In Stockholm’s Blue Hill neighborhood, hip-hop cleared a path away from violence.
Imagine if Mozart was born in a ghetto poverty-stricken, filled with drugs and violence. Then envision that young Mozart couldn’t afford instruments. Would anyone have noticed his musical genius, or would he have been kicked out of school for bad behavior? Would he have slipped into the school-to-prison pipeline? Perhaps he’d be sitting in a cell with no access to education and few chances for a successful return to society. The world would have missed his musical masterpieces.
When I was kid, I’d scratch up my mom’s record collection — jazz, classical music, R&B…. “Rock the Bells” by LL Cool J and “Don’t Believe the Hype” by Public Enemy played on repeat.
Not only was I captivated by the sounds and lyrics, music showed up as images and colors in my mind. I later learned this sensation is synesthesia — when one sense, like sound, translates into other senses, like seeing colors. At the time, I never knew the big part synesthesia would play in my life.
I grew up north of Stockholm, Sweden, in Hagalund, home to 6,000 residents, many of them immigrants from war-torn countries living in eight blue high-rise buildings on a hill we called “Blue Hill.”
My community had drugs, violence but also positive influences, like hip-hop. Rapping and creating beats distracted us from the criminal lifestyle. The youth center was full of kids who expressed their frustrations through music. We were passionate and formed crews of deejays, emcees and b-boys, wrote and recorded our own songs, and dreamt of making it in the industry. It kept us out of the streets.
My passion — human beat-box and rap.
We were Blue Hill Productions, performed at youth centers, school parties, clubs and eventually got record deals. At 17, I signed a solo contract with Stockholm records. Years later, Andres Avellan and I formed a group called The Navigators. We had hits on the radio and MTV, toured worldwide, and even produced for many different artists. All this wouldn’t have happened without that youth center and its dedicated volunteers.
But the vast majority of kids, especially youth growing up in low-income neighborhoods, don’t get that opportunity. Schools are underfunded, with arts and music the first to be cut.
But what else are kids really losing? Studies show that listening to music increases the brain’s “motivation molecule,” dopamine — an integral part of the pleasure-reward system. Playing live music also stimulates oxytocin, the brain’s “trust molecule” and “moral molecule,” which helps us bond with and trust others.
Researchers at the University of Toronto found that weekly voice and piano lessons helped increase the IQ of 6-year-olds. The lessons also improved language development, relieved stress and diffused anger.
Here at San Quentin, we have hundreds of men between 18 and 22 who never had the opportunity to confront childhood pain and trauma and eventually ended up in prison for violent crimes.
I saw a chance for them to express themselves the way I did when I was younger. I invited several to join in a mixtape, telling their stories and channeling emotions through music instead of violence. Members of different communities who normally don’t interact join forces and collaborate. At first, many of them didn’t know how.
Seeing their reactions when they first heard themselves recorded brought me back to the music studio in Blue Hill.
I hope teaching them to speak their truth will help influence the younger kids who listen to their stories. Hopefully, this mixtape will prevent youth from making the same mistakes.
By David Jassy
David Jassy has collaborated with song- writers and producers such as Bloodshy & Avant (Madonna, Britney Spears), Red One (Lady Gaga, Enrique Iglesias, J-Lo), Kara Dio Guardi (Pink, Backstreet Boys), Ilya Salmanzadeh (Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Iggy Azalea), Twin (Miley Cyrus, John Legend) and The Writing Camp (Beyonce, Rihanna)