We Rock Helps Foster Kids Keep The Beat

Jun 29, 2018

“Do you want my real name or my studio name?”

Asaun Brown, an aspiring rapper, hasn’t actually spent much time in recording studios, but he’s not fooling around. He’s 20 years old and goes by the name Sonny the Kid – a play on both his given name and his feeling that he’s a kid at heart, and prone to disregard authority figures.

And he wants to be a professional recording artist.

“I have some big goals for music,” he says. “I plan on changing the world with all this stuff.”

Back in February, Sonny showed up for the first time at We Rock, a music workshop for youths in, or aged out of, Allegheny County’s foster-care system. The program helps kids write and record original songs, and then stage a grand-finale CD-release show at Mr. Smalls, a concert hall in Millvale. We Rock, now in its eighth year, was co-founded by Liz Berlin, of platinum-selling Pittsburgh-based rock band Rusted Root, and it’s staffed by mentors who are music professionals, from performers to recording engineers.

This year, We Rock proved a roller-coaster journey for Sonny and the other participants.

We Rock launches each fall with auditions, but these are just to get to know applicants, not to screen anyone out; Berlin says all foster youths ages 16 to 24 are eligible regardless of talent or experience.

Weekly workshops started in January, at Berlin’s North Side recording studio, but the sessions’ progress this year illustrated the challenges of running a program for current or former foster kids: Their lives are complicated, with living situations, school, work and other obligations often no more certain than their transportation options. At one Monday-evening session in February, just a few weeks into the workshop, no students at all showed up, and We Rock had to reboot.

In late February, however, things got rolling. Sonny was one of seven kids who attended one session. While not all the kids were seeking careers in music, We Rock treated them like pros. Berlin, a rock star, businessperson and educator, runs the show. (Rusted Root’s best-known song is the 1992 hit single “Send Me On My Way,” later featured in films including Ice Age and numerous TV commercials.) The vocal coach is local jazz singer Phat Man Dee, with writing and production assistance from folks like Justin Short, a youth counselor who has rapped professionally as Big Jus. And the recordings in the spacious, high-tech facility are made by experienced talents like head engineer Larry Luther.

While the regimen includes vocal warmups (learning to sing with your stomach muscles, not your throat, etc.), most of the four-hour sessions are spent writing and recording. These teenagers and young adults are into hip hop and R&B, and few traditional instruments are played. Rather, the students typically come in with an existing song whose beat they like (whether by Alicia Keys or Biggie Smalls) and the engineers build something similar for the students to rap or sing over.

Sonny keeps notebooks.

“I get a thought in my head and I just write, just run with it,” he said. He came in with “Black America,” a socially conscious rap calling out racism, economic injustice and police brutality, and for unity in the African-American community.

“Our country needs a voice, and I guess that’s why I’m flowin’,” he raps. “We’re swimming in the streets while the government is fishin.'”

Working together in a spacious control room, over banks of monitors and mixing equipment, Sonny, Luther and Short assembled the drums-and-bass beat, and Sonny rapped over it; at one point, Short had him write more lyrics so his three verses would all be the same length.

We Rock songs are collaborative efforts for the students, who might do a rap verse or sing backup vocals on other kids’ tracks. Mentors perform on the recordings, too. “Black America” is no exception: Sonny envisioned his song’s hook with choir-like backing vocals, and so several of the students and a couple mentors ended up contributing, each taking his or her turn in the isolation booth. (The finished product included spoken-word-style intro and outro verses written and performed by Geneva Harvell, a former We Rock student who had returned as a volunteer mentor.)

At its busiest, Mr. Smalls Studio was a hive of activity, with three or four songs being worked on at once, with a single break each evening for a production meeting (at which Berlin updates everyone on each song’s progress) and pizza.

Other songs developed included a plaintive R&B song called “The Ex’s” and the edgy rap number “Amnesia.” Another, "I Love  You," was a love song a teenaged boy wrote for his mother.

As observed in multiple workshop sessions, We Rock students get maximum attention: There were often as many mentors as there were kids, and one-on-one mentoring was common.

