At Grove Hall Library, ‘The Breaks’ gives power to the young via hip-hop

Floor Lords Crew dancer Alex Diaz shows students a few moves during “The Breaks” at Grove Hall Library. Jesse Costa/WBUR photo

On the second floor of Grove Hall Library in Dorchester, kids stand in line, eager for a chance to try their hand at a turntable. DJ Armando the Truth watches, guiding them as they learn how to “scratch” and blend records together.

This lesson on DJing is a part of a pilot program called “The Breaks,” which teaches young people of color about the history of hip-hop and how it has shaped and influenced culture. Every day last week, during school vacation, kids between the ages of 9 and 12 were trying out DJing and breakdancing, while learning about hip-hop culture. There were workshops led by local DJs and the Floor Lords Crew, which identifies itself as the oldest break-dancing group in Boston.

“Self-awareness and knowledge of self is key to hip-hop, so let’s start there,” said the program’s founder, Kyara Andrade. “My intention for it as a whole is for it to be a supplement to the information that they’re receiving at school and then also to teach them about hip-hop history.”

Andrade drew upon her experiences growing up as a person of color in Dorchester. As a musically inclined kid, she didn’t have access to programs like the one she created with “The Breaks.” She wasn’t able to truly invest in her love of hip-hop until she took DJing classes in college. “Throughout my time in college, it was on my mind that is was such a long process to get access to DJing classes,” Andrade said. “And the classes aren’t cheap, they cost a lot of money. Access is an issue.”

While in college, Andrade became a peer educator and began to develop what would eventually become the curriculum for “The Breaks,” combining lessons about wellness with the history and tenets of hip-hop. Now an educator and DJ (known as DJ Troy Frost), Andrade hopes to spread awareness about hip-hop, not only as a music genre but also as a way of life.

Education is a core part of the program. As each workshop progresses, key elements of hip-hop are broken down. “The way I’ve been explaining it is that there are five pillars and nine elements total,” Andrade said. “So the way we talked about pillars is that it’s what holds the house together, it keeps it sturdy.”

Some of these pillars extend past music. Aspects like entrepreneurship and self-awareness were heavily emphasized throughout the week as the kids were encouraged to define what these terms mean, in relation to their individual experiences.

“The goal is for the kids to walk away feeling empowered to talk about hip-hop in its entirety,” said co-facilitator Jamila Batts Capitman. She’s a part of Visions Inc., the nonprofit that worked with Andrade to execute “The Breaks.”

Capitman mentored Andrade as a youth and now, the two are working together to pass their skills down to younger generations. “When I was growing up in the ‘80s, hip-hop was taught as a part of black liberation and culture,” explained Capitman. “We’re trying to bring that back.”

As the youth answered and asked questions about hip-hop pioneers like Doug E. Fresh and Biz Markie, it became clear that they were gaining insight into a history they may not normally have access to. For 11-year-old Jerome Wells III, this program is different from others that don’t speak to his cultural history. “My mom signed me up for this because she knows I love hip-hop,” he said. “I rap and she really wanted me to learn about hip-hop’s history.”

Even at the age of 11, Wells shows a determination to become a rapper when he gets older. He’s already writing his own lyrics and “The Breaks” is giving him context when it comes to hip-hop and its progenitors. “I learned about DJ Kool Herc,” Wells pointed out, eager to display some of his new knowledge. “If it wasn’t for DJ Kool Herc, there wouldn’t be switching songs in DJing and using the two turntables.”

While academia is now embracing hip-hop, the genre traditionally has a reputation of being a negative influence, on children in particular. In the decades since its creation, the genre has been criminalized and demonized, becoming closely associated with violence and drug use.

“I think that hip hop is a scapegoat for a lot of people’s frustrations with the world,” Andrade said. “The ills of capitalism and patriarchy and racism, they all get blamed on hip-hop.”

With hip-hop’s growing prominence in American culture, it’s increasingly important that youth are exposed to more than what they see about the genre in the media, says Andrade. For her, hip-hop is a cultural legacy and inheritance.

“In the long term, my hope is that they feel more confident in themselves and in their communities,” she said. “And more invested and that they will be able to tap into that power with respect and love for the people created it and who are maintaining it.”

This segment aired on April 19 on WBUR 90.9FM, Boston’s NPR News Station. The Reporter and WBUR share content and resources through an ongoing partnership.