California National Guard Public Affairs
Oct. 24, 2022LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. – Abigail Ramirez had a nervous grin as she slipped on some headphones and stepped to the microphone as a beat started to play.
For next three minutes, the teen spit rhymes with positive messages and shout outs to her Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy Class 30 peers as professional musician Jamie Ross, better known as J. Ross, recorded what the youth had to say.
The musical mentoring session was one of several taking place in classrooms and workspaces across the Sunburst campus on Joint Forces Training Base, Los Alamitos, Oct. 17-21, as Beats Lyrics Leadersimmersed cadets, cadre and staff in hip-hop and arts education as a way to channel emotions and find natural highs.
As the beat faded out, Ramirez smiled broadly, high-fived Ross and confessed she’d never rapped before.
“That was my first time I ever rapped,” Ramirez said. “It feels exciting and it makes me want to try this out more.”
Unsure how else to articulate the new-found confidence she was feeling while also adhering to the academy’s language standards, customs and courtesies, Ramirez paused, apologized for her language in advance, lowered her voice and whispered, “I felt really bad-ass.”
Ramirez and the rest of Panthers platoon met the Beats Lyrics Leaders team Wednesday and spent a day learning about visual art, beat production, lyric writing, dancing and knowledge of self. By day’s end, interested students were afforded an opportunity to choose one area for further coaching and exploration to prepare for an academy-wide showcase two days later.
With 48 hours to write her first rap, Ramirez put pencil to paper, channeled her inner Kendrick Lamar, and styled a positive message about the academy, her classmates, cadre and teachers.
“My girl here, she’s a bonafide rapper,” Ross said after Ramirez finished rhyming on the mic.
Ross and fellow musician Tony Ozier, known by his stage name Dookie, started Beats Lyrics Leaders about 10 years ago as a way to provide students with arts education and at a time when school arts budgets were getting cut.
They began at schools on reservations in the Portland area and have expanded the program’s offerings and its geographic range ever since.
“We started seeing the impact of people coming into the reservation and being like, ‘hey, this is music. You can use this to cope,’” she said.
Ross later reconnected with friend and Sunburst principal Dinah Ismail, who invited the Beats team to the academy. Ismail had one caveat: the team would work with every cadet.
“Usually we work with the kids that want it, who want to do music,” Ross said, “but she was like, ‘you’re going to talk to every single one of my kids and we’re going to find something they’re interested in.’"
Ross and her team adapted their normal program to fit Sunburst.
“That’s why we took art, visual art, music, beat making, dancing, etc., so there’s something for everybody,” Ross said.
Students who exhibited a genuine passion for the program’s offerings then moved on to showcase preparation and mentoring from the music and dance coaches.
For students with an interest in music as a profession, the Beats team also shared forthright stories about the industry and what it takes to succeed.
Music is for everyone to enjoy, Ross said, regardless of whether or not it becomes a career.
“Most of these students have never rapped, nor have they ever thought about it,” Ross said. “Our goal is not to turn them into rappers. Our goal is to give you coping mechanisms, find your passion, how you use music in everyday life.”
It’s creative exploration and therapy, she said.
“You can make beats to get yourself out of whatever funk you’re in,” she said, “so the ultimate goal is to just pass some knowledge and give these kids just a little upper ounce of belief in themselves.”
Two hours before the academy’s showcase, Ozier said the program is about learning to take healthy risks. As students made final preparations to perform freshly-penned works in front of their peers, Ozier said the excitement of program’s culminating event is what he looks forward to the most.
“That’s my favorite part,” Ozier said. “There’s nothing that can get bruised out of this except for your ego, and you need to put that to the side anyway. No broken bones. You’re not going to hurt yourself. You’re going to try something.”
Sunburst’s Class 30 is more than halfway through its residential phase and is scheduled to graduate in December.
The academy, which is nearing its 15th anniversary, is a voluntary and free high school credit recovery program for California teens, ages 15.5 - 18, and offers an accelerated path in which students complete a year’s worth of high school credits in half the time while also learning discipline, structure, physical fitness, goal setting, and other foundational skills for positive lifestyles.
Class 31 begins in January and recruiting is underway. Interested teens or parents can learn more at theburst.org.