The Power of Music is a project run by 7E Youth Academy in Birmingham. They’re a community organisation working with some of the most at-risk young people in the city.
The young people who join projects at 7E often have very low self-esteem and feel excluded from society, with few educational or employment opportunities. A high number of participants have recently arrived in the UK, and many are living in hostels with little or no adult supervision or guidance.
These challenges in turn leave them more susceptible to peer pressure, and at increased risk of getting involved with gangs, or even being targeted as recruits by extremist groups.
Listen to ‘Motherland’ by Lozells Mandem, a group of young musicians of Somali origin who take part in the project:
Offering an alternative
Keith, director at 7E, explains: “Extremist groups and gangs are attractive to some young people in Birmingham because they use elements of structure, access to resources and so-called mentoring as a ‘carrot’ to mislead vulnerable young people into becoming involved in dangerous and anti-social behaviour.”
7E’s aim is to reach out to the same young people and offer them a meaningful alternative through music-making and other arts activities.
The Power of Music offers young people aged 11-18 the chance to write lyrics and poetry, play instruments and learn to use recording studio equipment. The project also provides weekly mentoring, and supports young people to work towards Arts Award qualifications.
Taking part helps the young people to develop their confidence and creative skills. And the project is also an opportunity to meet other young people they wouldn’t usually mix or collaborate with – especially important in an area of Birmingham that’s seen increasing conflict between groups of young people from different ethnic backgrounds.
7 out of 10 young people that 7E Youth Academy works with have been involved (or at risk of being involved) with anti-social behaviour, gang violence or extremism.
Partnering up to reach young people
Some young people are recruited to the project through 7E’s street-level outreach work in partnership with the local community safety team and other community organisations. This involves the staff heading to areas of the city where they know young people are likely to be on the streets – often at night – and engaging with them directly. “This is proper street level community engagement,” says Keith.
7E has long-standing partnerships with the police, local youth offending teams and local community organisations who share information with 7E staff and often refer young people to the project. This sometimes means that young people come to 7E straight from custody in prison.
“Particularly when young people come out of prison, they’re very vulnerable; they need structured activities, support and positive reinforcement,” says Keith. “We don’t want them to slip back into negative behaviour.”
One of the ways the project staff provide structure is by helping young people to find volunteering and job opportunities – sometimes working at 7E. They’ve also built relationships with schools to help young people who’ve been excluded to get back into education.
Must Be Dizzy
Check out a track from Niyah, a young rapper who made huge progress with her music by taking part in the project.
*Contains language which some people may find offensive.
Music and mentoring
One of the key aspects of 7E’s work is the pastoral support they offer young people alongside creative music-making. At every studio session there’s an engineer, producer and music leader, plus a mentor who the young people can talk with if they want to.
“Depending on the type of young person and the issues they’re facing, we assign them a mentor that’s right for them,”says Keith. “They can say anything to the mentor and we’ll do our best to support them.”
Working in partnership is central to the mentoring scheme too. Keith adds: “If you only see the young person on a Thursday night at a youth centre... it’s disconnected and you only get a piece of what’s going on. So we partner with the parents, the school, the probation service. We let them know what we’re doing and let them know they can support us.”
Many of the mentors are volunteers who’ve come up through the project themselves and are now helping out younger participants. And currently most of the mentors are female, which Keith feels is especially important to help the young female project participants feel more able to open up.
“From our experience young women tend not to get involved in projects when there isn’t a female practitioner present, so we found it was important to make sure we had a balance in the team to support both young males and young females,”says Keith.
1 in 4 young people taking part in The Power of Music are young women.
The young people who join the project often find it difficult to open up about the challenges in their lives, or won’t talk at all, at least to start with. Many of them have had severely traumatic experiences. Some have even seen friends die as a result of gang violence.
Music-making and creative expression can be the key to breaking down communication barriers.
“If you sit down and say ‘tell me what’s happening in your life’, you won’t get anything,” says Keith. “And then you say ‘okay, we’re making some music’, and they’ll start to write about what’s going on as part of that creative process. Just let them write and you’ll see it and hear it in what they write, and you can then discuss it.”
The staff also encourage participants to express themselves in a range of other ways depending on what works for each young person. This could include drawing pictures or mind-mapping exercises.
A young person’s story: ‘A’*
*The young people featured have requested to remain anonymous.
‘A’ joined the Power of Music project after being referred to 7E by his mum in 2015. He’d been in trouble with the police for the previous two years and had been involved with street gangs. His mum was concerned for his personal safety and also feared him receiving a prison sentence. Keith shares A’s story:
“At first A displayed a lack of self confidence and low self-esteem. He didn’t believe that he could have a positive future. He had found schools difficult and had confidence issues with regard to learning.
“First of all our senior mentor did some mind-mapping work with A, looking at what was driving him, his current worldview and where he would like to be. He came to our sessions weekly, attending both the music sessions and the mentoring sessions.
“After the first six months, A developed an increased level of self-confidence. He continued on the programme, becoming more confident, and wrote numerous songs expressing how he felt through his music. He also worked towards a Bronze Arts Award qualification.
“A is a much more positive person after two years on our programme. He is a very good music producer and uses Fruity Loops to create trap and hip-hop beats.
“He gives one day a week to volunteer on our under-11s programme, helping younger children with their English and Maths.
“When we first met A his focus was on negative involvement in the streets: now making music is the most important thing in his life. He’s present in our studios four days a week and we pay him a monthly wage as an engineer.”
A young person’s story: ‘B’*
7E met ‘B’ through their street-level outreach work in the Lozells area of Birmingham, and recruited him and his friends to the Power of Music programme.
B was then sent to prison for violent offences. 7E continued to mentor B while he was in prison and spoke to his probation officer, who then made his participation in the Power of Musicpart of the terms of his probation. Keith tells us more:
“We needed to encourage B to realise that he had talents and skills that could lead to a life outside of violent crime. We encouraged him to use his obvious leadership skills for a positive cause instead of a negative cause. B stayed on our programme for 18 months.
“We had a hard first eight months with B. We had to do intensive mentoring to prevent him from being involved in negative behaviour. We had to be patient with him when he regressed into old behaviours while encouraging new positive behaviour.
“B encouraged other young people in Lozells to get involved in our programme. He began joining us when we did our youth outreach, and we would pay him for his work. We encouraged him to go onto an ‘introduction to youth work’ course with one of our partner organisations which he completed successfully.
“B left the country and is now living in Finland. He’s now a full-time youth worker who we still mentor remotely.”