In 2009, Tomás Alvarez III sat at his desk as a group of nine teenagers filed into his classroom at Oakland High School. This was the fifth year of his Beats, Rhymes and Life program, which uses hip-hop music as a form of therapy for at-risk teenagers. Alvarez began the class in the usual fashion, playing instrumental beats on a boom box. As the class gathered in a circle and began to freestyle, Alvarez recalls, he recognized something particularly special in the class of 2009 –who would go on to become the focus of “A Lovely Day,” a new documentary that will be shown in sneak preview in Oakland tonight.
Two years earlier, Alvarez had met a documentary filmmaker named Kerri Gawryn at an art gallery in San Francisco. Gawryn was throwing a party to raise funds for her latest project, which involved youth and hip-hop. As she wriggled her way through the dancing crowd, she bumped into Alvarez and dropped a flyer into his hands. He leaned in and exclaimed, “This sounds like you’re trying to make a film on what I do!”
Gawryn was intrigued. “I was interested in working with them because Beats, Rhymes and Life has this therapeutic background,” Gawryn said in a phone interview this week. “What Tomás created is a connection to art and music which has an incredibly positive effect on young people.”
As the two connected over coffee afterwards, Alvarez explained the origins of Beats, Rhymes and Life. The program had developed in response to his experience interning as a social worker at Berkeley High School. Alvarez, who had done graduate studies at Smith College School for Social Work, had been placed at Berkeley High with a group of eight young men, many of whom were facing suspension or expulsion from the school system. “I started to see that the school itself wasn’t designed to meet the needs of these youth,” he said in an interview. “For me it was looking to youth culture for the solution, and for that particular group of youth, it was hip-hop.”
Alvarez piloted a “rap therapy” program, which combined narrative therapy with hip-hop music. By the end of the school year, Alvarez notes, the program had recorded a 97% attendance rate and a 100% retention rate. “These where numbers the school had never seen,” he said. “We were getting kids-at risk young males- to stay after school with nothing but a supportive environment for them to develop as artists.”
Berkeley High School loved it. Following his graduation from Smith, Alvarez was invited to come back and run the program. Within a year, Beats, Rhymes and Life was incorporated into the after-school curriculum of three schools: Berkeley High, Berkeley Alternative (or B-Tech), and Oakland High School.
At Alvarez’s request, Gawryn arrived at Oakland High School in January of 2009 and began production. The crew shot 170 hours of footage over eight months. “They recorded every session we did,” said Alvarez. In those eight months, the crew taped every recording session, every meeting. Beats, Rhymes and Life produced more work than they had in the past, including an eighteen-track album, four community live shows, and a finale at the Oakland Metro Operahouse, a performing arts center near Jack London Square. “‘A Lovely Day’ is what it is because of those specific young people and their dedication,” said Gawyrn. “It felt like we were all working on this project together – they were just as invested in it as we were as a film crew.”
The documentary, which was completed three weeks ago, focuses on six of the nine students of the 2009 class. “That was the perfect year for Kerri to be a fly on the wall,” Alvarez said. “That was the year that Oscar Grant was killed and Obama was elected.” One of the songs featured in the film is entitled “If I were the President.”
“There was a lot of adversity, conflict, and tension, but a lot in the realm of possibility,” Alvarez said. “They said Obama was impossible. Well, there he is.”
This last Sunday, Gawyrn screened “A Lovely Day” to the 2009 Beats, Rhyme and Life class. All of them are now four years older. A few have children. “They were excited,” Gawyrn said. “I was amazed at their willingness to open up and talk about their experiences–to be honest and present with us.”
“When Freud talked about free association – that’s freestyle,” said Alvarez, smiling. “It’s amazing that hip-hop is filled with these natural therapeutic frameworks that are helping people heal themselves and build community.”
A sneak preview Kerri Gawryn’s film, “A Lovely Day” is screening at 7:30pm, on Thursday, October 11 at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, California.