Friday, January 6, 2017

#TBWMixtape


#TBWMixtape
About the #TBWMixtape click here

"...My responsibility if I'm your teacher is to teach you to think...if I want you to think, I must teach you to think about everything. I must teach you that there is a reason for everything you do and you must find that reason..." #JamesBaldwin 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Technology | Art of Voices #ZHill


Technology

This Art of Voices illustration is dedicated to Cody Brown. 

There are specific youth who inspired significant and creative change for how the Voices Behind Walls program was structured.  Especially when it came to technology.  Cody was a mastermind.  However, I didn't get that impression when he first visited the workshop.  He brought a lot of energy (sometimes too much) especially when it was his turn to get on the mic. He referred to himself as "Moose". I remember on one occasion an argument suddenly erupted with another youth about something Cody said in his rhymes.  The other youth was upset enough that I worried the disagreement would quickly turn into a fight.  At the conclusion of the workshop I had a talk with them to cool out as they made their way back to the unit.

Over the next few months there were gaps in time when Cody wasn't allowed to participate in the workshop.  In my early and scattered encounters with Cody I didn't get enough time to gauge just how talented he was.  I did know there was a lot he wanted to say.  He had composition books filled with rhymes and poems. During his first visits to our workshop he provided glimpses of his creative expression, reading and shuffling through pages and pages of some of the most chaotic handwriting I'd ever seen.  His composition books were riddled with disorganized sheets of rhymes and poems that I imagined only he could decipher.

Ultimately, there would be an extended time lapse before Cody would visit our workshop again. Then one day months later...he was back. I was definitely surprised since it seemed so much time had passed and I figured he'd either been released or incarcerated elsewhere in New Mexico's steel maze.  There was something different about Cody this time around. He was more patient, calm, and coherently thoughtful about his plans with VBW. It was at this point that he shared with us his knowledge of how to make music with the technology we had access to.

During Cody's absence, there was a day when I arrived to the juvenile prison and found someone else setting up equipment where we set up.  I had no idea who he was. After we introduced ourselves he told me he drove out from Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo and wanted to help.  Holloman is a long drive away from the facility.  His name was Frederick Tarantino and he mentioned to me his interest in teaching incarcerated youth digital art technology.  He had a couple laptops, a printer, and other gadgets. At first I was concerned that it would spread our time too thin to try and collaborate.  The juvenile prison's schedule required that our program work within a very strict and specific time slot. My focus was to use as much of that time as possible helping youth write and record their poetry or songs. I remember asking myself why the facility didn't grant Frederick his own time to engage with the participants. Frederick's approach was super humble and respectful though so I decided then and there that we could set up learning stations.  Our goal together would be to promote the opportunity for incarcerated youth to engage not only in creative writing and music, but digital art as well.  Participation on Saturday afternoons was on a voluntary basis. One of the challenges we faced was due to visitation with family that was scheduled at the same time. So we often worked around those times to see one group while another visited with family that we'd schedule later in the afternoon. Depending on how the visit went though, sometimes a participant simply wouldn't be in the mood to show up. Nevertheless, Frederick and I decided to work together to figure out how we wanted to structure programming so that it was convenient and respectful of the youth's time and circumstance. 

Over the course of my time at the juvenile prison, our workshop space often changed.  This especially depended on whether or not there was a key to open a specific door.  Security staff had what seemed like a hoolahoop of keys that gave access to specific classrooms, the library, and other spaces throughout the facility.  Sometimes I received an excuse that a supervisor's shift ended and they forgot to leave the right set of keys.  Since I had to travel more than 100 miles round trip to get to the facility, before deciding to cancel a workshop because of space I exhausted all options to improvise.  This often involved setting up our workshop in a lobby space or a hallway.  Anywhere that was allowable security wise and where there was at least one electrical outlet.  We also borrowed chairs from the gym nearby where visitations took place and helped each other drag table tops or desks closer to the outlets to set up and plug in equipment.  

As Frederick became familiar with the Voices Behind Walls workshop, he mentioned that one of the laptops he had contained music producing software.  Little did I know that things were about to change because of this.  Especially for participants like Cody who we learned grew up in a family of musicians and knew how to play all sorts of instruments.  Because of this Cody also seemed to know just about everything there was to know about music software programs.  We presented the laptop that included Fruity Loops music software to Cody and he quickly maxed out what it was capable of.  He recommended that we install another kind of software instead that had more functions.  Watching Cody work on the laptop was really something.  The new music software we installed that he recommended often made the laptop crash.  But Cody always figured out a way to work around it by saving, restarting, rendering, etc.  He was like a mad scientist with a solution for everything we thought the laptop couldn't do.  Often the laptop would let out all this air as if it was suffocating to keep up with Cody's imagination.  

