In the corner of a renovated building that resembles a large shed with high ceilings and wide windows is a colorful splash of graffiti that’s hard to miss. The graffiti marks the home of DJ Project, a recording studio where 14 to 18-year-old teens learn to become adults by “pretending” to be a working part of the recording industry.
A spin-off of the non-profit center Horizons Unlimited of San Francisco, DJ Project is a youth program that kicked off in November 2000. The program is based on the edge of San Francisco’s Mission District, a heavily immigrant neighborhood with a stubborn gang problem. “The idea was to create a different type of learning center, a place where kids could feel that their interests were being represented,” says Jeff Feinman, director of DJ Project.
Young kids in every community, it seems, are after the same things: understanding from their parents, a personal identity, leadership within a group and a sense that they have a future. But when faced with a bewildering set of options and influences, such as street gangs, decisions can become difficult. Programs like those offered at Horizons Unlimited help make things a little easier.
Such was the case for Juan Guillermo, a teen born in Guanajuato, Mexico, who, along with three siblings, immigrated to San Francisco with his family at the age of 8. After graduating from high school, Guillermo wasn’t sure what to do next.
“I heard about DJ Project because I was coming [to Horizons Unlimited] for the summer jobs they offer. I knew Jeff and he knew I was an artist and he showed me his plan about the program, the place for the studio, and so he asked me for help,” explains Guillermo. “Music saved me from doing something I didn’t want to do. I learned a lot of things and have the chance to teach it to other kids.”
At DJ Project, teens learn to develop their critical thinking skills by analyzing music, beats, lyrics and song writing. In addition, they pick up the art of turntablism and learn how to manipulate sounds through editing programs.
Once grounded in these areas, and as a final project for the semester, students record a CD that they will later go out and promote by selling at record stores and among their social circle.
“Every kid in the community wants the same thing. They want to be a rapper, a musician. There’s no other place in the city where they can go and learn about the music industry,” says Feinman.
With an endless variety of music styles to chose from, hip hop is the most popular among today’s youth and is the genre that has created the most solid cultural scene. It acts as an international language that speaks to kids in their lingo and about the things that are most important to them, like the obstacles they must overcome on the road to becoming adults.
But DJ Project is about a lot more than just trying to become the next Eminem or Tupac Shakur. Students have to learn to be their own boss and know how to manage their time.
For Beverly Escobar, a graduate of DJ Project, the youth program helped her explore her identity and achieve self-acceptance. “I learned to manage my time, to be organized and to better handle my schedule and activities,” says a proud Escobar.
Escobar took part in the album Devolutionary Theory (2002), the second release for DJ Project, with the poem Latin Queen. “I went through a lot as a child, my mom didn’t have any confidence in me. Maybe I wasn’t a straight A student, but I know I’m a Latin queen,” said Escoba, explaining the poem.
Many former students of the program have continued on with Horizons Unlimited and, as part of DJ Project, have formed a music business that provides the sound at parties, quinceañeras (traditional parties to celebrate a girl’s 15th birthday), and other events. The money earned at these functions is used to pay their salaries and to buy equipment.
“I am trying to get (kids) out of the streets, provide them with avenues where they can learn to think critically and analyze what they are going through while they play with the music they like listening to. It can be a way to make money as they express themselves”, says Feiman.
Given the variety of cultures found in the city, Feinman believes that hip hop can be used as a tool to integrate immigrant youths into the new society they live in and to help them interact with the different ethnicities that surround them.
To date, DJ Project has released three CDs (“Mission Voices,” 2001; “Devolutionary Theory,” 2002; and “Musiqfied,” 2003) and has graduated over 40 students. Feinman’s current goal as director of this extensive project is to set up similar studios in various areas of the city in order to be able to work with more kids.
In San Francisco, one of the most artistically creative cities in the U.S. that also has the good fortune of being near Oakland’s influential hip hop scene, a new generation of musicians is on the rise.