By Mary Eisenhart
In 2002, Chris Wiltsee, a Bay Area native, musician and longtime participant in community development, was working on his master’s degree in social work when he had a brainstorm: what if you used the framework of a record company as a youth development project?
“Wouldn’t that be great?” Wiltsee, founder and executive director of Youth Movement Records, recalls thinking. “You could engage just about any young person in it. They could find a role–the artists, the singers, the songwriters, the bands, but also the kids who were interested in technology, production, engineering, photography, visual arts, video production, business, marketing, all of it. There are so many roles that exist in entertainment–behind every Jay-Z or whatever star, there’s about 75 jobs supporting that celebrity.”
The idea was especially appealing, he says, because “adolescents are the most difficult group to reach. They’re fickle. They’re suspicious. And they probably should be. So they’re very difficult to engage. I had been working with the Boys and Girls Club, which is a great organization, but they really struggle once the kids hit about 13 or 14. They’re gone. It’s just not hip. This program is hip.”
Wiltsee spent about a year building relationships and partnerships, setting up an infrastructure and raising funds. “The last step on my checklist was to talk to the kids,” he explains, “because I had this gut feeling that was going to be the easiest step, and I wanted to have everything else taken care of.
“So I went out to some schools and youth commissions and said, here’s the concept–a record company run by you. You’re the artists, you’re the promoters, and all the rest of it, and if you’re interested, show up at La Pena in Berkeley on Tuesday at 4:30.”
He now admits he worried that no one would show up, but 30 young people, mostly from Oakland (recently named the 4th most dangerous city in the nation for its high crime rate, much of which is linked to lack of opportunity), did. Since that time, hundreds of local youth have participated in the programs of Youth Movement Records, which in turn is reaching out to help organizations in other cities create similar opportunities.
YMR received a Rex Foundation grant to support its work in 2007; this year, when brainstorming started on a follow-up for Rex’s 2006 production “The World As It Could Be,” YMR was among the Rex grantees invited to work on the project (see sidebar).
The resulting production, “The World As It Could Be: Where There’s a Will There’s a Way,” featuring YMR youth performing their original hip-hop anthem “Will/Wish=Change,” premiered in April to a wildly receptive audience at Oakland Technical High School, where many YMR participants are students. A few weeks later, we stopped by YMR’s offices in downtown Oakland and took the quiet moments before the after-school crowd arrived to find out more about the program.
Rex Foundation: How do kids get involved with YMR? How does it work?
Chris Wiltsee, Youth Movement Records: Initially it was purely word of mouth; over time, as YMR has grown, things have become a bit more structured. We have a lot more to offer; we have a lot of workshops offered seasonally. We take 30 or 40 new youth three times a year.
What we’re seeing is a process that usually takes six to 18 months. Someone comes into the organization and they’re sort of a newbie. They’re taking an orientation workshop and one or two other workshops to learn specific skills. After three to six months they start graduating into projects and getting their hands into recording and videos and events. Public speaking, doing interviews, all this kind of stuff–and assuming leadership.
That’s where we see that big change, in the way they carry themselves, in their goal setting. So by about six months to a year, they’ve graduated to our All-Star group. That’s usually between about 40 and 75 young people, both onstage and behind the scenes. They’re sort of our elite group, the ones who are going out and doing performances and representing the organization at conferences and that kind of thing.
So for the newbies who come in, that 40 new youth every few months, we put that out there. Here’s the goodie bag. Here’s what you can aspire toward. Here are all the opportunities. Here’s what’s required to get there: responsibility, follow-through, punctuality, all those things. You want to be in the performance on Saturday night and you miss rehearsal, forget it.
In that way YMR is really a meritocracy, in that they get what they put into it. We try to be as transparent as possible about what the pathway is.
We have an amazing roster of instructors; everybody on our faculty is a working professional. Larry Batiste and Claytoven Richardson are Grammys music directors and Oakland natives; they’re working with us as songwriting coaches and arrangers in our musical mentoring programs. Every month we send a group to them and they’ll work on a song together. We have a choir, a house band; we have two recording programs, one for electronic music productions and one for Pro Tools. Fred Thomas, who teaches our Pro Tools class, is one of the top people at Digidesign; he comes here every Friday and teaches our students. Our DJ, Josh Hollander, came out of a legendary event in New York called the Lyricist Lounge, and now he’s one of the post-production managers at Pixar.
