BLACK VOICES, USC’s Only Black Student Publication, December 2005
Church Offers Hip Hop to the Community
By Bonnie Schindler
The sound of hip-hop music flows from a well-lit courtyard onto the streets in the Rampart District of Los Angeles. Inside, young people are break-dancing to sounds being spun on turntables, rhyming in sync with the tunes and finishing graffiti fills created on canvas.
This scene is repeated every Thursday at the Unitarian Church on 8th Street. Four years ago, its founder, Dawn Smith, jump-started J.U.I.C.E., which stands for Justice by Uniting in Creative Energy, as a space to get to the root of juvenile delinquency.
“She wanted to create a program that effectively used the arts for juvenile justice and prevention. She saw hip-hop culture as a way to reach those young people,” said Monica Delgado, current director of the program.
In California, close to 4,000 juveniles are locked up in various facilities across the state; their numbers are on the rise when comparing this year to previous years.
“The mission of J.U.I.C.E. is to address the root causes of juvenile crime and of youths’ need for belonging by providing a safe center operated by young people, for young people,” Delgado said.
“Our vision is to sustain a safe and permanent home for youth where the elements of hip-hop are used as a tool for social change, youth empowerment and art education.”
They do this in four parts: music, words, art and dance of the hip-hop culture. But, the free program is not only open to those classified as juvenile – its doors are open to all ages and races.
“We have open turn tables so if people want to come in and DJ, they can just bring their records, or if they want to learn to DJ, we have DJ facilitators to show the basics,” Delgado said.
Those manning the tables set their equipment up on a stage in a room adjacent to the church. Below them, women and men – known as b-girls and b-boys – decked out in loose-fitting clothes stretch and practice various break dancing moves.
“Then, we have open dance floor, so there’s a big hardwood floor for practice space for dancing; and again, we have b-boy facilitators to break down the moves, show the basics.” Delgado said. “There are a lot of, I don’t want to say armatures, but up-and-coming artists who are trying to learn. And then, there’s really professional people who are also in the same space – so there is a natural mentorship happening.”
One dancer, Marcus Napuri, was late to the game of hip-hop, yet its roots pulled him out of a dark place.
He used to be an “aggressive in-line skater” until he was injured and could no longer skate. He found himself going to raves and doing party drugs to stimulate his life. At 24, he knew it was time to find something positive and he started asking people how to break dance.
“Most b-boys are friendly, and they gave me advice here and there, but the best advice I got was from a DJ,” Napuri said.
“He told me about J.U.I.C.E., and he’s like, there’s this place in Koreatown that you can go and the dance floor is very open and there are people who are willing to help you because they are beginners themselves.”
Delgado said there are many of these types of stories within the program.
“Every young person who has shared their commitment to their craft with us has expressed that their passion, whether in dance, music, word or art, has helped them through the most difficult times in their lives, including a parent’s death, divorce, gang pressure, alcohol and drug addiction, and physical disabilities,” she said.
“By providing youth the opportunity to gain skills in emceeing, D.J’ing, break dancing, mural art, and music recording in a safe and nurturing environment, J.U.I.C.E. can empower youth with leadership, technical, and artistic skills.”
Because of their open door policy, Delgado said they see about 80 to 150 people on any regular Thursday night.
Recently, the night was not so regular, as the group was having a CD release party that the members of J.U.I.C.E., thanks in part to a grant from the University of California Los Angeles, wrote songs for, performed on, did the art work for and are now promoting.
A rapper on the CD, who goes by the name June, has been coming to the project for about three years. The 21 year old has been rhyming for about seven. He enjoys being part of the underground scene. In fact, he feels the current state of hip-hop is too commercial – most rappers now a days are walking billboards.
“You see a guy with diamonds and everyone wants diamonds, everybody wants to get chains, everybody wants to get new Nikes, everybody wants Pumas; they try to advertise and it’s weird how people act about that.” June said.
He also said the messages have lost the social-change punch that they used to pack.
“Instead of saying, go out there and vote, go prevent this, prevent gangs – I haven’t seen a real, serious thing in a long time.”
While issues such as the origins of hip-hop are a large part of the program, some participants just want to be a part of the community.
Mother Narda Ruana brings her two children and husband to the church every Thursday to get some exercise. She used to have a job, but recently lost it – the loss of extra money has restricted their activities.
“Before, we could afford karate, but now that I am not working, I cannot afford it,” Ruana said.
Recently, she picked up a flier for J.U.I.C.E. at her 8-year-old son’s school and noticed that the location was right around the block from her home; she decided to come down and check it out.
For her it is most important that her son George Juan is exercising. Before hip-hop, he would come home from school, plop in front of the television and eat. Now, he is learning break moves from the big kids.
Ruana said, “I sent him to soccer, and he does not like it – here, he likes the music.”