“Whenever I was in foster care, in group homes and stuff, this was like my family, this was like my escape, every Monday,” said Keisha Elizabeth Coheb, a 21-year-old former foster kid who had enrolled in We Rock for several seasons, and this year contributed the ballad “A Queen’s Love." “At least I knew I wouldn’t be judged, I could be myself here.”

On any given day, there are about 1,300 youths in the county’s foster-care system. Some are placed with individual families, but many are not. Jacki Hoover, who is assistant deputy director for Allegheny County Children, Youth and Families, said that We Rock tends to attract kids who are either in group homes or who have aged out of foster care, and thus have fewer opportunities for enrichment and other extracurricular activities. (Berlin said the program began eight years ago after a discussion she had with Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Max Baer about the lack of support for former foster kids.)

“We like that it gives then an opportunity to showcase their talents,” said Hoover. “A lot of youth who have unfortunately had to enter out-of-home care don't always participate in school activities or chorus concerts or dance recitals. So this was an opportunity for them to be able to be creative and create an outlet for what they were feeling and, you know, learn something from it. And then a place to showcase their talents so that family, friends, staff people got to see that they weren't just this young person in foster care, that there was something more that they could do more.”

Geneva Harvell, the volunteer mentor, said, “I’m definitely here to give back, especially [with] all my systematic experiences, letting youth know you don’t have to let your current situation limit you from what you want to do in life. Like, ‘Take that, use it as fuel to be great,’” she said.

Many foster kids have faced tough roads. Harvell, 23, is a nursing assistant and aspiring musician whose parents were drug addicts; she said she was raised by her grandmother. Sonny said he was born in the Hill District and was in the foster system from an early age.

“It started like way young, before 5,” he said. “I been all in and out of trouble all my life. I been all over the place, not just foster care.”

“I lived with more than one foster family, but it wasn’t too much consistent,” he said. “It wasn’t like I was just with a foster family for five years.”

Sonny’s tall, with black-rimmed glasses, a mop of short braids and a ready smile. He said he doesn’t trust in other people very much. “I am the kind of person that I will go and find out myself and I will learn the hard way and I will teach myself,” he said. “What I’ve learned is that it’s probably best to teach myself and not listen to people. Because the same way that people claim they’re trying to teach you, they could be trying to lie to you, manipulate you, rather than trying to teach you.”

While he has spent time in placement in other cities, he's been back in Pittsburgh for about four years, and he graduated from Milliones University Prep. These days he is on his own, working temp jobs and doing job-training programs.

But his future, he said, is in music.

“I don’t want to be an overnight success and one-hit wonder. I have some big goals for music. And I plan on using music to be a foundation for other things, and just," he said, "I plan on … with everything I’m trying to do, and as I said with music as the foundation, changing the world with all of this stuff. But there’s levels to it, so it’s not just gonna happen overnight, and it’s not gonna just be simple. I got it all up in my head.”

Sonny acknowledged that he has a lot to learn about making and recording music, and that he sometimes “overthinks” things. In the studio in March, for instance, he had a running discussion with Short over his vocals on the playback of “Black America” sounding “weird.” Short explained that the vocals would sound different once the backing vocals and other tracks and effects were added.

The scene shifted in April, when recording sessions ended and rehearsals for the concert began at the 412 Youth Zone, the county’s drop-in center for youths aging out of foster care. (Some of these youths end up homeless.) Professional dancer, choreographer and educator Gia T. Cacalano was now on hand to help craft a stage show to frame the songs. The concert was set for June 15, leaving about two months left to prepare, mostly in a small, fluorescent-lit room whose corners were stuffed with stacked chairs and used bicycles.

The early rehearsals included teenager Ashanti Scott and her sister (whose name we can’t use because we were unable to secure a release form). The girls enjoyed the warmup exercises led by Cacalano, but not everyone was charmed – particularly Sonny, who insisted he doesn’t dance. “Everything isn’t for everybody,” he noted one day. He also disliked the repetitiveness of rehearsal.

Pressed by Short, Sonny acknowledged that his real concern was that they were spending too much time on “Black America” – his own song – and that people would blame him if the half-dozen numbers turned out under-rehearsed.

“Sonny, one thing you gotta do in relationships with anybody is learn how to trust people,” said Short. “If this was my song, you’d probably have to kick me out of here until we got it right.”

