I usually cringe when I see hip-hop centered stories run on major news outlets, prepared for a “it’s all hip-hop’s fault” slanted article. This one is different.
Tomas Alvarez, a Bay Area social worker and co-founder of Beats Rhymes & Life, has been named a “CNN Hero” for his work with youth in the Bay Area. Beats Rhymes & Life is a non-profit organization that is committed to using hip-hop as a method of therapy for kids who would otherwise have nowhere else to go to help them deal with the countless and complex stresses facing children in the inner-city.
As a high school social worker in Oakland, California, Alvarez was frustrated by the number of boys of color he saw dropping out of school or falling victim to the criminal justice system. And he found it challenging to reach them through traditional therapy. "The honest truth is that our public school and mental health systems are not well-equipped to address trauma in a way that is resonating with them," Alvarez told CNN.
So he tried a different approach.
"I started one of the country's first hip-hop therapy programs," said Alvarez. "A lot of the young people that come to us have witnessed or been a victim of violence. They have unresolved grief," he expained. "We've created a safe space for them to tell their stories, to be vulnerable and to seek support."
After reading the article I felt inspired, so I did some poking around their site and found some really wonderful stuff. Their vision of youth empowerment really inspired me, as did the story of one of their students.
I often wonder if I’m doing enough, if I'm using our platform to really do something that matters. In truth, I’m not. I often shy away from writing about social issues because it seems wrong to exploit a crisis in the name of pageviews, especially because I don’t ever have a solution to offer. Instead of writing the same think-piece that’s been written before, I’d rather direct you to the work of someone like Alvarez, who isn’t just blogging, isn't tweeting, but is out on the front line getting his hands dirty and providing service to those in need. I’m also thrilled he chose hip-hop as his weapon.
"Hip hop was created during a time when people didn't have hope. It was the medicine for what was going on outside in the world.” - Damonte Wilson, BRL student
I'm not from the inner city and I'm not black, but I found hip-hop in a time of great need, of loneliness, and it really helped me come into my own. There’s something special about hip-hop that speaks to those who feel like they don’t belong or worse feel voiceless and powerless. Hip-hop has a quality which really reaches to something deeper in us and it’s that spirit I think Alvarez and Beats Rhymes & Life embodies. They are taking that fundamental power of hip-hop and using it to do something more real and more powerful than topping charts, blogging or tweeting.
So by all means, listen to Drake, crack some Fetty Wap jokes, that's all part of urban culture at the moment. But we need to also learn about and remember the potential that the music has to transform lives, and so we need to support organizations like Beats Rhymes & Life.