Without Frederick, we would never have discovered what youth like Cody were capable of.  There were other incarcerated youth who thanks to the equipment Frederick gave access to were granted permission to check out the equipment for use in their units outside of workshop time. Progress like this inspired all kinds of dreams so we requested support from New Mexico State University departments to purchase more studio equipment. We even came up with a proposal for the juvenile facility to let us build a recording studio in a small classroom space that was no longer being used. The proposal involved collaboration with outside music educators, musicians and youth like Cody to build it piece by piece. I was also able to secure a donation of a piano from a tuner in El Paso who was willing to help transport and set up the piano at the facility.  I didn't foresee the problems ahead as leadership turnover and changes at the facility started to happen.  Before I knew it a different administrator would arrive and reject our studio proposal and the piano donation. Thanks to Cody though there were donations we were able to secure for portable recording equipment, headphones, microphones, blank CDs, composition books, and other items. This wouldn't have been possible without Cody who we regarded as a prodigy of creative expression.

In the illustration shown above, Zachary Hill depicts Cody's reflection from the laptop he used to make beats.  One day he was attempting to teach me how it worked.  Watching him compose a beat was a site to see as he went from one function to the next playing us clips to listen to along the way. "Just gotta read the manuals..." he'd say.  As I tried to follow his instructions from the angle where I was sitting, I noticed his reflection inside the laptop monitor and asked if I could take a shot with my camera.  I wanted to capture Cody's reflection along with the music software that he was teaching us from the screen. The illustration exaggerates his expression from the original photograph and is inspired by Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" video from 1986.  I got the opportunity to meet Cody's father who taught me a lot about the juvenile prison system's impact on families in New Mexico. He has quite a story in so far as what he did to advocate for the closure of one of New Mexico's worst juvenile facilities and one of the oldest in the country.  Cody's father is also a multimedia genius and musician. I remember Cody mentioning to me that his father was in a band during the 80s.  I also had the chance to talk with Cody's mother who I learned is also a musician and teaches piano in the community. 

In our workshop, Cody created original music thanks to the support of individuals like Frederick Tarantino.  Frederick literally came out of nowhere at just the right time with just the right equipment! I hope the future grants me with time to share Cody's audio recordings, including his poems and entertaining freestyle sessions.

Til' this day, whenever I'm conducting a recording session with someone I eventually tell them Cody's story...legend of the Moose.

#Lee


Art of Voices is a Voices Behind Walls (VBW) project supported by Community Solutions of El Paso to recruit illustrators through Volunteer Match to help recreate VBW workshop photographs into art.  The photographs were taken during workshop activities in juvenile detention between the years of 2006-2014.  Artistic remakes of the photographs protect the identity of workshop participants by changing details of face and other identifiers.  The purpose of this project is to document the VBW program's history and the creative expression activities incarcerated youth were engaged in.  This project also offers the VBW photographer and illustrators an opportunity to reflect on what the images say about the juvenile justice system and the importance of creative expression activity for youth as a means of education, therapy, self-improvement, community engagement, rehabilitation, positive Hip Hop activity, and mentorship.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Headphones | Art of Voices #Brianna


Headphones

Back with another digital piece by Brianna for our Art of Voices collection!  This 'Headphones' piece recreates a moment I captured on camera from a Voices Behind Walls workshop in juvenile prison.  On that day to encourage donations, I decided to take photos of participants with equipment we needed; this included headphones.  The individual captured in the photograph was one of our most dedicated participants.  I remember him recording only once but he always showed up to listen to music his peers created giving them constant support and encouragement.  In many ways, I viewed him as the life of the workshop. He had a contagious sense of humor and was always respectful when it came time for his peers to get down to business and do their recordings... his character was a cure for tension.  He was also one of the smallest kids in the prison, one of the youngest.  As you can see in the picture he sits atop a desk in front of the round table we used for recording that I referred to as the cypher.

Years later when I study this photograph one of the details that stands out to me most is the headphone jack isn't connected to anything.  I remember us doing this intentionally for the photograph.  Today it means a lot to me especially when I think of the disconnected feeling youth experience from the rest of the community and their families while they're incarcerated.  Also I think about the sensory deprivation that prisons were built off of historically.  

