By Greg Hernandez
On a recent visit to the newly-equipped music studio inside the Los Angeles LGBT Centers’ bustling Youth Center, members of the philanthropic group Women Helping Youth (WHY) were moved by what they saw…and heard.
“We walked in and there were young people with headphones using beautiful new microphones and it all looked very professional,” recalled WHY member Liz Abbe. “They each had the opportunity to sing what they wanted to sing then they played it back and it sounded great.”
It was a $15,339 grant from WHY that paved the way for the studio to become a reality.
“We previously toured the Youth Center and were very impressed,” Abbe recalled. “We went into the music space—as it was then—and started playing a little bit of music and all these kids just started coming in and they were singing together. It is clearly a beloved space.”
The new equipment purchased with the WHY grant includes a Mac computer, new music software, headphones, microphones, and other accessories.
“WHY helps so many groups build their programs, so It was wonderful to have them come in and say, ‘Hey, you have an amazing group of youth who sing. What can we do to help you support that?’” said Jennifer Gutierrez, youth development supervisor for the Center’s Children, Youth & Family Services program.
WHY is committed to improving the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of children and young adults in need in the Los Angeles area. The organization combines individual donations to create a larger pool of funds with which to make a difference in the lives of youth. Last year, WHY gave away $133,000 in grants.
An Organic Beginning
Jeff Park, a mental health clinician at the Center, said the youth music programming was born through “one of those kumbaya stories.” He had brought a guitar in one day less than two years ago, started playing it, and things grew from there.
“As soon as someone started singing, people started knocking on the door and the group just kept growing and growing,” he recalled. “In that moment, I knew. We were able to get together and create something so free-flowing and open.”
Since then, more than 100 young people have participated in various music programs, including such things as songwriting sessions and guitar lessons.
For students who want to do more than relax and jam, Park leads a six-week cohort in which up to 10 participants meet twice a week. On one of the days, professional musicians drop in and talk about their creative process as well as such things as the music business, engineering, and copyright issues.
Bonding Through Music
During a recent Friday evening cohort session, eight youths sat in a wide circle perfecting their contributions to a song they had created in just a few hours.
“I think it’s dope that everyone has different genders they are addressing things to,” observed one.
The eclectic song included singing, rapping, poetry, and even included sections featuring a viola. It would soon be recorded in the studio in an adjacent room and could later be part of a live showcase at the Center’s Renberg Theatre.
“It’s all around this idea of collaborating, whether it’s mashing up songs or getting folks into the studio and creating beats and original content,” explained Park. “It’s a very, very expressive space that holds a certain kind of energy.”
For some, the cohort has presented them with the first opportunity they’ve had to express gender through their music “and not have anyone judge it or tell them so sing ‘he/ and not ‘she.’ They can say ‘they.’”
Travis Crown, a singer-writer who would like to break into the music business, is among the youth who has participated in past cohorts.
“All the youth that were there had similar stories and struggles, and we were all able to connect music-wise,” said Crown, who is now works as a peer advocate at the Center.
“A lot of us have faced being on the street, faced rejection from family based on our sexual orientations or gender identities,” he added. “Music is something that we are all are very passionate about…we were motivated to get out of our shells, be more open, and work with each other to create something that is beautiful.”
Although the studio was not complete when Crown was a participant, he’s excited about its “top-of-the-line equipment.”
“I think it is going to open up a big door for people who have dreams,” he said. “You can create and actually have a product and have a song that’s recorded and that’s professional.”
Gutierrez has seen the music programming help to integrate the various youth populations the Center works with including at-risk youth and youth experiencing homelessness.
“Bringing them together through the music that they all love is a way of integrating these groups of young people so they can learn from each other and be in the same space,” she said. “Before, they were very separated. Music is one of those great things that just brings people together from every walk of life.”
The full music studio will be relocated to the Youth Academy at the Center’s new Anita May Rosenstein Campus after it opens.