On a Saturday morning in Brooklyn, 11 teenage boys sit around in a circle harmonizing sounds. They use their mouths, hands, pencils and even a piece of hard Starburst candy against classroom desks.
“Now that was better than last time,” Program Instructor Samuel Lee, says.
This isn’t a traditional Saturday school session. The students aren’t sitting in neatly aligned rows or studying for the SAT. Instead, the teacher gives each student an hour to make a minute-long instrumental for a TV show of his or her choice, using only AudioTool, an online studio program.
They’re enrolled in a non-profit organization called Building Beats.
Building Beats is a program that teaches life and entrepreneurial skills to underserved youth through the art of DJing and digital music production. Every Saturday, the nonprofit organization Building Beats holds a workshop in collaboration with the homeless youth outreach program Safe In My Brothers Arms (S.I.M.B.A).
The program just opened a workshop with the Department of Probation at the end of February and has increased the number of workshops in public schools from five to 25 over the past year, Executive Director Phi Pham said. Its goal is to reach 40 to 50 public schools next year.
Although Pham started Building Beats in 2013, he thought of the idea six years ago as a college student at NYU. He learned skills as a DJ that he said were transferable to a successful career. Organizing DJ events, honing marketing skills and making downloadable music are equivalent to making a successful product people would want to buy, he said.
Although Pham still DJ’s, Building Beats is his full time job, he said. The organization is active six days a week and averages about 30 workshops a week in all five boroughs of New York City.
“I see so much more potential for impacting our society in some sort of way with building beats rather than with just being a DJ,” Pham said.
The semester-long workshops are led by experienced music producers or DJs who teach the basics of how to sample, loop and use a digital platform to make music. The goal for the semester is to have each student create one well-produced song and compile it into a class mixtape.
It isn’t, however, just about learning how to make music. S.I.M.B.A program coordinator Wayne Harris said that Building Beats is a vital part of the program’s goal to help homeless youth reach post high school achievement.
“They have a lot of social issues in their lives that they can’t control so they’re going to need the tools in order to rise above those things,” Rachel Pierre-Louis, a psychologist working in school systems for almost a decade, said.
These issues include incarceration of loved ones, drug abuse, removal of loved ones [through deportation], and youth themselves being undocumented, she explained.
There are about 42,000 homeless children living in New York City, according to the Coalition For The Homeless, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
“This has a number of effects,” Pierre-Louis said. “There’s both internal and external behaviors. They often have anxiety, OCD-like behavior, anger, explosive behavior, even drug abuse. If they’re not coping with things, emotions are going to result in destructive behaviors and other parts of their lives will be affected.”
Programs that give youth an opportunity to develop coping skills are going to benefit students, Pierre-Louis said.
Harris has already seen the effects that the workshop has on its students.
“We have young people, through Building Beats, that are working together as a team, researching various aspects, demonstrating learning, scaffolding-building off prior knowledge- and have a product at the end,” Harris said. “All of those items are what the teaching profession has to achieve and it is happening in the building.”
For students like Romez Rodgers, who says he’s made 30 beats since starting the program, Building Beats and S.I.M.B.A have truly changed his life.
“I don’t know where I would probably be right now to be honest,” Rodgers said. He recounted how some of his peers from elementary and middle school have since dropped out.
“That could have been me.”