Hip Hop therapy moves into its second generation, as survivors become mentors

In Oakland, like many urban cities, violence tends to beget violence. But one program is attempting to use artistic expression to interrupt the cycle of bloodshed that pervades the city.

Damonte Wilson, now 23, didn’t see who shot him in the neck. “We were just driving and somebody pulled up to the car and shot in the car,” he said. “I didn’t see anything.” When Wilson woke up in the hospital after multiple surgeries, he recalled, he wasn’t angry. “It’s just something unfortunate that happened to me,” he says now. “Just living in Oakland, things happen like that sometimes.” Wilson credits his ability to handle such a difficult situation with such clarity to his years of therapy—but not just any therapy, hip hop therapy.

Hip hop therapy allows high school students and young adults to learn how to rap, while also expressing their feelings in a safe, judgment-free therapy group, led by an adult social worker and hip hop artist. Other activities include studying the history and origin of hip hop, discussing the power of lyrics—how some are socially conscious, while others are explicit or violent, for example—and cyphering, which is taking turns rapping one after another.

The concept for hip hop therapy came to Bay Area social worker Tomas Alvarez in 2004, after listening to kids rap at a high school where he was working. Alvarez, who was experiencing difficulty getting through to a group of teens at risk of getting expelled, said that he had been looking for ways that kids were already healing themselves. “What I noticed was that they were turning to hip hop,” he said, sharing stories and talking about frustrations.

Alvarez partnered with a friend, local hip hop artist Rob Jackson, to create a formalized hip hop therapy program through a non-profit they created called Beats, Rhymes and Life, or BRL. The program began at Berkeley High School in 2004. “Every one of the kids that started the program, finished,” said Alvarez. The next year they were invited to three more schools. “Here we are 10 years later, serving about 200 kids a year through hip hop therapy programs,” Alvarez said.

This past summer, BRL even started a year-long pilot program, partnering with the Oakland Public Library and Oakland Parks and Recreation Department, which offered space to host the therapy workshops. “Many of these libraries are ideally located in communities with high rates of violence,” said Alvarez. “That’s why this partnership is so important—it’s bringing together strategically located facilities with a culturally responsive organization like ours to address trauma that is being observed.”

Students who typically participate in BRL have often experienced complex trauma in their lives, said Alvarez—some may not believe they will live to age 25, or have no hope for their future. Alvarez said this despair over life is what leads to dangerous behavior. “They do not care about others because they do not care about themselves. They don’t value the life of others because they don’t value their own life—walking around with this ‘I don’t give a fuck’ mentality because they really don’t,” he said. “There’s a fine line between that and actually being homicidal.”

Schools want to punish kids who are reacting this way, but they really need help, Alvarez said. “Young people growing up in communities of concentrated disadvantage that demonstrate high rates of violence and crime, they never leave the war zone,” said Alvarez.

Wilson joined the program at Oakland High in 2009. “At first I didn’t even realize it was therapy,” said Wilson, who was already used to rapping after school with friends. “I just went there because I wanted to rap.”  The program participants met twice a week for 18 weeks. Wilson said he felt like he had a reason to want to go to school for the first time, and he even started to gain recognition through the program, as people started asking him about his rapping.

After high school, Wilson wasn’t ready to leave BRL, and he wasn’t alone. Other participants wanted to stay involved. So Alvarez and Wilson created something they call The Academy, which is for “transitional aged youth” who are over 18. As they transition into adulthood, members continue to participate in therapy hip hop groups, study the genre and also mentor younger kids. “Our Academy members really believe they are a part of something big, and they are,” said Alvarez. “They play a role on multiple levels. They help develop curriculum and even help teach other mental health agencies how to be more responsive to diverse young people—to be more culturally sensitive.”

These days, Wilson can often be found leading Academy training sessions at the BRL headquarters near Lake Merritt, where he now works full time. “Basically after my first day with the program, I’ve been here every day,” he said. Reflecting on when he was shot, he added, “If I had never had the program, I probably would’ve been looking for the dude, just doing something that wasn’t going to benefit me later on. Just being in the program, helped me look at the long term instead of the short-term.” He now mentors younger students and heads many of the group’s outreach efforts.

