A smooth hitter of a trap beat throbs from a studio monitor in a classroom abuzz with busy middle-schoolers. An enthusiastic instructor — a professional rapper who goes by Unlearn The World — prompts a 12-year-old aspiring rapper named Se’ven Carr (aka “Seven”) to begin. Carr picks up a sheet of paper and effortlessly rattles off a verse bursting with wisdom beyond his age. The track’s called “Putting in Work,” and it’s all about understanding the effort required to achieve your dreams.
“I got my family up on my back, I take care of mine,” Carr recites, his head swaying to the beat.
If you think this sounds like a cool classroom, you’re right. In fact, it’s exactly what Today’s Future Sound (TFS), an Oakland nonprofit that teaches beat-making to kids in the lowest-income communities in the Bay Area, is going for. Using hip-hop as a tool, TFS provides a wide range of students — many of whom have experienced a great deal of trauma growing up in tough situations — with hands-on arts education and therapeutic services.
“We want to empower young people to learn about themselves, to learn about the world, and to help them discover themselves as creators and community members,” says Dr. Elliot Gann, TFS’s cofounder and executive director. He has a degree in psychology and offers each instructor proper approaches to working with kids dealing with trauma. While instructors themselves are not therapists, Gann uses his background as a clinician to teach his staff to employ therapeutic interventions against a backdrop of an engaging and skill-building music lesson.
“We want to help young people process trauma and any mental health difficulties they might be facing, or any other systemic issues, like institutionalized racism or poverty,” Gann says.
Founded in 2010 by producer and beat-maker Ben Durazzo, TFS brought on Dr. Gann in 2012, and he’s been at the helm ever since. Today, TFS is officially a fiscal project of Friends of Oakland Parks and Recreation, a 501(c)(3).
In each session, students focus on a particular element of beat-making via direct instruction. But the majority of the curriculum involves kids getting their hands dirty and making their own beats, using Ableton, an industry standard for digital music production.
TFS works with over 5,000 students annually, and 80 percent are either minority or low-income youth. While students such as Seven are being served via a multiple-week summer intensive funded by Heads Up (an academic enrichment program run by Head-Royce School in the Oakland hills) TFS has programming in more than 100 schools nationwide, as well as in Juvenile Justice Centers. In San Francisco, TFS has helped students in both Paul Revere and Everett Middle Schools, among others.
One of three instructors at the Heads Up program, Rayshell Renderos (aka DJ Ray Reck) has worked with TFS for several years. She’s a DJ and a producer with a background in audio and video production.
“I really like to come into these classes and be a representative for the women,” Reneros says. “I come from an audio engineering and music background, and it’s really hard going into those areas and seeing the lack of women. It’s great to come in and represent my gender and give empowerment to all the girls who come to me first [when they get to class].”
Yency Cruz is a 13-year-old from Tracy who’s been in the TFS program at Heads Up for three years.
“I like this program because they teach you to express your feelings with music,” she says. “You don’t have to use curse words, and no one’s going to judge you. I feel good when I’m making a beat, because we’re working as a team.”
It’s true. Watching these kids work in collaborative groups is nothing short of inspiring. The whole setup is a shining example of what project-based learning is all about. Everyone’s engaged, everyone’s bought into the program, and everyone’s genuinely enjoying the process of learning something new.
Of course, this can’t all be credited to the fact that the assignment is to make music: The fabric of the class is held together by engaged and dedicated instructors. Elwin G. Williams III, who students refer to as “Mr. Thundercat” or “Wordy,” and who also goes by the stagename Darealwordsound, explains that he and his colleagues seek to “empower, edify, and encourage” the youth they work with each day.
“We want to empower kids to [make beats] themselves, encourage them by allowing them to make mistakes, and then edify, so if they do something right or good, we cheer them on,” Williams says, pointing out that each Thursday they put on a “beat cypher,” where kids get to show off what they’ve been working on to others in the group.
Carr likes rapping because it helps him cope with some of the harsh realities of growing up in West Oakland.
“I’ve been through a lot of stuff in my life, and it helps me control myself, focus at times, take a break, and calm down,” he says. “Wordy and my mentors here help me express myself more.”
Check out some of the kids’ beats at todaysfuturesound.bandcamp.com.
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