Education / News

Young musicians sing their messages

Photo by Joe Hirsch

Music with a Message performing at PS 75.

Performing original R&B tunes like “Pull your Pants up,” and “Asthma can’t win,” a group of young people from a Morrisania non-profit rocked the courtyard of PS 75 on Faile St. on an August afternoon.
Guitarists, drummers, and a half-dozen vocalists in their teens and early 20s put on a show for about 100 summer campers outside the elementary school, getting the kids jumping, clapping and singing along to songs bearing social messages.

The performers hail from an organization based at 163rd St. and Third Ave., called Renaissance Education, Music and Sports, whose aim is to get teens engaged in improving their own neighborhoods through music. They call their traveling revue “Music with a Message.”

More than half the young people who participate in the program are from the Bronx, said the program’s executive director, Bervin Harris, a former musician and music producer.

The young musicians put on shows at high-profile and not-so-glitzy venues and events across town, with the occasional national anthem at Madison Square Garden. But their bread and butter is performing for inner city kids like those at PS 75.

“They’re doing nine performances a week for me. I have to pay them,” said Harris. The group relies on private donations, he said.

“We started with basketball, but music blew it away,” Harris said of the group’s curriculum. Nineteen young people are chosen from nearly 500 applicants to participate in the group every year. They learn to play instruments or sing, often with no prior experience, Harris said, explaining that applicants win a place largely on the civic responsibility they are able to convey in the application essay.

A few of the kids performing with the group this summer have gotten into Boston’s Berklee College of Music, one of the most prestigious music schools in the country, Harris said proudly.

Jose Rodriguez, 20, says he was giving piano lessons when he found out about the organization and applied. The Hunts Point resident is a vocalist with the group, and is working on getting a music degree at Bronx Community College.

“It gets you used to performing so you’re not nervous,” Rodriguez said, a few minutes before taking the microphone and exuberantly helping kick off a medley of pop hits for the crowd of screaming kids.

After the group stirred the youngsters in a rousing rendition of “Pull your Pants Up,” a number that encouraged the children in attendance not to follow the trend of letting their underwear show, Harris gave a brief lesson on racial profiling. Without missing a beat, his charges moved on to the next topic, delivering another upbeat original with a local twist, “Asthma can’t win.”

“The kids get to jump around and have a good time while delivering a positive message,” he said of his high-energy musical messengers.

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