Eighteen-year-old Argento Zavala (not his real name) became homeless this summer. After an argument with his mother, he got kicked out of the house. He'd been exposed to drugs since he was in 8th grade, but he began a new daily routine: do meth to stay awake, wander the city during the night, pay a dollar to shower at a hotel, go to school, and make music at a twice-weekly program called Sessions LA.
"He's one of the smartest kids we have, and through that whole thing, Sessions was a way for him to escape the drama. We knew he felt safe here, and it was a way for him to relieve a lot of stuff he was going through by writing and recording his music," says 29-year-old Patrick Huang, aka DJ Phatrick of Native Guns). He's one of the instructors at the helm of Sessions LA, a music writing and recording program for youth in the Rampart District of Los Angeles.
But as of October 1st, that refuge has been threatened. Due to a budget cut, Sessions LA no longer has the financial means to continue its programming. They decided to raise money on their own through an IndieGoGo campaign, setting a goal of $15,000 by December 9th. So far, they've received only about half of that.
Sessions LA was started at SIPA (Search to Involve Pilipino Americans) in 2005 by a DJ named Michael Nailat. A youth worker at SIPA, he brought his turntables into the office to practice, and ended up attracting high school students.
Huang, who grew up in Texas and graduated from UC Berkeley, moved to L.A. in 2007. He had co-founded a youth music project in the Bay, and was looking for something similar in Los Angeles. He discovered Sessions LA.
"I came in and basically three kids were there," he says. They started recruiting in downtown high schools, bringing a portable studio in during lunchtime and making songs. "We'd tell them to come by after school if they were interested in making music."
He also brought in other MCs and DJs, like Bambu, his former crewmate in Native Guns, and Trackstar the DJ, who currently DJs for Killer Mike and who began a youth music education program in St. Louis called The Center for Recording Arts.
Three years later, Sessions has grown to a core group of 15 to 20 youth per week. Each month, they throw a free, all-ages concert and open mic, featuring local rappers like Thurz and drawing 50 to 100 kids. This past year, Huang says, they've had their strongest dedicated group. In fact, youth who came in with no formal music training wrote, recorded, and engineered their own album, Bad Man's World, this summer.
Sessions LA meets twice a week, from 5 to 8 p.m. On Mondays, they discuss what's happening in their communities. "Poverty, police oppression, why there's no money for schools. On Wednesday, we talk about how to make their music better. Sampling. How the quality of the music helps tell your story. If your art's not good, it's not going to be an effective message," says Huang.
José, who soon will graduate the program, used to walk to Sessions from near USC -- which took him two hours. "José's one of those kids who fucked up in high school and dropped out, but found out about the program through some homies. He's a kid who always has music in his head, but didn't have a way to express that in language or know the technical aspects of making music."
Instructors at Sessions LA have agreed to volunteer their services for the rest of the year. But if the program doesn't reach its $15,000 goal, it will be suspended indefinitely.
"A big part of what we do is not just music education - we reel them in with 'free studio time,' but through the process of making music, we want to teach them to think for themselves, and to think critically about the world," Huang says.
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But the most important aspect is the simplest.
Huang, who has his hands full helping with three other music education programs across the city and substitute teaching in Watts, says many of the youth who come to the program are products of unstable lifestyles, tainted by drugs and homelessness.
"This is very reflective of kids all over the city. And they all say one thing -- Sessions is family."