Rap and hip-hop have a mixed reputation: misogyny and violence have long been a part of the genre, but the music has also given a voice to underprivileged Americans since the late 1970s.
Recently, it’s helped some kids in the Upper Valley come to terms with difficulties in their lives. Music contributor Matt Bushlow has this story of how rap music is being used in a new court diversion program for at-risk youth.
(Teens working with producers in a studio)
(Ed Begosian) "Do you want to try it one more time, or do you want to record?"
(Jonathan Zschack) "Let me try it one more time by myself."
(Buslow) The basement of Valley Court Diversion in White River Junction is an unlikely place to find a recording studio. But it’s the home of Rap Lab, where a group of teenagers have been hard at work on their own hip-hop tracks.
(Alter) "Play that back, because that actually sounded good."
(Begosian) "It was pretty all right."
(Zschack) "That I like. That’s awesome. I’m getting the hang of this now!"
(Bushlow) That’s teenager Jonathan Zschack working with music producer Ed Bogosian. Like all the teens in Rap Lab, Zschack committed a minor, non-violent crime and instead of being prosecuted in court, was referred to Valley Court Diversion. If he successfully completes the program, he’ll stay out of the court system and his record will be clean.
Jay Stevens created Rap Lab as a ten-week writing and life skills program for teenagers like Zschack. Stevens is a writer and poet, and he was inspired by a group of teens he worked with in a similar program that focused on storytelling.
(Stevens) "I discovered when I was doing that that a lot of the kids were rappers that had notebooks full of raps and were engaged very quietly in an extensive creative project that they would never show to anyone."
(Bushlow) Stevens saw an opportunity to help teenagers tell their stories through music and produce something they could take pride in: their own CD.
(Stevens) "All these kids are so involved with music that it seemed a very easy thing to do. … And that they could go away with a very powerful artifact for them, a four-minute song that they didn’t think they could do."
(Bushlow) During the first few weeks of Rap Lab, Stevens helps the teens turn their personal stories into lyrics. Music producer Ed Bogosian helps them choose from several pre-recorded backing tracks.
Then it’s time to record. Some participants have never rapped. Others, like Robert Worrale, are used to recording their own hip-hop tracks at home on a computer. Here Worrale rehearses an unfinished verse to one of Bogosian’s beats. The lyrics begin with a list of the rehabilitation facilities Robert has lived in.
(Sound of Worrale rapping.)
Though Worrale records at home, he likes the setup at Rap Lab.
(Worrale) "It’s a lot better than just doing it at my house, because I got people to communicate with, talk to about writing music, listen to music and just hang out. It’s fun."
(Bushlow) Regina Rice-Barker is the executive director of Valley Court Diversion Programs. She’s seen positive changes in the teenagers who participate in Rap Lab.
(Rice-Barker) "We see friendships evolving between kids that probably wouldn’t have given each other the time of day. We see the respect being given to Eddie Begosian, our "beat guy," and to Jay. And I think that’s kind of a new thing, to be able to work with adults that they feel aren’t really judging them, that are including them in the process of this really amazing and creative project."
(Bushlow) Zack Fogg, another participant and hip-hop enthusiast, says he’s been freestyling since he was 10 years old. For those who aren’t up on their rap lingo, that means he improvises lyrics while he raps. While he hasn’t quite gotten the hang of writing lyrics yet, Fogg is enthusiastic about Rap Lab.
(Fogg) "I love it here, because every time I leave, after every time I leave here, I’m always a happier person. I love going home. I’m able to talk to my parents and be like, ‘Hey, you know, I’m working on a CD.’"
(Bushlow) Rap Lab creator Jay Stevens isn’t making promises that the program will solve the problems these kids face. The teens have had different levels of success in staying out of trouble. But Stevens believes adults can help when they find out troubled teens are passionate about, and give them a chance to turn their creativity into something they love.
And in many cases, that’s not an opportunity many of them have had – until now.
For VPR, I’m Matt Bushlow.