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How Hip-Hop Therapy Is Giving These Bronx High Schoolers A Second Chance

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A pre-4:44 Jay-Z once likened his creative process to therapy sessions, telling USA Today that, “I’m not a person who will sit and talk about my feelings. But the music just pulls it out, and it’s like, ‘man, I can’t believe I held that in for 12 years!’” Try doing it for eighteen-plus years, like some of the students at Bronx, New York’s Mott Haven Community High School have.

Mott Haven is known as a “second chance” high school, and their motto is “you cannot change the past but the future is yet in your power.” One of the ways that Mott Haven’s students have empowered themselves in the past six years is through school social worker J.C. Hall’s hip-hop therapy program. Hall was inspired to form the program by his former professor and mentor, the late Dr. Edgar Tyson’s work in hip-hop therapy. The program gives the students the chance to express their innermost qualms and make sense of their world in one of the most evocative ways possible — through beats and rhymes.

A 25-minute documentary called Mott Haven recently immortalized the program. The Kyle Morrison-directed, festival award-winning film chronicled the teens not just in the booth, but throughout personal battles such as losing children, passing New York State’s Regents Exam in order to graduate, and navigating the rough South Bronx area of New York City.

Unfortunately, two of the students in the program were involved in tragic circumstances, as a student named Ephraim barely survived being stabbed ten times before filming began, and another student, Joshua, was fatally stabbed. Josh’s loss shellshocked the group, and Hall, a gifted lyricist in his own right who performs as Fienyx, wanted to pay homage to Josh’s life. He decided, along with former English teacher Kelleyann Royce-Giron, to put together a tribute show in Josh’s memory.

The rest of the short film shows the group, who Hall deems “heroes,” grieving Josh’s loss and planning the show. They cry, they extol his legacy through their rhymes and dedication to developing their craft, like they’re developing as young men and women in a South Bronx that’s not always conducive to peaceful growth. Each student owns the stage, as their performances affirm the power of hip-hop to aid healing.

Hall thinks the documentary served its purpose not just for him and the students but for those who will see it, noting via email that, “amid historically disenfranchised populations, whom are often misrepresented in the media as a result of being shown through a Eurocentric lens, this process can be especially empowering.” He says he hopes Mott Haven “serves to diminish stereotypes about hip-hop and the marginalized communities it has come from.” He also hopes that it fights “stereotypes about therapy and what it means to ask for help.”

We spoke more about the documentary, what his work means to him and his students, and what Dr. Edgar Tyson taught him, read our condensed and edited conversation below. All of the student’s last names have been withheld for privacy.

What were the first days of the program like? How long did it take for the kids to drop any skeptical or shy barriers and fully express themselves?

The first days at MHC during the 2012 school year were very fluid, and everything came together organically. I never encountered much skepticism, and I think that speaks to the equalizing power of hip-hop. You can tell when someone is of the culture almost immediately.

Hip-hop does an incredible job at encouraging openness since it thrives in authenticity and is often at its best when it is most vulnerable. Establishing an individual rapport initially goes a long way when it comes to group work. Even in a room with others that they may have never met before, they will at least know that they have one trusted adult in their corner.

It is a space for first-timers as much as it is for those who have been doing it for years. Hip-hop therapy is primarily about the process — not the product.

At the beginning of the film, you note that ‘I would like to think that I’ve helped these kids half as much as they’ve helped me.’ Can you expand on that statement?

The youth I work with help me on a much more personal level than I think any of them could ever know. I draw strength from all of them, and they inspire me to an extent I can only hope to reciprocate. Despite the awful circumstances and traumatic experiences they’ve had to deal with, they are showing up to school on time, every day, in hopes of creating a better life for themselves and their loved ones. If that’s not inspirational, I don’t know what is.

They also provide my life with purpose. They give me a reason to get out of bed in the morning and make going to work something to look forward to. They entrust me with the opportunity to connect with them, which is something I don’t take for granted. Trust is hard-earned, especially from those whose faith in humanity has been taken advantage of time and again.

When did the idea to document everything come about?

At the beginning of 2014, one of the students, Jaemz, recorded his first song ever, called “Diary Of A Sinner,” and posted it on Soundcloud. I shared it on social media and Kyle Morrison, a friend of mine from college, heard it and was blown away. He then reached out about coming to see the program and potentially shooting a documentary.

The studio is a therapeutic space, so the kids had to be okay with Kyle coming and potentially filming. They loved the idea, but the timing turned out to be terrible. Ephraim, one of the lovable youth in the film, was jumped and stabbed ten times shortly thereafter. He would have died if it wasn’t for a stranger in a minivan seeing him in a pool of blood and rushing him to the hospital.

But after Ephraim returned and things got back to normal, Kyle came in without his camera to meet all of them. They clicked immediately, which I have to say is rare and speaks volumes to each of their characters. Kyle continued to come without his camera, and only after they got to know him did he do any filming, which I think was the underlying reason the whole thing worked.

Kyle is a straightforward person, and youth gravitate towards that. They could see that he had no agenda and was genuinely interested in getting to know them and telling their stories. By the time he started bringing his camera, he was already a part of the group.

How important was it for you not to censor the students and let them fully express themselves with whatever lyrical content was on their mind?

One of the things I love about MHC is that the administration already knows that traditional approaches to education have not worked with the students they serve and are open to outside of the box thinking. Throughout my career, I have fought several administrative battles regarding censorship, and those that I did not win, I disregarded only to be chastised later. Fortunately, I have never had that issue at MHC, thanks to the leadership of principal Helene Spadaccini and the school culture she has fostered.

