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Strike a Chord: At a Bronx School, Counseling and Hip-Hop...

Students work on their mixtape in guidance counselor Ian Levy's office recording studio. [Photo: Ian Levy]

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After classes end for the day at New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science II in the Bronx, dozens of students regularly cram themselves into a small, hot basement office. Why?

They are making a mixtape.

These students are participating in a music program run by one of the school’s guidance counselors, Ian Levy. A musician and rapper in his own right, Levy has dubbed his mixtape-making workshop “hip-hop therapy.” It may not be the most orthodox extracurricular, but at New Visions, it is easily one of the most popular.

Anywhere from 15 to 45 students participate in the program at a time, rapping and singing in Levy’s makeshift recording studio. Most of the young rappers are boys between 14 and 17. The students said they use hip-hop to work through the problems that come up in their lives outside school, from street pressures to family conflict. Sophomore Ishmael Prince said it’s an outlet for thoughts and feelings he would not be able to express otherwise.

“There's certain things you can't just say,” the 16-year-old said. “It's like the only way you can say it is in rap. And the thing about rap is, you don't just rap like regular. You find a way to hide it in figurative language—you know, like similes and metaphors.”

Levy, who started the program when he began working at New Visions last year, said that, like Prince, many of the students have grown increasingly comfortable expressing their inner thoughts creatively.

One student’s project stood out in his mind. The boy wrote a song called “History,” in which he analyzed the death of his uncle, a diamond miner in Sierra Leone, and tied in the death with the commercial price of diamonds in the U.S.

“It was just this awesome comparison and analysis of something that is held in high regard here, and then also this look into his past and putting him in the shoes of his uncle,” Levy said. “It was just really powerful. And it allowed him work through some of the emotions he had about the loss of his family member and, simultaneously, issues he had with commercialization.”

Levy said writing these often-complicated songs has the added bonus of helping kids become stronger writers and critical thinkers. And it gives them an extra incentive to show up for classes, he added.

“We've had kids who traditionally don't come to school at all who come to school for the entire day just because they know that after school, they're going to be able to stay for this club,” Levy said.

Fifteen-year-old Elijah Harris can attest to that. He said challenges in his personal life have, in the past, made it hard for him to concentrate on academics.

“There were points in my life where I was just like, ‘Oh I'm tired, I want to leave school’ …And I'm still a freshman,” Harris said.

But he said the hip-hop group played a role in changing that. It became like a family away from home. And having a creative outlet is a gift, he added.

"Music can save lives,” he said.