Rex: Are there fees for the classes, or is it pretty much all scholarship?
YMR: It’s pretty much all scholarship. We have a nominal registration fee that’s waived for a great number of our students. It’s essentially a free program, which is as it should be, because there are enough resources in the Bay Area that we’re able to subsidize that.
Some of our youth have come from Covenant House and are literally on the street, or they’re very low income, and this program was designed for them, so we’d never want to exclude them. Our true commitment is providing opportunity for them. None of them have private lessons; almost none of them have musical instruments in the home; very few are getting music in the schools.
Rex: And they don’t have computers at home either, at least not media-capable ones.
YMR: Right, exactly. There’s a huge digital divide, which is a whole nother issue. So in our space the media lab is a big draw. We have both music production and video production on all those machines, and then in our studio upstairs it’s the same. It’s a digital lab, it’s Pro Tools, so they’re learning the industry standard.
Some of our students, especially on the engineer and production side, have gone on to find work in that area. One of our alumni is working with Hieroglyphics, a legendary hip-hop label in Oakland, as an engineer. We take a lot of pride in that.
Rex: Is the idea to help them find work in the industry, or more to give them tools to figure out their own path?
YMR: That’s it. It’s all about trajectory. Some of our youth have gone on to become firefighters. Or they’ve gone into marketing, promotions, advertisement. I would say it’s a minority that continue to pursue entertainment — and that’s great, because it’s a tricky field to break into. And not everybody should go into it.
We spend a lot of time blowing up what we call rap dreams and adding a whole lot of reality–what does it actually take, what does it actually mean to “make it,” and what’s the reality? Is this something you’re cut out for, is it something you really want? And even if it is, we make you aware of all the different types of opportunities that exist within entertainment, so you have a fallback plan or two. What we keep hearing from all our guest speakers is that anybody who is working in entertainment has two or three or four jobs or roles that they fulfill.
What we’re really about is helping young people identify who they are, what are their interests, and to help them identify a path towards success. That may be in music or it may be something completely separate. But through their experiences at YMR they can build a resume, they can build a network of peers and adults who are on a positive track, who are doing things, who are self-motivated and inspired.
There’s a culture within the organization that’s really oriented towards success and responsibility and teamwork. Those are all qualities that have a huge amount of carryover into any field, that are a recipe for success.
In Oakland you have a dropout rate that’s over 50 percent. Within YMR, all of our All-Stars graduate from high school. They just all graduate. Some of them are getting full rides to colleges; a lot of them are going to local universities and colleges. And like I said, a lot of them are pursuing other types of careers.
Rex: Over the last 10 years or so, technology has changed things a lot, so people don’t need to get a record deal; they can make their own records and reach their audience directly. With relatively simple and cheap tools, they can do professional quality recording. Has that opened up new possibilities for what you’re doing?
YMR: Very much. Just the framework of the program has changed a lot in the five years we’ve been around. This is a revolutionary moment just in the last five to 10 years, where the industry is kind of being exploded, and there’s tons of opportunity and possibility, especially for independent artists. You don’t need a record deal. You don’t need the big guys.
We have several things that we do with the young artists here, and a lot of it is helping to blow up some of the myths and the outdated thinking that you’re going for the big deal. We tell them, you want to be independent for as long as possible.
Rex: You give them the Courtney Love speech?
YMR: That’s right. It’s absolutely right.
We have this woman, Joan Martin, who’s an entertainment attorney, come in. She puts up the numbers. She says, if you’re on a major deal, here’s how much you get per record, here’s how many you have to sell before you even start the whole recoupment process and everything else. But if you’re independent, you can sell this many and make just as much money.
And now with MySpace and Facebook and all the digital tools, we know a lot of independent artists who are doing very well. They’re running their own careers, and they’re touring, and it works. That very much folds into the model that we’re promoting here.
