September 30 2015

white logo resizedAs your feet brace for steps and your eyes round the corner, you see a mural by local artist Joshua Mayes, a brilliant young man you could easily run into at a screening of “Straight Outta Compton” at the Grand Lake Theatre a block away. You are welcomed by warm smiling faces and hear familiar music. The cypher begins. Welcome to Beats, Rhymes and Life (BRL)!

“Outside of hip hop when is it socially acceptable for men of color to sit and talk about their feelings?” asked Tomas Alvarez III, co-founder of BRL, as he talked about the importance of hip hop therapy in communities like West Oakland. “Hip hop speaks straight to the soul of marginalized people…they learn to use it as a tool for empowerment.” Alvarez III was recently named a CNN hero.

This is exactly what is done here. Living in communities that ARE war zones, with police brutality on every other news station and block, resource and food deserts, it all takes a toll on the psyche of its members. BRL takes the language of hip hop and allows the young men and women to speak through it so these ‘at-promise’ youth get a method of therapy tailor fit for them.

Because BRL has a social justice framework, it actively addresses the dynamics of oppression, privilege, isms, as well as gentrification and asks the youth to look at these things critically. In doing so, it challenges traditional mental health paradigms and changes the lives of at-risk/at- promise youth as well as the face of mental health in the 21st century.

BRL youth attend a bi-weekly session where they, with the help of the BRL community, engage in curriculum to promote group discussion and reflection. It is within these discussions that the youth are prompted to write rap songs about the things they identify with such as loss, triumph, violence, identity, family, power etc.

Later, with the help of staff and peer mentors, they record, produce and ultimately perform their album at a community showcase surrounded by friends, family and other supporters. This showcase is a culmination of 20 weeks of hard work in which these young artists get to showcase, essentially, their life’s work. At the showcase, BRL literally pulls out the red carpet, rents a limo for the youth to arrive in style, all with paparazzi standing in wait. I am sure this proves to be a memorable night for the youth and facilitators as well.

The BRL movement is co-led by a diverse group. Alongside Alvarez, who has a masters in social work, is Rob Jackson the in-house musician. Jackson is a local hip hop artist and a graduate of SF State. He is not only a co-founder and co-facilitator of BRL, but also developed most of the organization’s curriculum. He is working on his own album which is soon to be released.

Other members of the team are John Gill, chief operating officer and Bronx transplant with a masters in social work, and Bay Area native Andrea Porfirio the administrative coordinator with a B.A. in sociology. BRL’s model requires that these professionals are cross-trained. Because music is the language that drives this type of therapy, everyone is fluent. Cross-training is especially helpful to peer mentors who get hands- on training in social work and artist development.

Along with the program, BRL offers an internship to what they call TAY or Transition Age Youth 18-24. These youth often have challenges because they are too old for child services but may not yet qualify for adult services. This 11-month internship program engages TAY in social work, job readiness workshops and on-the-job training. TAY interns are placed in one of BRL’s Hip Hop therapy groups where they gain experience as peer counselors, engaging and supporting younger ones in the BRL Community.

All interns are provided access to a clinical case manager and independent living skills counselor which they meet with regularly. This program provides these youth a pipeline into the helping professions in hopes of changing the dynamic of social work. After this internship TAY become paid peer mentors getting a higher rate if they attend college.

Instead of giving these youth a voice, BRL gives them the tools to find their own. They also use what they refer to as ‘Community Defined Strategies” and what Jackson defines as ‘youth- centered practices.” These practices, he says, foster a different level of accountability because the young people are now encouraged to create and form their own music which in turn cultivates ownership, pride and a sense of stewardship. This therapeutic model helps to build youth up where other, more traditional therapy, has let them down.

Tomás Alvarez, Founder and CEO, Beats Rhymes and Life and CNN Hero
Tomás Alvarez, Founder and CEO, Beats Rhymes and Life and CNN Hero

Alvarez had this to say in reference to the program:

“Poverty is an act of violence and violence creates trauma. When you add all this up it’s like shaking a soda, the pressure starts to build. You are left with a few options. If you take off that cap, you’ll get an explosion. If you let the bottle sit and don’t do anything. eventually overtime it will go flat. That’s depression. That numbing out effect, because we don’t address the experiences of black and brown men. Now, if you very carefully twist the cap little by little, intentionally, it releases the pressure so that you don’t get an explosion and it doesn’t go flat. That’s what hip hop therapy is and that’s what BRL does. Here they are allowed to use their passion for music as a vehicle for self care.”

So now imagine leaving this place everyday and going back home with a greater outlook of the future, one’s community and even the world. These youth become authors and creators of their own life and future as well as leaders. They do not have to imagine this, because they, along with BRL facilitators, mentors and community, make it so.