Several months ago, talk of the economy would have barely registered with 13-year-old QocTavia Shabazz of St. Paul. She would have thought, as she says: "that's not my problem why do I have to deal with it?"
Now she thinks differently. "It is my problem," she says. Her perspective has changed after working with local artists Sandy Agustin, Desdamona and Patrick Pegg. For the past several months these artists have helped QocTavia, her sister Aunrika, Jalil Shabazz (no relation) and Tony Gonzalez to produce music that expresses the challenges they've faced during this recession.
Each of the four teens is facing economic hardship. Last year, Tony Gonzalez and his family moved to Bloomington after their home in St. Paul was foreclosed on, and they're preparing to move again. He doesn't know where he'll be going to school next year. He says, "I'm young but at the same time I feel so old because I've been through a lot. I've witnessed a lot."
Jalil Shabazz's mother lost her job, and their family receives welfare checks, all of which he says they need to pay the bills. "It went from $100 being left over to nothing being left over. If I want something I have to work for it, regardless of what it is."
Qoctavia and her sister Aunrika moved from St. Paul to Eagan with their parents and three other siblings. Their parents are both finishing their college degrees on top of working, so time and resources are scarce. It's become increasingly difficult for their family to find the gas money and time to get the girls to the activities that are important to them.
Neighborhood House Artistic Director Sandy Agustin saw the project as a way to get the kids to make some sense of their experience.
Even though the teens are dealing with the realities of the recession every day, they are reluctant to dwell on their situations. Agustin says, "They're living it everyday and they're aspiring to live something different in the future."
To that end, the kids eagerly offer up their dreams for the future. Aunrika wants to go to college and major in whatever she finds most difficult (she likes a challenge). Qoctavia wants to be a lawyer. Tony's working on starting a record label. And Jalil wants to be a rapper, or a football player. Or a psychologist. Or an inventor.
But it's trickier to get them to talk about what they're dealing with right now. This is where the arts come in. "They had a way to write about it, a way to sing about it...It's sort of like a third person when it's a vehicle of artistic expression," says Agustin.
The kids also conducted interviews with their peers at school and at the Neighborhood House to see how the current economy is affecting them. These interviews provided more fodder and inspiration for their works.
With their song, Aunrika and Qoctavia want to spread a positive message. Aunrika says, "Everyone's focused on themselves because they're in it for survival...It's human instinct. If something goes wrong make sure yourself is ok. After you've checked yourself out, make it a priority to go help someone else."
Jalil and Tony deal more directly with their own challenges in their song. They feel that not only does this help their community by getting the conversation started, but it also helps them personally. Tony says, "Rapping is a good way to let my emotions out, the good and the bad. It helps me maintain the mindframe I need to survive."
Helping the kids tell their stories through spoken word and hip hop has shaped the work of artists Patrick Pegg and Desdamona. "My material has gotten a lot more positive since I've started working with the kids," Pegg says. "Seeing how they can take positive things out of their situations has been reflected in the lyrics I've been writing recently." Desdamona was inspired by watching the kids make connections and allowing themselves to ask questions.
Aunrika, QocTavia, Jalil and Tony have high hopes for they work they produced and the impact it can have. Jalil says, "We're going to reach that one person, all it takes is that one person...What we're looking for is change." Tony adds, "Not the change you get from banks, but the change you get from other people."