Cindy Rodriguez is the Urban Policy reporter for New York Public Radio.
Incarcerated teens were recently given a chance to write and record their own songs with the help of professional musicians, composers and producers from Carnegie Hall.
For teens at the Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx – which could be mistaken for a school, save the barbed wire lining its roofs, ball fields and delivery gates – the program that invites creativity is a welcome reprieve from the routine of the day.
"It's the same thing we do everyday," said Roger Harris, 15. "So when the music starts coming in ... it gives you something to look forward to."
At the request of the Administration for Children's Services, WNYC has changed the names of kids interviewed for this story to protect their identity.
The ACS-run facility housed 103 youths from throughout the city in June. The music program is one way the agency tries to provide positive experiences for youth, who are selected mostly based on their good behavior.
Teens clad in fading brown or blue prison jumpers rapped at mics while musicians tried to create beats using a guitar, French horn and bass drum during evening sessions that lasted up to three hours and took place inside rooms temporarily transformed into makeshift studios.
Russell Walters, a stocky teen with a peach fuzz mustache, said he wound up in Horizon twice over the last year, and fittingly, used his time in the music program to write the following lyrics about how one wrong decision can be life-altering:
I got a plan to be better and they don’t need handcuffs and shackles to handle me never and since these cards can’t play my way, I’m a have to live this jail life day by day.
Most kids at the facility have been charged with a range of offenses like robbery or assault, and many are awaiting further court appearances and haven’t been convicted or sentenced. Some have been at Horizon for years waiting for their cases to be resolved.
Producer Chris Marianetti and horn player and composer Jeremy Thal spearheaded the collaboration for Carnegie Hall.
Both said the kids in the program knew exactly what they wanted but at times it was a struggle because the teens didn’t always share the same music vocabulary.
"But that's kind of the beauty of it because you're crossing these cultures and … differences in age and class and race," Thal said.
The collaboration ended with a final performance at the detention center gym with the accompaniment of a brass band called Slavic Soul Party. At times, it was a clash of musical styles.
But the kids, who got to trade in their prison jumpers for street clothes, charmed their audience and for a moment, forgot about the barbed wire and locked prison doors surrounding them.
Day by Day
I'll be Here