by Amanda Staab
Desperate to find an alternative to hanging out on the streets like other teens, one young Bronx woman joined her school’s football team.
“I wanted to do something and that was pretty much the only opportunity I had,” said Olivia Tapia, 15. “It was very hard. Not many of the teammates wanted me to be there because I was the only girl.”
She finally put her helmet away a year ago, when she discovered a small but growing group Music with a Message at Renaissance E.M.S. (Education, Music, and Sports), a non-profit organization in Morrisania that offers kids educational programs for after school and on weekends.
“It is a drop in the bucket in comparison to the need,” said Bervin Harris, a professional music producer who founded Renaissance E.M.S. near the corner of 163rd Street and Third Avenue in 2001. “There are hundreds of thousands of kids here in the Bronx community who will never get the opportunity to pick up a guitar or any other instrument.”
Harris is not from the Bronx. He grew up on Long Island, where, he said, schools still have arts programs and students have a lot more access to music education. He said the band classes and sports he took part in as a teen kept him coming back to high school every day, so he wanted to motivate kids in the South Bronx in the same way. He opened Renaissance E.M.S. in Morrisania, he said, because it is a dying community without many positive activities for teens.
“So, instead of talking about the problem, I always ask myself what can I do to help the solution,” said Harris. “I took that mentality through college, and I have been doing social development off and on and balancing a music career at the same time,” he said.
Harris now mentors 200 kids each Saturday and reaches 1,200 others through his Music on Wheels program, which brings arts programs to schools that have none, all the while managing a full-time job producing Hip Hop, R&B, Jazz, and Gospel with various artists. He also released a record of his own inspirational music in 2003 and created a song called “Care for Me” for the National Coalition of the Homeless.
His newest project, Music with a Message, was created this past summer and includes a dozen of his most promising protégés, who write and produce many of the numbers they perform.
“What we started doing is writing songs to help these kids deal with their issues,” said Harris, who encourages his students to dig deep. “I told them, ‘Don’t just write me any common lyrics. Study it. Do your own research. Ask some questions, and then write the song to speak to the inner person, not just the shadow on the outside.”
One song written by a student is called “Care for Me” and depicts a girl trying to tell her parents what her life is like and how she needs them to be there for her.
“My friends do drugs right on the block,” the song goes. “Some have guns and fight a lot…. The pressure to fit in is on my back, from gangs and drugs and being fat. Please don’t delay when I leave home today. Hug, say you love me, as I go on my way.”
While writing songs to cope with their own lives and researching topics many teens could relate to, said Harris, the kids in Music with a Message are also learning to be social developers themselves and role models to other teens.
“The role model is an example of someone doing,” Harris said he tells the kids. “So, when you talk about a song and you talk about spreading love, it has to start with you.”
The kids take this message seriously. Seventeen-year-old Yesenia Berroa said joining the group six years ago helped her stay out of fights going on at her middle school.
“I don’t know how I would be without this music program,” she said. “I would be a completely different person.”
Berroa is now college-bound, she said, and after learning to play the guitar and piano in just a few years, she plans to teach music when she graduates.
“It’s very important for kids to get the opportunity to learn music because it’s a foundation for life,” she said.
In addition to providing students with an outlet and supportive environment, Harris and his crew also push academics by having the kids bring in their grades each week for a little friendly competition. Every kid is part of a team, and the better each student does, the closer each team gets to earning a trip to Great Adventure at the end of the school year.
While they may already be dreaming of waterslides, the kids in Music with a Message wrapped up their first season with a concert at the Teen Health Summit at Benjamin Franklin School last month. On a blacktop surrounded by a tall fence and lots of project housing, the students unfolded their stage from the side of a truck and danced and sung for the crowd with big smiles on their faces.
“When you see something like this and there are no gunshots ringing, this is positivity,” said Harris. “We don’t hear about this in the news. You got to go see it.”