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It Started With the Music


We’ve all been there. It can happen anywhere. Anytime. The lyrics start exploding like fireworks in our brain with each word connecting neuronal get jiggy with it pathways and perhaps we even catch ourselves singing, dancing, or putting our hands over our head wondering why we are singing THAT song! You know the song – that seemingly silly and innocent, but the one with the catchy groove that you can remember more often than where you put your car keys. Yes, that one.

Sometimes we may catch ourselves actually listening to the words instead of unconsciously singing the tune and think to ourselves, “Wow, that’s not very positive or inspiring!” In fact what we may notice is that those catchy songs may have us movin’ in the groove, but they also have the capacity to rob our true groove right out of our heart. Let me explain a bit by way of a personal story.

This is a story I was gifted to hear. But, there’s also a small background story, so sit tight. I serve as a mentor for an amazing youth program in Houston called reVision, an organization that fosters radical relationships for kids on the edge. I’ve had the honor to mentor, Tyron (name has been changed for reasons quite obvious here), a 16-year old youth that’s in prison for aggravated robbery. He was certified as an adult, which means legally instead of serving the first 2 years of his 10 year sentence at a juvenile detention facility where he was held almost a year prior to his sentencing, he’s now at a maximum security prison at the Clemens Unit (one of Texas’s oldest prisons built in the late 1800s on formally owned plantation land).

Fortunately, Tyron’s been blessed to be a part of reVision’s Youth Offender Program (YOP). That’s how we were matched in the first place. As a participant in the YOP, he is currently serving his time with other youth his age until he turns 18 and then he will serve the remainder of his sentence with all age males. As you can imagine, this transition at the age of 18 will be quite the difficult transition as the social and emotional needs and development of youth 18-24 is very different from the social and emotional needs and development of adults age 25 and up. The good news here is that reVision is currently working on an additional YOP for ages 18-24. Let’s all pray and/or send positive thoughts that this program for the additional age group (18-24) will be approved.

Incarcerated youth that participate in the YOP can elect to be assigned to a mentor (like Tyron elected to and was ultimately matched with me) and while at the Clemens Unit the youth are allowed access to participate in First Community Friday, as long as they have good behavior. On First Community Friday’s, youth in the YOP meet with other reVision volunteers to enjoy healthy and spiritually uplifting community that includes food and drink, art, music, and healthy conversation.

reVision has collected copious amounts of data showing that a positive adult figure in the form of a mentor and access to healthy community activities decrease the recidivism rate, or in other words increases the likelihood that young offenders stay out of prison and will take their mistakes as fuel to lead healthy, heart-strong, and positive lives.

Now, back to the music. My mentee, Tyron, has an incredibly important story to share and I committed to him that I would ensure his story would be told. In our many conversations we talked about how he went from a 15 year old enjoying high school and football to a remorseful 16 year old in juvenile detention, and now serving his sentence in a state prison. His story starts at the age of 9.

At the age of 9, Tyron’s mom wasn’t around quite as much as before and his dad wasn’t involved or when he was they would get into fights quite often and he found it hard to live with his dad. He remembers riding bikes for fun, then one day as the family ties tide turned, he and his friends weren’t just riding bikes they were stealing them instead. As he started to lose connection with his family, he started to build a new family – one saturated in what the rapper Ice Cube termed in his song Hood Mentality. As he says in his very explicit rap song, “If you don’t shake the hood mentality, how the f$%^ we suppose to change our reality”. Hood mentality was born from the race wars in our world.

Hood mentality sets up a dichotomy of success and education (i.e., “the system’s path of survival and thriving”) versus survival techniques (“street” family and ways of living) that many people effected by racism feel. There’s a fear and nervousness of the governing system due to the many violent historical acts of racism – some of this fear and nervousness is in our conscious awareness, but because of the long history and embedded racism in our culture, it’s lies deep within our unconscious as well.

My mentee said it all started with rapper Chief Keef, singer of songs such as, “Hate Bein’ Sober” and “I don’t like”. These types of songs and the explicit words saturated in them are born out of the hood mentality from the endemic racism that still trickles and sometimes pours through many of our human families. How do we get from this hood mentality based on fear to a human mentality based on love?

So, is it as easy as changing the tune to change the heart and mind? Not quite, but language is a great start. Consistency in the connection is what will truly build or break the hood mentality. There’s a whole lot of love lacking in that mindset and an overabundance of fear and anxiety. I suppose we would like to think the Civil Rights Act extinguished racism and the treacherous baby it birthed – the hood mentality – for good, but though we have a federal law in place the work on the ground, in our families, is a long slow process and as the divide between social classes is becoming more stark, that mind set in some communities seems more intractable.

However, if it started with the music, it can change with the music. There’s a reason the Sufi poet Hafiz said, “The words we speak become the house you live in.” In translation, our words become our reality. And, as much as words can be destructive, they can be healing too. Neuroscientist Dr. Norman Doidge has documented some great new music therapy work in the field particularly as it relates to autism in his book The Brain’s Way of Healing, but digging into that particular finding and message is a different issue beyond the scope of this piece.

In order to grow from a hood mentality to a human mentality, it does matter what we play on our tunes list and it does matter what we say, especially to our kids. There are catchy and enticing words of love and sometimes deeply enticing and catchy words of fear. We are natural sponges absorbing what we surround ourselves with. Just as much as we can tune the heartstrings, we can snap them. Music has the power to be fun, empowering, and healing. Let’s turn the dial to that channel and keep turning the love tunes on, tuning the heartstrings on repeat.

Om Shanti Om ~ Athea


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