We’re really embracing all the change that’s going on. So another big part of the skill sets that we’re trying to teach is in the evolution of new media, where digital recording and technology and Internet and video all come together. A lot of really great jobs are being developed, especially right here in the Bay Area, in that sweet spot. If you know technology, if you understand video, if you’re very comfortable with online tools, you’re going to be able to get work. Even in the short time YMR’s been around, we’re starting to reframe ourselves as more of a media company than a record company.
Just this weekend we’re releasing our new compilation album called Free*Style. After this album, we’re going to go to a new model, which is, we’ll release a single every month, and there’ll be a more frequent release schedule of singles and videos. And then we might compile them at the end of a period of time into an album.
This will be the first record where we do a really heavy digital distribution. We’re working with all the groups everyone’s familiar with — iTunes, Imean, MySpace, Snocap — all these companies that will help us.
There’s a label in New York called Verge that has a socially responsible business model; they’re working with distressed communities, primarily internationally, so their first record was out of the favelas in Brazil. Their business model is that they’ll take 10 percent of profits and flow it back into music programs within the neighborhood that the music comes from. They’re going to help us with some distribution and marketing of this new record, just because they think what we’re doing is great.
There’s another foundation called Project Ahimsa that supports youth music programs, and they’re also looking at doing an international music release that includes YMR artists, heavily digital, and then again flowing what we hope will be proceeds to all the organizations they support. It creates a ton of possibilities. And in this era of environmental reckoning, it also creates an opportunity to get rid of a lot of the waste that’s tied up in packaging and shipping.
So with this release we’re really going to push the digital. You can have the individual song download, or download the whole album–that’s great. We did press up CDs because we’re sure some people will want them, but we’ve gone with all-recycled packaging. There’s no plastic other than the disc itself.
Rex: Do you work with genres other than hip-hop?
YMR: Absolutely. That’s been our cornerstone, just because of the audience we’ve drawn from the beginning. Since that time, and especially on the new record, you’ll see the evolution of YMR and how it’s becoming more diverse. On this new record we’ve got folk, rock, funk, electronic, dance–it’s a real mash-up. It’s a millennium album. It really sounds new. There’s some straight hip-hop, but just a few tracks, really.
Rex: Every time I go to the Ashby flea market in Berkeley these young teens come up saying “We’ve got this great new local rap CD. No profanity! No misogynistic lyrics!” So I always laugh and give them the five bucks for the CD. Are those your graduates?
YMR: (laughs) I’m sure those are some of our youth. When I launched YMR it was a novel concept. There was no other youth-run recording company in the Bay Area. Since we launched, there are at least half a dozen now in the Bay Area alone.
We’re very proud to be innovators in that space–it’s really catching on, it’s a great engagement tool. A whole group of young people are not only getting the opportunity to create music, but also getting exposed to issues that they care about, having music that’s got a progressive cause behind it. It’s deliberately not misogynistic, or gangster, or whatever. It’s nonviolent. That’s a good thing at the end of the day.
Rex: And they go to the Ashby Flea and sell their CD.
YMR: Right, and some of these kids were selling drugs before. That was their hustle.
Rex: Same skill set.
YMR: You got it. But instead this is perfectly legal, and actually kind of positive. And for their younger peers especially, the 12- and 13-year-olds, these 15-16-17-year-olds who are out there selling music–it’s going to be interesting to see the ripple effects. You’ve got to think these 12-year-olds, who just kind of naturally look up to these guys, will see them challenging the dominant topics of pimping and gangsterism and dope dealing, super-thugging, all the hyper-masculinity that’s so pervasive, and the violence, and the materialism. There’s this whole squadron of emerging artists talking about things that are much more realistic, and hopeful even. It’s a really cool thing.
That’s kind of the other thread of what we do–consciousness-raising and critical thinking. Some of that we do explicitly, through deconstructing films and videos and albums; a lot of it happens very organically now that we’ve been able to build this culture of a self-regulated organization. So if someone gets up at our open mic and they start spouting some really violent stuff or some really ill material, their peers will tell them that’s not cool.
That consciousness-raising is something we do. We build it into our workshops deliberately, and then it happens quite organically, through our guest speakers and the types of partnerships and opportunities that we’re able to bring.
