NEW YORK — In the Resnick Education Wing 10 floors above the main stages of historic Carnegie Hall, a teenage girl named Breanni stood nervously in front of the crowd. She was chosen to kick off the Musical Connections concert this week, presented by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute.
But Breanni stood frozen before her peers and family members, well-dressed in black and white, her long hair styled in braids. She struggled to recite her poem, which would be the opening piece of the night.
“I’m mad scared, guys!” Breanni said into the microphone with a laugh.
Wednesday night’s concert was the culmination of eight weeks of workshops provided by Musical Connections, which connects communities with the resources to positively express themselves via music. Students from Brooklyn’s Belmont Academy, a nonsecure detention and placement site, could take part through partnerships the program has with the New York City Department of Education and the NYC Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).
The teens worked diligently with Carnegie Hall’s resident hip-hop duo Circa ’95 and affiliate chamber music ensemble Decoda to produce and record six original songs, complete with musical arrangements and lyrics. Bronx-based nonprofit Voices UnBroken also provided workshops to produce poems that described the deeper meaning behind each song.
Once she regained her composure, Breanni read her poem, “Black & West Indian Roots Is Poppin,’” in which she used similes to describe the look, taste, smell and sounds of her culture. Her poem was an introduction to “Who Am I?” the first song of the night, co-written by Breanni and her peers Diamond, Madeline, Orson and Tiyanna.
“This song is about who I am because people think I cannot be who I wanna be,” Madeline said into the microphone as Kris Saebo of Decoda played moody bassline that reverberated over bandmate Conor Meehan’s steady drum beat.
While the teens looked proud and confident as they performed onstage, it was a struggle to attract them to the program at first. Aiyana Allman, director of placement operations at ACS, said she first connected Belmont with Musical Connections last year when the school had no resources for after-school activities. Allman said the staff had to get creative in order to pique the teens’ interest.
“Kids were disengaged at first,” Allman said. “It took prompting — we played one album recorded by another group during their lunch periods, to let the other kids know what to expect.”
Ann Gregg, director of community programs at Carnegie Hall, built the Musical Connections program over the past seven years. Starting with one detention facility, the program’s outreach grew to four buildings within ACS, then to seven probation offices including the South Bronx’s Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON). The program also extended its outreach to Riker’s Island and Sing Sing.
And while she says she has improved the program over time with feedback from former participants, she agreed that the main challenge is getting the teens to engage and realize their strengths.
“They don’t know it, and they don’t show it,” Gregg said. “The challenge is to get them to a place of trust and that builds over time. The staff’s challenge is to open them up, but another challenge is saying goodbye as they continue on pathways to continue their school transitions.”
The concert was all about celebration of the teens’ hard work. Each teen shone as they performed their own music and sang their own lyrics inspired by the struggles they face. A breakup song titled “Leave Me Alone” by participant Dan Lin detailed the pain of heartbreak felt by a young girl who discovered her boyfriend’s infidelity; a song called “Open Your Eyes II: Overcoming Struggle” featured hip-hop bars over a jazzy beat with the hopeful message of overcoming adversity.
Closing out the night were teens Ariyanna and Diamond. The emcees performed a song titled “NYC,” an ode to the streets where they grew up. In the first verse, Ariyanna spat the lines “Never had an angel, my mentor’s name is Satan / Massive attack, don’t I sound like Nicki? / That’s my next step, but these haters tryna get me,” name-dropping Grammy Award-winning female rapper Nicki Minaj, who grew up just a train ride away from Carnegie Hall in Queens.
The crowd cheered along. Ariyanna said for her, joining Musical Connections was an easy decision.
“They came to my school and they helped me write music to get our voices heard,” she said. “And I did it cause I love to write.”
The program helped her learn how to communicate with her peers and work together as a creative team. Ariyanna draws her inspiration from the New York-based R&B and hip-hop artist Ashanti.
“I learned to commit to social responsibility, too,” she said. “Social responsibility is taking actions for yourself and others with open communication.”
Reph Star, half of the hip-hop duo Circa ’95 that helped the teens produce their music, said using hip-hop as a form of self-expression was a no-brainer due to the genre’s history of promoting social change.
“Hip-hop music was born in Bronx at a time ... they were cutting arts out of schools, the housing struggle — similar things that are happening today,” he said. “Hip-hop was born out of that. That’s the essence of hip-hop.”
“It’s also about speaking truth to power,” Circa ’95 member Patty Dukes said. “When hip-hop gave someone a microphone, it was the moment where we got to hear the voice and got to hear what was going on in the community. Hip-hop is the voice of the people, hip-hop is identity.”
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