In Hip Hop, headphones are one of those things that connect us all around the world.  Many of us were raised between a set of headphones.  In a report published by the Weill Music Institute and Carnegie Hall titled 'May the Songs I Have Written Speak for Me, An Exploration of the Potential of Music in Juvenile Justice', it states the following..."At no time is the power of music more pronounced than during adolescence.  Only sleep trumps music in those years.  Teenagers listen to, create, or watch music between four and five hours a day - more than they spend watching television or hanging out with friends outside of school.  Young people think and dream in lyrics, find transport in melody, and improvise on riffs, solos, and beats accumulated through hours of listening."

The foundation of Voices Behind Walls is its connection to sound, its priority of placing youth voices first, and inspiring participants through music.

The book depicted in the digital art by Brianna is Vatos by Luis Alberto Urrea with photographs by Jose Galvez.  This was one of the most popular books in our workshop, mostly photography based with words by Urrea that is described as a "hymm to vatos who will never be in a poem...".

The youth depicted in the artwork had since been released when I overheard another participant years later talking about the trouble he got into after the juvenile prison let him out.  Often times, the stories of incarcerated youth are discontinued upon their release and on some occasions picked up in newspapers... the vicious cycle of what some consider an abysmal recidivism rate in urban and mostly rural communities where resources are few and far between.

#Lee


Art of Voices is a Voices Behind Walls (VBW) project supported by Community Solutions of El Paso to recruit illustrators through Volunteer Match to help recreate VBW workshop photographs into art.  The photographs were taken during workshop activities in juvenile detention between the years of 2006-2014.  Artistic remakes of the photographs protect the identity of workshop participants by changing details of face and other identifiers.  The purpose of this project is to document the VBW program's history and the creative expression activities incarcerated youth were engaged in.  This project also offers the VBW photographer and illustrators an opportunity to reflect on what the images say about the juvenile justice system and the importance of creative expression activity for youth as a means of education, therapy, self-improvement, community engagement, rehabilitation, positive Hip Hop activity, and mentorship.

Rhyme Writing | Art of Voices #ZHill


Rhyme Writing

"Writin' in my book of rhymes...all the words pass the margin..."
#Nas ((The World is Yours)) #Illmatic

This illustration really captures the essence of what the Voices Behind Walls program was all about.  On this particular evening we had one of the most talented rhyme writers in the prison visit the workshop.  Prior to his visit I had a difficult time encouraging him to be consistent with his participation.  Most of the time I remember our workshop schedule conflicting with other activities that were going on at the prison that he chose to participate with instead.  On another occasion participants that showed up noted that he simply didn't feel like participating.  They mentioned, "hey man, we tried... he just didn't feel like coming."  All the other youth knew he had rhyme skills.  We got the chance to hear him spit a few rhymes once before and right away I knew we had an eMCee in front of us.  In previous workshops, youth that did show up would talk about this guy like he was a myth and how they were going to try to get him to visit so that I could see how good he was at rapping.  

In this illustration, Zachary Hill does an incredible job capturing the experience of attending a VBW workshop and the pensive listening that takes place when youth get lost in the music and take time to write.  The youth standing in the background listening and observing is how some participants start off in our workshop.  For many youth it was a matter of working through the fear, trust, or lack of confidence because of what others would think about what they had to say.  For anyone else not familiar with what was going on, they might look at a youth standing against a wall and think they were not engaged.  But often times those were the ones that would surprise us a few sessions later and arrive with their own book of rhymes or songs that they wanted to share with the other participants.  I recall one of our participants who ended up recording the programs first double disc CD...it took him several months to find his voice.  I remember months later mentioning to him that I didn't realize how long he'd been visiting the workshop because he was so quiet, often in the background, observing, listening, and nodding to the beat.  Eventually he'd grow to become one of our most accomplished participants and song writers in the program.  He was sentenced to the juvenile prison for the remaining teenage years of his life so we got to work with him for a while.  In that time he developed leadership qualities promoting the program's purpose and encouraging other youth to get involved.  It was incredible to see others improve because of his guidance through rhyme.  I saw him as a literacy peer.

Both of the figures in the 'Rhyme Writing' illustration reflect the same person.  The youth standing is a reflection of how the process starts when youth take the time to visit the workshop and see what our environment is all about.  For them to see the equipment, the books, the collaboration, the pencils/pens, composition books, the musical equipment, and other technology. Through their observation and experience they'd eventually arrive to that moment where they were the ones composing songs about their own lives. While some have reason to believe that popular rap music has a tendency to beget negativity to a point where every "rapper"  is a carbon copy of the other, this does not reflect what it means to be an eMCee. Especially when a platform (in our case the workshop) is able to provide space for everyone's truth and/or stories. I thought of their voices and rhymes as their own bar codes.  Even among the hundreds of incarcerated youth I recorded for the VBW program, I never mistook one voice from another ..especially one connected to its own story, its own song.