So when Amnesty International wants to partner around the Darfur theme, we bring in a speaker, we show a movie, we say, here’s the opportunity. What do you guys think? It’s an opportunity to educate and expose the connections between your experience and their experience. What do we have to bring to the table?
And then the youth’s challenge as writers is to come up with meaningful songs and content, and get involved in the campaign. And that’s huge. That just opens up a whole different world and gets them thinking outside of themselves, thinking outside of Oakland, outside the United States.
That’s where a lot of our focus is right now, building an international worldview. Which is great, because that’s the kind of worldview we all need to start adopting if things are going to work out in the 21st century.
There’s this kid, Mark Otim, who reached out to us through our Web site. Sudanese refugee, 16 years old–he’s now living in Portland, Maine.
Rex: A bit of a change from the Sudan.
YMR: Can you imagine? (laughs) He basically sent us this SOS–Help! I’m in Maine! Maybe you guys can help me make some music; I’m really interested in writing songs.
So we had this online exchange for a little while, and I reached out to our friends at Amnesty and said, here’s this kid, he’s kind of good, he’s all by himself, is there some way we can plug him in? They said yeah, let’s do this.
So there’s an international photo exhibit that’s opening next month. They’re going to fly Mark out to the Bay Area; he’ll spend a week with us, he’ll be in our studio, he’ll be hanging around with some of our coaches and the other youth. They’ll write songs, they’ll record, and then at the end of the week he’ll go and help present and perform at this photo exhibition about the Sudan.
That’s the kind of opportunity the digital revolution is providing. There’s a plane ticket involved, but I imagine, assuming things go well, we’ll continue to work with Mark over the Internet. The kids who are making beats and producing songs, they can be in contact with him in real time.
I think one of the most valuable things we provide, besides the obvious things of self expression and skills building and mentoring, is that a lot of the youth who come into our program haven’t had any experience outside of their neighborhood. It’s amazing how narrow, how limited, some of the youth’s experience is, considering they live in one of the most diverse and dynamic regions in the world. Through those opportunities, you really expand their sense of what’s possible, what’s possible for them.
The Youth Movement All-Stars have been invited to perform all over the country and even internationally. So for these youth, it’s their first time on a plane, it’s the first time in a hotel, the first time in a new city, and they come back and they have a slightly new viewpoint. They see Oakland differently and they see themselves differently. They have a clear sense of, there’s a bigger world out there and I kinda want to be part of it. This is kinda cool.
It gets them on a track where graduating from high school starts making a lot more sense, thinking about what comes after that, whether it’s college or a career or trying to make it in entertainment. And through the program, hopefully, we equip them with the knowledge and skills and contacts to make these things happen.
“We’re really about helping young people identify who they are, what are their interests, and to help them identify a path towards success. That may be in music or it may be something completely separate. But through their experiences at YMR they can build a resume, they can build a network of peers and adults who are on a positive track, who are doing things, who are self-motivated and inspired.” – Chris Wiltsee
The Making of “Will / Wish = Change”
When the Rex Foundation started thinking about a follow-up production to “The World As It Could Be – -A Declaration of Human Rights,” its 2006 theatrical presentation on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as seen by young people, several past Rex grantees seemed like natural collaborators on the project- – Destiny Arts Center, 826 Valencia, and of course Youth Movement Records.
Since YMR had previously worked with organizations such as Amnesty International to write and record songs focused on a particular issue, it was asked to create an anthem related to the Declaration and “the will to change,” as discussed in the recent Rex newsletter – how to achieve the collective will to implement the Declaration’s principles worldwide.
YMR’s Chris Wiltsee says, “Sandy Sohcot called in late 2007 and said hey Chris, I’ve got this great project we’re pulling together. Destiny Arts, 826 Valencia, we want you guys to be part of it. I said, sign us up, that’s great company to be in!”
YMR’s director of special programming, Ryan Peters, picked up the reins, and the brainstorming began. She met with Sohcot and Creative Director Ellen Sebastian Chang, along with a representative of 826 Valencia. “We talked about this project in broad strokes,” she says, “and I got the document, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
At a second meeting that included some YMR youth, she says, “we brought the UN document, as well as the last Rex newsletter about the will to change. We talked with a good group of our kids, probably about 15 kids, about the project, and just in general about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“For a lot of them, it was the first time they had heard about it, so from the onset it was a total learning curve–which was great, because those are the kinds of opportunities we like to welcome here and the type of education we’re trying to extend to the kids, outside of what they get in their normal curriculum.