On the first of what would be several rainy days of recent weeks, Wilson and Jackson traveled down along the east side of the bay from Oakland to Hayward, to introduce the hip hop therapy program to a group of undergraduate students taking a class on race relations at Cal State East Bay. The class consisted of 23 young women and six young men, primarily students of color. Wilson and Jackson showed videos ranging from Public Enemy’s 1989 release “Fight the Power” which features crowds of protesters and features lyrics like “What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless. … What we need is to fight the powers that be”–to modern controversial artists like Bobby Shmurda, a rapper from Brooklyn who gained notoriety this year with the release of his song “Hot Nig*#”, which has almost 32 million views on YouTube and features lyrics like “I’ve been selling crack since like the fifth grade” and “If there’s a problem, we gonna gun brawl.”

“How do these videos address race and ethnicity and how it’s portrayed in the media?” Wilson asked the class. A hand shot up in the front row, and a petite young woman in a black t-shirt with her wavy hair pulled into a tight ponytail started to speak. “I know for me, as a kid growing up biracial, I got told a lot that I was white, that I was white-washed, that I’m not black. So for me, I put myself back to when I was younger, when I was like, ‘OK, I need to try to learn how to be black,’” she said. “I would watch videos like that and think ‘That is what black is.’”

The class became noisy. One young woman near the back said she was concerned for her teenage brother because he was listening to hard-core rap like Shmurda’s and not really thinking about the stereotypes the song was perpetuating. “I mean, I get it, the beat is sick, but when you listen to words, it’s really messed up,” said another student.

During a different exercise, Jackson asked students to call out words related to race, color and stereotypes. “What are words that you associate with oppression?” he asked.

“Fight,” said a voice. Then the room filled with silence.

“I’m going to challenge us to get four for each one of these,” said Jackson. “Remember, there are no rules. Anything related to oppression.”

“Inequality,” said a quiet voice.

“Reality,” said another.

“Economic black male,” said one young woman, causing the class to erupt in laughter.

“You took it there,” said Jackson, approvingly. “What about stereotypes?”

“Negative!” “Media!” called people in the class.

“You’re getting deep,” said Wilson.

The whiteboard was soon filled with words like shades, opportunity, beautiful, shame, fight, poverty, and inequality.  Jackson started playing music, and a soothing hip hop beat filled the classroom, as Wilson spontaneously demonstrated a simple rap just by reading off the words on the whiteboard.

Then it was the students’ turn to try building a verse from the words on the board. “Think of this as just saying words,” said Jackson, gesturing toward the board. “A lot of times when you think about rapping, it’s the pressure of ‘Oh, I gotta rap, I gotta rap, I gotta rap.’ You can just say these words over a beat and you are actually rapping.”

A bubbly young woman in the front row, wearing a black leather jacket and matching hat, raised her hand. She shyly read the words off the board at an even pace, finishing with, “judgment, validity, strength, umm, support … That’s all I know.” The class erupted in applause and the student at next desk gave her a high five.

For Alvarez, this kind of empowerment is exactly what he hopes BRL graduates will achieve. “We want them to go back out into the community,” said Alvarez. “We are changing their narrative from a victim to a survivor, and then a change maker.”

Wilson says one of his favorite things now is working with the younger students. “Just me being able to teach them how to rap, they feel like that’s special to them,” he said, “and the advice that I give them—I try to give them the best possible advice at all times and try to encourage them to do better, and they appreciate it.”

“I never really felt like a leader until I joined the program,” he continued. “Now I realize that a lot of people count on me.”

Two years after he was shot, Wilson has turned his hip hop therapy into what he hopes will be a professional rap career. He has a few videos on YouTube under the name “Young Te.” In his song “Street Chronicles,” Wilson walks down the street in a white undershirt, and the rhyme goes like this: “I’m on a mission, I got a plan/I’m trying to get up on the surface and get out the sand/My people dying every day and I don’t understand/Look at me now, I’m out here helping the world.”

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