Special thanks to Zachary Hill for the exceptional artwork and the vibrant and colorful pallets that capture the truth of the original photograph.  It's a scene of many and tells a story you'd have to listen to to believe.

#Lee


Art of Voices is a Voices Behind Walls (VBW) project supported by Community Solutions of El Paso to recruit illustrators through Volunteer Match to help recreate VBW workshop photographs into art.  The photographs were taken during workshop activities in juvenile detention between the years of 2006-2014.  Artistic remakes of the photographs protect the identity of workshop participants by changing details of face and other identifiers.  The purpose of this project is to document the VBW program's history and the creative expression activities incarcerated youth were engaged in.  This project also offers the VBW photographer and illustrators an opportunity to reflect on what the images say about the juvenile justice system and the importance of creative expression activity for youth as a means of education, therapy, self-improvement, community engagement, rehabilitation, positive Hip Hop activity, and mentorship.   

Voices Behind Walls...writing | Art of Voices #JBRuby


Voices Behind Walls...writing
"See the light..."

Introducing Art of Voices participant Judi Ruby and her painting of a youth from the Voices Behind Walls program caught in the act of writing.  This painting is based on a photograph I took with my first digital camera I used to document workshop activities...a Logitech Pocket cam.  This was during VBW's earliest years.  At the time I only knew how to record the spoken word and acapella expressions of incarcerated youth with a microphone and laptop software.  It simply involved a participant sitting in front of our microphone and recording what he wrote on paper. No beats. 

The youth captured in the painting by Ruby was one of the sharpest pens in VBW history.  On his own time he actually found a way to record himself using a stereo boombox that his unit used in their pod.  The boombox had a tape deck he used to record himself rapping to a beat.  Before he was released I got the chance to hear some of his recordings when he brought one of his cassettes to workshop (we called it a demo). In a lot of ways, his efforts inspired our next phase in how we conducted recordings which involved playing beats in the background from my portable CD stereo player while a participant got on the mic.  Over the years other youth who brought recording experience to our workshop from the time they spent rapping with older siblings or friends on the outside would redefine our recording process. 

It would've been nice to have had the recording capability we learned later during the time we spent with the participant who recorded himself on cassette.  Those moments reflected our Hip Hop story of figuring out ways to make something out of the little bit of equipment and technical knowledge we had. In the future I hope to release the recordings of the participant depicted in the paining.

#Lee

Here are Ruby's thoughts on how she approached the painting above for the Art of Voices project: "The original photo for this painting had very subtle contrast because the subject matter was mostly shades of grey and white with dispersed lighting. My usual style employs rainbow colors and a focused light source producing strong shadows. I wanted to introduce color in a way that would retain the subtle contrast of the original photograph and not look artificial, yet add interest to the work. I used the brightest colors on the page being authored by the young subject." 


Art of Voices is a Voices Behind Walls (VBW) project supported by Community Solutions of El Paso to recruit illustrators through Volunteer Match to help recreate VBW workshop photographs into art.  The photographs were taken during workshop activities in juvenile detention between the years of 2006-2014.  Artistic remakes of the photographs protect the identity of workshop participants by changing details of face and other identifiers.  The purpose of this project is to document the VBW program's history and the creative expression activities incarcerated youth were engaged in.  This project also offers the VBW photographer and illustrators an opportunity to reflect on what the images say about the juvenile justice system and the importance of creative expression activity for youth as a means of education, therapy, self-improvement, community engagement, rehabilitation, positive Hip Hop activity, and mentorship.  

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Master Control | Art of Voices #ZHill


Master Control

It was one of those days and I must've waited at least an hour before I could enter the juvenile facility to conduct a creative expression workshop.  With no where to sit, I stood and scanned the front entrance at one point attempting to focus my vision through the one way window that housed the master control room on the other side. Though barely visible, I could see the outline of the monitors and guards as they entered and exited the control room.  There was one way in for visitors and one way out.  Above the entrance of the heavy large steel door were the words "Master Control".