“We watched the video from the year prior. Ellen talked to us about what she envisioned for this year, and how she envisioned our partnership. The idea was for us to write the anthem for the project. So we did a little bit more education on our own with the kids who decided they were interested and wanted to be committed throughout the few months we had to do this project.
“We talked about it a little bit more; the kids did some more extensive research about it. We looked around for the right beat and the right music to go with it, the right collaboration between the young folks, and they kind of came up with it on their own.”
When it came to developing the anthem, Peters says, YMR took a novel but effective approach. “We provided the kids who were interested with the materials to educate themselves in order to write the anthem. Then we set it up as a contest so the best collaboration, the best concept, the best song idea was the one we were going to go with.
“It ended up being a collaborative effort between a poet named Jesse Aviles, a music producer by the name of Robert Gaines, and two MCs and two singers. They wrote the song based mostly on the conversation we had with Ellen and Sandy about ‘will’ meaning ‘wish,’ and the two words being interchangeable.
“They called it ‘the will/wish to change,’ which is what they understood more than anything–if they have a wish for something it becomes their will, and their will drives them toward that goal. They really grasped the concept; the song embodied the concept, and they’ve just been empowered since that project.”
The project benefited the young participants in many ways. Peters explains, “That was the first project that particular group of youth were able to start from the beginning and see through. From there they’ve been recording and writing songs, and being educated about what’s coming out of their mouth, and their willingness to be the change that they want to see. I think they really took that to heart, and consequently the content of their songs, the way they prepare themselves, and the general way they see their goals here, have come to fruition and they’ve really taken hold.
“We really did appreciate being part of that process, and the further removed we are from that process the more I appreciate the empowerment the kids had. We were waiting for our next constituency of All-Stars to step up, take hold, take the reins, really define what YMR is in the next generation, and that group of kids is a good core of what our All-Stars’ makeup is. That project was really the effort that they needed to grab the reins and go forward.”
The performance before their peers at Oakland Tech had a number of positive ripple effects, she says: “I think them being on stage that day really helped folks understand what YMR was and how we represent.”
Even more dramatic was the impact on the youth themselves. Wiltsee says, “The project created this galvanizing opportunity. It was a catalyst for these youth, this particular group of six, to go from newbies within the development program here to becoming All-Stars, and now they’re out there representing the organization. It was just wind in their sails. That performance was a culmination; they walked around with a whole new attitude. They walked in here that afternoon like they were rock stars. And they want some more of that.”
Rex Board Perspective
Rex Foundation Executive Director Sandy Sohcot
“Chris Wiltsee and I first spoke in 2002, when Chris was just organizing YMR. I was immediately impressed by the YMR concept; I liked YMR’s entrepreneurial approach, and its focus on providing young people the opportunity to tap their creativity while also gaining critical thinking and problem-solving tools to more effectively deal with life issues. I provided Chris with some contacts in the Bay Area business community and asked that we stay in touch as he proceeded to fully implement the program.
“Over the next few years, I not only heard from Chris about his progress, but also talked with Rex board member Cameron Sears; he praised YMR, which he had encountered through his own involvement in the music community. This direct personal knowledge from a Rex board member helped support the idea of a Rex grant to YMR, which happened in January 2007.
“It was particularly meaningful to me to have YMR take part in ‘The World As It Could Be–Where There’s a Will There’s a Way.’ Just recently, I visited with Chris, Ryan and several of the youth involved in creating ‘Will/Wish=Change,’ the anthem for the project. As I listened to the youth describe the way they thought about the issues of human rights and the will to generate change, and then figured out how to collaborate to write the anthem, I was deeply touched by their caring and spirit.
“Then, they performed the anthem a cappella, and their words and expressions literally brought tears to my eyes. To see how young people can so earnestly take on learning about human rights, and then apply their creativity and thoughtfulness to teaching about the issue and generating spirited ‘will,’ inspires me and fully reinforces my optimism that positive social change is really possible.”