I think it is very important to understand that none of these teens’ lives have been PG-13. Life is explicit, and if their music is to be a reflection of their realities, I would expect graphic content. The truth is that youth are going to have discussions some adults consider taboo with or without us. What it boils down to is whether or not we want to be part of the conversation as reliable sources of information. If the door is automatically shut to particular subject matters, many of which are very layered and deeply personal, they will be left to figure it out on their own. Youth are often told that they have to give respect in order to earn it — that works the other way around as well.

What are some of the most heartrending/cathartic creative moments of the sessions?

One of the most heart-wrenching yet liberating moments I witnessed came the day after Josh died. I came into work in the morning and found one of my students sprawled out in the staircase. Josh was his best friend, and he blamed himself for not being in school that day, believing if he had, things would not have went down the way they did. I pulled him into the studio where we sat in silence for a while. In times of such grief, words are often useless.

We used to film some of the freestyle sessions the previous year with a camcorder Kyle gave us. Some of this footage can be seen in the documentary. He asked me if I could pull that up. Josh was a reserved kid, often keeping to himself, but they would come together and light up, freestyling for hours. One of the files contained a video of Josh freestyling to Drake’s “Pound Cake” instrumental. We listened intently, then he said, ‘Pull that beat up, I’m getting in the booth.’

For about 15 minutes straight, he recorded a freestyle about Josh, what had happened, what he meant to him and how lost he felt upon hearing the news. A few times he broke down crying while recording. Instead of wanting to stop or start over, he would let it out, catch his breath and hop back in the pocket. It was one of the most heartbreaking yet life-affirming and enlightening experiences I have ever had. It was as if he intuitively knew exactly what he needed to do in that moment to help himself. The track is a 15-minute freestyle that only he and I have ever heard. It was not created for anyone but him and Josh.

When he stepped out of the booth, we sat together in tears for a moment before he stood up and said, ‘Ok, I think I’m ready to go to class now.’ I was in absolute awe of him.

How often did the students open up to you about how much the program meant to them?

I’ve had students tell me they wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for the program, which is not something I say or take lightly. When I first started on my journey as a hip-hop artist, I always said that if I could help just one kid find a reason to keep going the way the artists I looked up to did for me, it would all be worth it. I didn’t know it would be like this rather than a stranger listening to my music somewhere, but I can’t imagine it feeling any more redeeming than when you know the individuals personally and have been there to witness them rise against all odds.

Aside from those more extreme examples, the students I work with at one point or another have all expressed to me how important the studio has been to them. Many of them talk about how it feels like a home away from home and how they never want to leave. They’ve described finding a sense of belonging beyond anything they expected.

How did the therapy help the kids outside of the classroom?

The catharsis seen on the screen extended far beyond any of my doing. It was within Royce’s English room, as well as Kyle’s camera. In English, students were reading The Things They Carried and drawing connections between the experiences of soldiers and that of their own. They were being taught about PTSD and how its prevalence is just as high in inner-city communities as it is among war veterans. They were learning how to craft their lyrics into thematic essays so that they could pass state exams and graduate.

What did you learn from Dr. Edgar Tyson? Can you speak on how important it is for you to continue his legacy?

I owe everything I have accomplished to him. As an artist, I always knew hip-hop was therapeutic, but it wasn’t until I stumbled across his research and found out that hip-hop therapy was even a thing that I knew what I was going to do with my life. All I needed was that kick-start and I was off, telling anyone who asked that I was going to be a hip-hop therapist. That alone was more than I could have asked for. Yet, after reaching out to him directly, Dr. Tyson enthusiastically offered his support and guidance.

He was one of the humblest human beings I have ever known. He was truly about the work, never involving his ego, nor asking for credit. He never attempted to profit off what he started by branding it; he kept it about the community, staying true to hip-hop’s roots. In addition to working with countless youth, he pushed the movement forward by conducting invaluable research, publishing numerous scholarly articles, presenting across the country, teaching about it in the classroom, mentoring students such as myself, providing professional trainings and organizing global conferences. When he passed, we were a couple months shy of finishing his textbook on hip-hop therapy that he had asked me to contribute to as a co-author. His writings contained years of unpublished research, and I have no doubt that when it is all compiled and released, he will continue to shift paradigms from beyond.

What do you hope the documentary teaches people who stereotype or write off children growing up in neighborhoods like the South Bronx?

I hope it provides some insight into the humanity we all share and that it inspires people to question the subconscious judgments we all make. I hope it shows that we as adults do not have the answers all the time and that we need to be more open to trying to understand where youth are coming from. I hope it reminds people that you never truly know what someone else is going through and to keep that in mind when interacting with others — having patience before rushing to judgment. I hope it reminds adults of what it was like to be a teen and incites some empathy. I hope it assuages people’s fears and lack of understanding, which is ultimately what fuels hate.

For educators and mental health professionals, I hope it serves as a lesson that we should look within before we mark a student off as unteachable or unreachable; that maybe youth are resistant to learning or engaging in therapy because we are failing to teach or engage them properly. Why are we as a whole failing to tailor culturally-responsive approaches to education and therapy?

Have you kept in touch with the graduating members of the program? How are they doing?

I keep in touch with all the graduating members, and they are doing well. Regardless of the curveballs life throws their way, they remain in active pursuit of the best versions of themselves, whatever that may look like to them. They are all either working or in school, or both, and all of them are making music. Each of them at one point had either dropped out or been considered highly unlikely to finish school, so no matter what exactly they choose to do afterward, they are all enormous successes in my eyes.

You can listen to music from some of Mott Haven’s former students below:

Blanco, “R.I.P. Josh’s World,” “Runaway”

Jaemz Walker, “Morphine Princess,” “High School Blues”

BIG, “Changes”

Ephraim, “Heaven’s Gates”

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