’s possible. Like Bin Walee he’s a two-session veteran. According to Savage, he’s got the talent and ability to go far and it shows. What’s more impressive is the leadership role he’s taken within the class.
He takes a lot of pride in the fact that the other kids look up to him as an example, both in life and behind the microphone.
“What (I) try to show the kids is ‘you’re smarter than your television.” Murray said. “Don’t perpetuate the same negativity that they perpetuate because it’s not going to get you anywhere.”
Not anywhere he’s going, that’s for sure.
Filed from The Centre for Creative Communications