Center brings art and culture to at-risk youth
December 3, 2009 1:43 PM
A dimly-lit recording studio comes to life as a pulsating hip-hop beat flows through the loudspeakers, the heavy bass reverberating off the sound-proof walls.
A young boy is visible behind the thick glass windows of the recording booth, wearing baggy clothes and spitting rhymes into a microphone, while the producer leans back in his chair. Though much younger than he lets on, the professionalism he exudes and his care for the expensive equipment hints at his years of experience.
"Who's next?" barks the 17-year-old beat-maker, who only refers to himself as "Vante," towards a group of nodding heads in a dark corner of the small studio. The boys in the room scramble as one of them makes his way to the booth.
For three hours every day, high school students like Vante meet up at the African American Art and Culture Complex in San Francisco's Western Addition. Besides creating a safe environment for high-risk youths to congregate, the Complex's after-school program offers classes in dance, recording studio production, visual art, theater arts and film, among others.
Although the after-school program targets youths from ages 8 to 18, its success in the community has prompted youth coordinators to extend the cut-off age to 24.
"We do have really good kids -- they just need a little guidance and support," said Youth Program Coordinator Nicola Figgins. "When you give up on your kids, they give up on themselves."
Having personally recruited several of the program's participants, Pierre Hargrave supervises teens at the Complex.
"You have to show them that they have the ability to transition out of here to a bigger level without compromising where you came from," said the 40-year-old outreach coordinator for San Francisco's Community Response Network.
Youth program coordinators, as well as CRN workers, recruit students for the program by passing out fliers and speaking to them directly at their high schools, said Renya Collins, 21, who worked as a youth program assistant at the Complex for the past three years.
"We offer a stipend of $50 a week -- it gives the kids an incentive to come here, but all in all they get more than their money's worth out of the program," Collins added.
In the AAACC's recording studio, the teens are given the opportunity to create original songs by writing their own lyrics, creating beats and working with audio production and engineering programs such as GarageBand to record their own music.
"The songs are geared towards educating young kids about what we are doing in here," Figgins said. "We have state-of-the-art equipment, a full recording booth -- they have the ability to edit and sell their songs if they want to."
After completing the required audio production class with studio instructor Arsenio Hernandez, the students are ready to move on to the studio next door to put what they've learned into practice.
"The students try to compose original music and write their own lyrics," said Hernandez, 22. "We are trying to formulate a structured curriculum around the recording studio."
Many of the teens at the center have been confronted with crime and violence while growing up in their respective neighborhoods. During their time at the Complex, however, they learn to channel their experiences into a positive outlet such as music or dance.
"We are creating a song with a positive message," said Beniyah Lewis, 16, a Mission High School student. "It's all about being a good influence. We write about stuff we saw and that there's a better route that's not gang-related."
Historically the first full-fledged African American neighborhood in San Francisco, the Western Addition has become as diverse economically as it has ethnically.
For the mentors at the Complex, providing San Francisco's youth with a safe haven while giving them a glimpse of a future without drugs, violence, and crime is a goal that is achieved more often than not.
"These are kids at risk, and we help find resources for them," said Hargrave, who mentors students from the Western Addition, as well as other neighborhoods such as the Mission and Hunters Point, at the AAACC. "This program is very successful."
"Vante took the class seriously," Hargrave added. "Others see how well he's doing and now they're trying to grasp it. He's a peer, but he's also a role model."
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