In this artwork, I asked Art of Voices participant, Zachary Hill to try and emphasize security and surveillance. The piece also depicts me, the educator, going into the facility with a crate under my arm.  I wanted to focus on the crate which contained books and publications that I'd bring with me and make available to the participants.  It includes a collection of books for what I called our "VBW Library", including copies of the Beat Within publication, a weekly publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth all around the United States and a couple other countries.  I recall during one of those long waits staring at the etched words above the main entrance..."Master Control".  It meant a lot of things to me in the context of the lives held inside, the security staff, and the facility's visitors.  I thought about the kind of writing topic that we could pull from the entrance.  Thinking about spaces we've entered in our lives that we remember most.  What do these entrances into prison mean for incarcerated youth?  What do entrances mean to the incarcerated adult population?  If you've seen A Place to Stand, Jimmy Santiago Baca's documentary based on his life and experience incarcerated in Arizona's state prison it depicts a scene going in.  How are these entrances identified in other facilities?  How does the process of entering these spaces for a volunteer or educator compare or what makes them different?

Below is a Q&A with the illustrator about his approach to the piece and art:

Lee: How would you describe your approach to this illustration in regards to its color and other features?

ZH: First I designated a color pallet to work with. Like you said, the area has a lot of reds and browns in the surrounding color, so I felt a cooler tone would compliment that well... Hence the blue in the clothing, trim and door. The use of blue also helped group some of the more important elements. I also used textures to create a contrast between layers.

Lee: What's your earliest memory that speaks for how you're involved in art today.  What inspires you to create?

ZH: I've always been very involved in art. It's been a huge part of my life for as far back as I can remember. My dad is a high school art teacher, and he's always been a huge inspiration to me. I also just have a very wild and vivid imagination, and creating art is one of the best ways I can share that with people. 

Lee: Generally, what kind of themes do you approach in your work? Are there any other themes related to the criminal justice field that you've explored through your art?

ZH: I really prefer to render out a lot of the details of a piece. I like to keep things as direct and easy to understand as I can. I definitely favor creating new and interesting creatures and landscapes in my work. The conception stage is my favorite. I haven't done much work before in the criminal justice system before, so a lot of this is very new and interesting to me. I have definitely had to rework my thought process with these pieces, which has been challenging but entertaining nevertheless.

**The "Master Control" illustration by Zachary Hill was featured in this summer's syllabus for a course instructed by VBW Founder Lecroy Rhyanes, called Creative Expressions of Masculinity In & Out of Juvenile Detention at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).

#Lee


Art of Voices is a Voices Behind Walls (VBW) project supported by Community Solutions of El Paso to recruit illustrators through Volunteer Match to help recreate VBW workshop photographs into art.  The photographs were taken during workshop activities in juvenile detention between the years of 2006-2014.  Artistic remakes of the photographs protect the identity of workshop participants by changing details of face and other identifiers.  The purpose of this project is to document the VBW program's history and the creative expression activities incarcerated youth were engaged in.  This project also offers the VBW photographer and illustrators an opportunity to reflect on what the images say about the juvenile justice system and the importance of creative expression activity for youth as a means of education, therapy, self-improvement, community engagement, rehabilitation, positive Hip Hop activity, and mentorship.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Beat Within Since 1996 #TBW20Years


Celebrating 20 Years of The Beat Within

The message below was originally posted on The Beat Within's Facebook which you can view by clicking on the following link: 21.37/38.  The impact this publication has had on my life as an educator is beyond measure.  I'm forever grateful for what this publication has inspired me to do in my own life as a creative arts educator.  I consider the work of the Voices Behind Walls program a branch of The Beat Within tree; I respect The Beat as a foundation for how I've come to understand and involve myself in creative justice.  I'm thankful for having had the chance to be inspired by The Beat and I'm excited about what this publication means for future programming and research.  Also, this has everything to do with Hip Hop and the legacy of Tupac Amaru Shakur.  

Since 1996.   

20 years ago, the first issue of The Beat Within was produced for the young people inside the San Francisco Juvenile Justice Center aka YGC (Youth Guidance Center). This initial issue was on the death of rapper and actor, Tupac Shakur. Little did any of us know that The Beat Within would touch so many lives - beyond San Francisco and the Bay Area - through our weekly writing workshops inside various juvenile halls and our amazing publication. 

This week's celebratory double issue, 21.37/38, which is ready for workshops and our subscribers this week, we celebrate The Beat Within and giving voice to the voiceless. In this special issue, we actually reprint and feature the first writings from those initial workshops inside YGC too! Happy Birthday Beat! 

Here's a sneak peak of this week's cover. The cover art, featuring 2Pac, was the first piece of art ever contributed to The Beat Within, way back in 1996, by our dear friend Noel Danseco.

If you are interested in making a donation (of any size) to The Beat this week, we will make sure and send you this fabulous issue.

Thank you FB friends for all the support.

To donate please visit thebeatwithin.org