Hip hop becomes therapy for youth affected by violence
Sixteen-year-old Myron Smith is recording a track called, "Tha Light," in a sweaty, closet-sized recording booth.
The song is about his father, who he says, is the light he sees when the sun peers between the clouds. His father was shot, 18 times, by a gang member on Chicago’s South Side.
"A lot of stuff still happened after that, I got shot at a bunch of times, so I know he's looking after me," Smith said.
Smith and his mother fled to Evansville two years ago to get away from the gang violence in their Englewood neighborhood. Similar shootings have claimed the lives of friends and family members.
Since he’s been in Evansville, Smith started recording rap songs inside this studio, a spare room upstairs at Impact Ministries. It’s part of a free youth program, called Hip Hop 101, where participants can record and produce their own rap songs.
For Smith, that microphone has become a diary and a sanctuary, where he can retell the stories of growing up in a gang.
"All of my cousins were in the gang, so I hung out with him when I was little because I didn't want to feel like the one left out," Smith said.
Hip Hop 101 founder Sean Little said Myron has become more confident since he started writing and recording his own lyrics.
“Initially when he started recording, he'd just be freestyling. Once we had a couple of writing conversations, he wrote songs," Little said. "He's really kind of a timid kid, but that is completely different when he's rapping."
Psychologist and University of Illinois Chicago Professor Jaleel Abdul Adil is not surprised by the positive impact that rap can have on youth affected by trauma.
In fact, he incorporates it into his therapy practice.
“They're not going to sit down and talk to you in the traditional therapeutic setting," Abdul Adil said. "It's not speaking to them, it doesn't move them."
Although, the former hip hop columnist for the Chicago Sun Times was a bit reluctant at first.
"When I first heard it, I hated rap music," Abdul Adil said.
But, Abdul Adil said he discovered that hip hop music is a cultural bridge that can connect youth to psychotherapy. The music is a platform for youth to access and express painful, often suppressed, emotions, he said.
“They need to articulate positive things that may replace some of the painful things that are going on," Abdul Adil said.
Myron Smith clearly remembers seeing his father’s bloodied sweatshirt, peppered with bullet holes.
In his music and in person, Smith speaks openly about the incident. He makes a plea to other teenagers to learn from his story and shun violent crime, which is often glorified in hip hop music.
“I could have gone and killed somebody else's daddy because my dad is gone," Smith said. "But I just wrote about the music and hopefully somebody else going through that realizes they can tell their story too."
Indiana Youth Institute CEO Bill Stancykevitz says based on 2013 Indiana Kid's Count Data, programs, like Hip Hop 101, that give youth a creative platform are proven alternatives to reducing violent crime – and consequentially, juvenile detention populations.
"A very small number of offenders commit most of the crimes," Stancykevitz said. "So, if you can have an impact on a small number of people, you can have an impact on the larger crime rate."
So, he says, whether you like hip-hop music, or not, you should pay attention.
Smith just moved back to Chicago’s South Side to live with his grandmother. He says he’s still writing music and will continue spreading his message of non-violence in his community.
While the mission of Hip Hop 101 has influenced at least one young man’s life, others in Evansville may not get the same opportunity.
Christian Fellowship Church, which owns the Impact Ministries building, closed Impact Ministries in July. CFC Pastor David Niednagel tells WNIN that Impact, which has a separate 501(c)(3) status and corporate board from the church, was unable to pay its bills and is “financially unsustainable.” Impact's 2012 expenses exceeded $250,000.
Impact staff members were laid off July 31. The recording booth, which was once churning out healing hip hop beats and rhymes, went silent.