Highfields Music studio empowers at-risk youth through song

From a young age, Jay saw things no kid should see. He saw people die. He saw people killed. And he saw a lot of people he held close taken away and locked in prison. By the time he was 16, Jay had been shot at, hit by cars, and active in a gang. His days were dangerous and dark and put him on the fast track for life behind bars.

Today, Jay is learning to process and cope with the challenges and hardships of his young life in a setting removed from the concrete and broken glass of his urban neighborhood. In August 2017, the at-risk teen was ordered through the Michigan courts to enter Highfields—a residential treatment program for adjudicated boys ages 11 through 17.

While initially taken aback by the trees and lakes and fields of Onondaga, Mich., the Grand Rapids teen immediately discovered something relatable. Within weeks, Jay joined more than a dozen young men opening up about their problems through a unique program that leverages the power of music.

"When I first came to Highfields it was like, three to six months in the country. I don't know where I'm at, I'm away from the city and around a bunch of people I don't know," says Jay. "People were telling me I was stand-offish and had a don't- approach-me attitude. But now I've learned how to open up and share things with people."

Jay credits that change, in part, to Highfield's expressive therapy program driven by hip-hop and rap. Funded by the James and Kimberly Currie Foundation, the program immerses students in a state-of-art recording studio once a week, overseen by staff who encourage them to work through painful or traumatic life experiences through creative music projects.

Russell Davis IV is the Highfields supervisor and counselor in charge of the program. He's also a talented songwriter and producer in the Jackson and Detroit areas. Drawing on the experiences of both his professions, he's come to believe that music is a powerful means to reach youth, communicate, and work through difficult, painful emotions.

"Part of therapy is looking at the way that kids self-medicate," says Davis. "One thing I consistently found was music. It's a universal language. It's something most people can identify with. So with kids, it's one thing we had in common, and gave us a way to talk."

Finding a voice

Jay immediately took to the music program run by Davis, and found opportunity to build on his passion for writing and performing rap. Before coming to Highfields, he had penned several raps, including one that revealed elements of his life that he rarely revealed through conversation. Those verses were written without profanity, without vulgarity, and in a way that mirrored the approach Davis emphasizes at Highfields.

Jay raps without hesitation. His imagery is dark and his words questioning. Using clear, rhythmic language, he says his goal is to reach as many people as he can with a message of challenge, determination and pain.

Let's trade places
What would you think if the judge said
You could be facing years
In a 6-by-10 cell feeling claustrophobic
And where push ups, shadowboxing, working on aerobics
Trying to tire yourself out
Eyes still not closing
And when they turn those lights out
They're praying and hoping
There's a lot of people don't want that cell door to never open

Davis says Jay came to the program with sensitivity and skill. He says the teen already understood that rap and hip-hop culture can be just as effective without obscenity or swearing. Even more, he says that Jay's work signifies that rap isn't all about materialism, drugs and violence. It's also about harsh realities, disenfranchised communities and resilience.

"We tell kids they have to find a way to say things without the cuss words," says Davis of rap and hip-hop projects. "And if you want to pick anger, there are ways to do that without saying a foul word."

Davis began developing Highfield's rap and hip-hop program in December 2015 after the James and Kimberly Currie Foundation awarded the $5,000 grant. Davis purchased technical equipment comprised of a computer, recording and music software, a microphone, recording booth, drum machines and a keyboard. From there, he built a curriculum to boost student's self-esteem and confidence, and to help them to express the trauma and often-violent realities that complicated their lives. Davis, too, built in opportunities for students to learn technological and IT skills to broaden their employability and career options once they leave Highfields.

Most of the 24 Highfields residents choose to participate in the studio, with about 10 to 14 in rotation at any one time. Davis starts with structural lessons where he teaches musical elements like rhythm, beats and bars, and studies lyrics from popular rappers like Eminen and Tupac Shakur.  In between, he "sneaks in" treatment by engaging students in projects that ask them to examine their relationships and lives. One project consists of writing 16 bars about their relationship with their moms. Another longer project involves telling their life story—or essentially their path from birth to Highfields.

"We like to focus on a concrete skills set and slowly seep in 'OK, let's talk about the night you were arrested,' and then write a storytelling song," says Davis. "With that, now we're talking about decision-making. And what mistakes they made and what they could have done differently."

Davis says music provides a therapeutic framework based on passion, and is much different than simply sitting in a room and asking kids to talk about their trauma or mistakes. Those situations, he says, can cause students to pushback, to refuse to open up or trust, and to question why virtual strangers are asking about the most intimate or painful details of their lives.

"Almost everything I know about Jay I learned through music," says Davis. "For instance, in the letter to my mom rap, I'd say 'Oh, he's adopted," after hearing the first lyric of the line—'Adopted at two weeks old to a mother that wasn't my own, looking for a place to call home.'"

Sparking the change

In July 2017, the James and Kimberly Currie Foundation awarded Highfields a second $5,000 grant to purchase video equipment and provide upgrades to the studio. The expansion enables Highfields to engage even more students who prefer to tell stories through video, or to inspire students to add visual elements to their audio stories and projects. The grant also increases opportunities for students to work as teams and to learn additional technical skills.

Highfields will continue to enhance the program through partnerships with Lansing's All of the Above Creative—a collective of hip-hop artists devoted to effecting social change. Davis also periodically networks with consultants and guest artists to train students on technical production or artistic skills.

Christopher Robinson, residential director at Highfields, says the program illustrates how art can help students work through painful experiences, and underscores the value of retaining art in schools and other community programs.

"Art is something that is being taken out of schools at a rapid rate," observes Robinson. "We've lost sight of the benefit—that benefit to cope through music, drawing, any type of art expression. It's a way to relax and decompress, especially for young men with anger issues. Art is a safe way to process significant traumas you may have been through."

Davis concurs that Highfield's venture into therapeutic rap is about providing kids with the tools they'll need for re-entry into communities. Those tools can be job and technical skills, as well as emotional strength, perspective and grounding for building a new life.

"One thing we can give them is resilience," he says. "We teach them not to let your environment dictate you. Don't let it mold you. Go back to your environment and stand firm and be the man you want to be."

Jay plans on doing just that. The teen finished his stay at Highfields the second week in November. Jay says the program gave him time to think, to put his pain on paper, to go into the studio, and eventually, to let it go. His goal now, he says, is to stay off the streets, focus on school, and to be positive and not lean toward the negative. He's also committed to giving back, and to showing people his age that there are other ways aside from drugs and crime and anger to get through trauma and pain.

"The streets made me but Highfields raised me into being an adult," Jay says. "I know now that my voice and my mind is a powerful tool, and I can make a difference. Like Tupac Shakur said, I might not change the world, but I'm going to spark the mind that does change the world."   

Ann Kammerer is a freelance writer and news editor for Capital Gains. You can reach her here.

Photos © Dave Trumpie

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


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