Short also felt the need to emphasize to everyone why rehearsal was important. “If you don’t practice it the way you want to perform it, it’s not gonna come out that way,” he said. “I can almost guarantee you that.”

But as the rehearsals went on, a bigger problem emerged: Except for Sonny, who came to every session, people were no longer showing up regularly. Cohen had her baby. Another student was struggling at school. Other kids, even a few with completed recordings in the can, just ghosted. This bade ill for the final concert: While attendance might be good – the county was including the concert as part of a banquet honoring foster kids who’d graduated college – what once promised to be a performance with at least six or seven kids was now down to half that number.

Sonny remained confident about his own prospects for success in music. As he announced at one practice, “Everybody in this room right now, give me to, until the most, 22. I’ll even say 21, 22, 23. Give me two more years, max.”

But by early May, Sonny was a little down about the prospects for We Rock staging a full-strength concert. “I feel like, you feel me, it’s gonna be big. I feel like I’m gonna do good and everything,” he said. “But it seems like everybody else is losing interest … I hope it still turns out to be how I have it in my mind, but I don’t think other people still have much enthusiasm about it.”

Things looked up with the appearance, in mid-May, of Prince. That’s what everyone calls Matthew Moore, a 23-year-old former foster kid whom vocal coach Phat Man Dee recruited for We Rock after she heard him singing one day in a 412 Youth Zone elevator. Prince is a big kid with a loud laugh and a big personality, and he can sing, dance, rap and beatbox.

But while Prince added energy, it didn’t seem to stop the attrition. At the June 4 rehearsal, just 11 days before the concert, the only students to show were he and Sonny. “It’s always kind of a difficulty with this kind of a program,” said Liz Berlin. “People fall in and out of the process just sort of due to the inherent lives of foster children.”

The concert would go on regardless, but possibly with as few as two performers. That wasn’t a big problem for the sound: All eight new songs would be performed to pre-recorded backing tracks, and vocal parts could be stripped out or added to accommodate the presence (or absence) of live performers. But fuller stages just look better.

“People just bailed on us,” said Sonny on June 4. “We’re the only ones here.”

Prince seemed to mind less, viewing it as an opportunity to showcase his talents. “I will tear that stage up!”

But at the dress rehearsal, three days before the show, things turned around. With some help from Short, Ashanti and her sister returned. And, just in time, so did new mother Keisha Cohen, just seven weeks after the birth of her second child, a girl named Harmony. (Cohen came back after simply running into Sonny and Short, who told her that it wasn’t too late to return to perform.)

The dress rehearsal – held on a low stage in the carpeted basement meeting room of a Downtown county office building – was a bit of a scramble, as dress rehearsals often are. Performers were trying to nail down their choreography and make sure they’d memorized any lyrics they had to sing or rap.

On June 15, an afternoon run-through at Mr. Smalls concert hall preceded the early-evening show. And that seemed to do it. The five students all wore their black 2018 We Rock T-shirts (a custom job featuring a stylized lion’s head, and designed with inputs from the kids). Berlin gathered the kids backstage beforehand, and gave a short speech praising them, and singling out Sonny for his singular dedication.

The folding tables on the Mr. Smalls floor were occupied by a few dozen attentive folks. And with some improvisational dance by Cacalano on a few numbers, it looked and sounded pretty polished for something that so heavily came together at the last minute.

As for Sonny’s “Black America,” Berlin introduced it as this year’s We Rock “theme song.” At least a few audience members sang along to the chorus. Sonny was pleased; he came off the stage saying to himself, “Sonny the Kid, Sonny the Kid.”

“It went great,” he said. “I feel like it went better than I expected, because of how some other things were going, but I feel like it went great … We did good.”

“Every year it kinda blows me away, just like the love that comes out,” said Berlin. “The whole process of recording and rehearsing, it’s fun but it’s work. And they show up and they work and they’re struggling in their day-to-day life, and just dealing with life.

“But when they come here and perform, they just shed all that, and their heart just shines through on everything, and it just kind of elevates the music to this new level.… It’s always hard preparing, but every time, the final show happens, [and] it’s always magic like this.”

The next We Rock session starts in the fall.  Sonny and Prince are among those who said they’ll be back.