Art and Expression as a Catalyst for Change and Development

Growing up as a teen I struggled with developing a positive identity. Unlike many of my peers, I was shy and introspective. I lacked confidence and self-esteem. There weren’t many places where I felt I could be myself free from judgment and without the constant pressure of having to “fit in.”

Fortunately for me, I found Hip Hop. It was through Hip Hop that I learned to develop my voice and build a positive peer group. Hip Hop taught me about myself, the world around me, and provided a channel for creative expression. My elements of choice where rhyming and beat production. Both modes of creation provided a doorway to my inner world, where I could tap into pure creativity as well as my deepest insecurities and aspirations. Whether it was freestyling with a group of strangers, or showcasing a new beat for some close friends, Hip Hop helped me overcome numerous fears and allowed me to take pride in my abilities. For me, Hip Hop became a catalyst for change and development. Little did I realize how large a role Hip Hop would play in my life and career as an adult.

In 2004 after earning a degree in Social Work, I founded a Rap Therapy program called Beats Rhymes and Life (BRL). The program used the process of creating Hip Hop music to engage young men of color in mental health services in a high school setting. It was one of the country’s first Rap Therapy programs and was hugely successful from the start. The program strived to offer young men of color opportunities for creative expression, positive peer interaction and life skills development. Most of the youth involved in the program struggled in school and at home. They often found themselves the target of blame and pathology. Yet despite their many challenges, there was one arena where they thrived and were able to transcend their circumstances. That realm was through the art of creating Hip Hop music.

As youth participated in BRL, we taught them to utilize their music as a vehicle for critical thinking, self-esteem and community building. We also taught them how to use their love for Hip Hop to foster resiliency and mental health. We observed many gains in the youth we worked with. Majoring improvements in attendance and grades were among the initial outcomes.

But perhaps the most noteworthy was a new found sense of hope and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is word that describes one’s sense of agency, that is to say, “how much control and ability does one feel they have in changing their lives.” This quality is key for any individual, especially for youth of color that have too often been the victims of a failing school system, unfair judicial system, and scapegoat for mainstream society. Yet, to transcend victimhood, one must develop a new positive identity, not rooted in deficits, but anchored in one’s strengths and abilities. To do this, one must first experience success and achievement.

Through the art of creating Hip Hop music, youth in BRL learn to overcome their perceived limitations with the support of a caring group. Each successful poem, rap lyric, song or performance helps them build internal tools they can utilize to be successful in other aspects of their lives. In the profession of social work we call this process generalization. That is when a person is able to apply a skill they learned from a particular experience to different areas of their life. Art and expression, when encouraged and praised by a supportive community, provides an ideal outlet for developing a toolbox of skills that can be useful throughout one’s life.

I am proud to say that today Beats Rhymes and Life has grown tremendously. BRL recently become a 501c3 non-profit and we now operate Rap Therapy programs in Oakland, CA, Ashland, CA, San Francisco, CA and the South Bronx, NY. Our Rap Therapy program model has been the focus of a feature film, two empirical studies, numerous press articles, a book and national campaign.

Over last seven years, BRL has pioneered numerous prevention-based programs that utilize arts and culture as tools for promoting media literacy, youth development and healing. In 2010, we launched as a part of the Ashland Youth Center Project titled, “Youth Remixing the Art of Community Change,” highlighting how through the art and media base programs youth are finding creative ways to have a positive impact on each other and their community. Through this event and our other work, we’ve been able to show how important art and creative expression are to the psychological and social development of our young people.