Hip hop helps young offenders

Toronto rapper Rochester is helping inmates produce songs

Hip hop helps young offendersWhen Toronto-based rapper Rochester performed at the Brookside youth jail in Cobourg, Ont., last year, a small group of inmates were eager to share a performance of their own. Using the facility’s basic recording equipment, they had produced a music video, complete with their own lyrics and dance moves. Struck by their effort, Rochester had an idea: give them professional tools to produce their own songs. “If you have music out there, you’re going to want to play it for people,” says Rochester. “You’ve got something to dream about.”

Rochester’s idea has since grown into a project, which, organizers say, is one of the first of its kind. Over the next three months, five teens, selected by application through the all-boys facility, will spend time one day a week producing two singles, with original lyrics and cover art. The workshops, which kicked off this month, will also cover marketing and distribution, because, says Tamara Dawit of 411 Initiative for Change, the Toronto-based charity behind the program, “There’s so many jobs [in music] besides being a rapper.”

Though the project is in its infancy, Rochester has ambitious goals. Once organizers determine how to release the singles—privacy laws protect young offenders’ identities—he’d like to invest the profits in the kids’ education, “so they can go to college and learn more.” And when the boys are released, he hopes their music will provide “something positive to do instead of something negative.” In the meantime, observers are optimistic about more subtle accomplishments. In an environment where good behaviour is not to be taken for granted, during workshops the boys are attentive, “asking questions, laughing, joking,” says Rochester. “The guards, they’re breathing a sigh of relief.”

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