Music and Social Media in the Juvenile Hall System

As an educator, I have taught in many different educational spaces. One of the most impactful has been my work with incarcerated youth here in Los Angeles, California. There a few things that stuck out to me in my first few days at the juvenile hall that this story takes place in. Firstly, this place is not a “hall”, it is truly a prison for teenagers. I am well aware of the skewed brown and black presence in prison however I am ashamed to say that I had no idea how bad the situation really was . I have worked in 7 different locations with incarcarated youth and I literally can count the number of white and asian teenagers on one hand.Lets just say that I wouldn’t even need to use all my fingers to count them. The halls vary in many different ways, some have straight up cells for the inmates, others have group living quarters. Some are tucked away on quiet streets and others are cradled into lush mountains, a polarizing dance of natures freedom and the state’s captivity. What I was not prepared for was the complexities of the students I would teach and grow relationships with. We are taught that inmates are violent, products of abuse, addiction and poverty, however we are not taught about the independence, resilience, resourcefulness and loyalty exhibited in these young men. I was brought in to Afflerbaugh juvenile hall as an assistant teacher for a West African drumming organization. I have drummed for my entire life, and was happy to share this healing art form with disadvantaged youth. However I quickly realized that these young men really wanted to do express themselves in another way. They wanted their words to be heard and they wanted the beats to knock. They wanted to rap. I started making beats when I was 15 years old.My mom, being the supportive artist and arts advocate that she is, bought my my first keyboard and music program. 12 years and thousands of beats later I am still producing music. I am not gonna lie to you. I was so excited by the idea of bringing in a mobile studio for the students to record and produce with. These kids were busting at the seems with lyrics, flow and distinct style. They would even workshop their verses and beats with one another, getting constructive criticism or affirmations from their peers. All this they did naturally, and they were smiling, dancing and excited in ways that I had never seen them before. However, there were challenges that presented themselves. The songs that these young men were writing were speaking on their relationships to gangs, violence and life in their communities. For many organizations, they are not comfortable with showcasing this type of work because they don’t want to be seen as enabling to perceived negative behaviors and to jeopardize contracts with the probation department. Thankfully, we convinced the inmates probation officers to let us send the songs to them, and in turn share them with the students. After culmination we lose contact with our students all together. This is a aspect of working in the Juvenile system that is upsetting to me. I believe that as teaching artists we should have strategies to link our students with job opportunities and connections to working members of the industry. This is truly rehabilitation and would allow for students to break ties with negative and isolating reintegration dynamics. Two years later from the Afflerbaugh culmination I am facilitating the culmination for my music production class with ArtworxLA at USC when I see a kid enter the atrium dancing and smiling. “This kid is unbothered” I thought and laughed to myself. I stepped into the bathroom line and caught a break from the blaring sun. The dancing kid was now alot closer to me and I realized that I knew him from somewhere. “Yo!” I exclaimed “remember me?” truth be told, I didnt remember exactly where I knew the kid from.I have taught so many students that faces blur through years and schools. “Aye! you were over there at Afflerbaugh teaching drumming and beats?” he replied with a cool yet nonchalant excited tone. I was so happy to see him, significantly taller, the millenial fade on his head, and most importantly outside of jail. He filled me in on his latest success. One of the songs that we sent to his P.O had gone viral. His P.O. had given him the song and when given a chance to get on his email he sent the song to his sister and asked her to put it up on Soundcloud. For those of you who don’t know, Soundcloud is a free marketplace for independent musicians to showcase their art and engage with an online community. His sister uploaded the track under the username user884933725 and put the title that her brother asked her to name it. The song artwork a grainy cellphone picture taken of the kids in jail, throwing up their hoods signs.She then shared the track on instagram and the rest was history. Elated to hear from their locked up peers, the community shared the track with their peers and left comments demanding their friends to be freed. The track now had close to 40,000 plays, without any advertisement, without a proper soundcloud account username and from behind the walls of prison. I was at a loss for words. The joy, inspiration and pride I felt for them is incredible. I asked for a photo to take with my old student Alex, for my personal archive. “Imma be famous one day” he smirked at me. “I believe you” I smiled back. I think of the countless other students I have taught with immense talent and recorded songs with the capacity of true success. The only difference with them is that we lost touch in the system. I believe wholeheartedly that students with talent and desire to make music should be embraced. Not only behind walls of their prisons but also by their communities on the outside. I believe that in the current social and creative atmosphere, listeners want to hear stories of triumph over systematic oppression. These kids have stories to tell, and we have a responsibility to share with the world.

Avila Santo