BeatsLyricsLeaders: Beating a new path to success

Oregon music leadership program teaches music and other skills to Native American and Alaskan Native youth.

Story by JANA HANCHETT

Photos by BENJI BAO VƯƠNG

“All my family has passed away because of drugs and alcohol, but with my music I am staying on a positive road,” says Henry Rondeau, a 17-year old member of the Klamath Tribes. “My goal is to use my drum and my voice to bring the tribes together. BeatsLyricsLeaders gives us Native youth the opportunity to get out, to try new things, and to bring these skills back to our community to show everyone else.”

rondeauleadsdrumcircleRondeau is a student in the 16-month music leadership program launched by BeatsLyricsLeaders (BLL) in March 2014. Each year, the Portland-based program presents a series of workshops, conferences, residencies, and projects which teach music and video production, graphic design, music entrepreneurship, lyric writing, and more to Native American and Alaskan Native youth. With a state arts grant in hand, a crowdsourced funding project underway, and even an impending major label record deal, BLL is poised to become a valuable part of Oregon’s arts education community, aiming to change its students’ lives for the better through music.


Henry Rondeau describes what BeatsLyricsLeaders is all about.

The Founders

Only in its second year of existence, BeatsLyricsLeaders is led by dedicated founders J Ross Parrelli, Chaz Mortimer, and Kevin “Yamio263” Winkle. Parrelli, an international hip hop artist from northern California who recently signed a contract with Universal Records, is driven to inspire and educate youth. She plans on taking her sophomore album Protostar on a tour of 50 high schools across the nation. While volunteering for five years with Music Mentor Academy educating young Northwestern Native Americans, she met Mortimer and Yamio.

BLL mentors Yamio263, Tre Hardson, Scott Kalama, Chaz Mortimer.

BLL mentors Yamio263, Tre Hardson, Scott Kalama, Chaz Mortimer.

Mortimer owns record label Ibori Records and is working on a documentary about the Afro-Cuban tradition of batá drumming. He also spent three years running a recording studio at an alternative high school. In 2011 he worked with Yamio and funk musician Tony Ozier to align the audio production portion of high school curricula with state Career Technical Education standards.

Also an audio engineer and music producer, Yamio spent time as an engineer at Crossroads Productions in Vancouver, Washington, was chief engineer at Portland Recording Studio, and now owns Ascended Masters Production Dojo.

Knowing the ins-and-outs of the music industry as they do, the three launched BeatsLyricsLeaders in 2012 to empower Native American/Alaskan Native youth with skills in music production, engineering, and performance that they then bring back to their reservations and communities as cultural leaders.

“Our goal is to foster the youth in maintaining their heritage by giving them the tools they need to reach any goal they may have related to music and working in the arts fields,” says Mortimer. “Worldwide, hip-hop has become the language of the oppressed, a common ground where people can come together to voice their stories and their dreams. Underneath it all is the drum that each culture has used to hold their communities together. I think this is why the youth chose to call their first project Vision of the Drum.”

The organization quickly received crucial support. According to Reuben Tomás Roqueñi, program director of Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, less than 5/100ths of 1 percent of philanthropy and foundation dollars go towards Native American artists. Beating these odds, BeatsLyricsLeaders, in partnership with PDX Pop Now!, was awarded a World of Work Grant from Oregon Arts Commission at the beginning of this year to conduct a sixteen-month music leadership program called Setting the Stage.

This is the first year that OAC has offered the grants designed to support underserved students in long-term mentorship programs in the arts and creative industry. “We couldn’t have asked for a better match for this program than BeatsLyricsLeaders,” says OAC Arts Education Coordinator Deborah Vaughn, “with their robust partnerships with Native service organizations and their focus on sustained skill building opportunities.”

Because BLL is the first of its kind in the nation, Oregon Arts Commission is providing BLL an evaluation team that will gather data throughout the program to assess its effectiveness. Other partners in helping BLL assess its impact on the overall well-being of Native youth include the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board and the Native American Rehabilitation Association.

The Mentors

BeatsLyricsLeaders provides role models who demonstrate the hard work required to become a cultural leader and who help the students focus on the possibilities for their own growth. “BLL’s focus is on reaching out to the students,” Parrelli explains. “Students hit us up every other day, whether through Facebook, email, or texts, to talk about hard life problems like depression, or simply to say ‘my class sucks.’ We mentors just try to be there, to give them hope that life can be better and to provide access to resources that empower them.”

Mentors Tony Ozier, Tyrone Hendricks, Farnell Newton.

Mentors Tony Ozier, Tyrone Hendricks, Farnell Newton.

Parrelli, Mortimer, Yamio, Michael Martinez, Erica Brannon, Rocky Zapata, and Scott Kalama are the lead mentors of BLL students. Kalama, a Hawaiian/Native American whose work involves tobacco prevention in Oregon, met BLL founders at the annual THRIVE Youth Conference at Portland State University; through mentoring BLL students he, too, has ventured into recording his own music. “Music is a form of prevention,” Kalama says. “Hip-hop music is based off sampling our parents music, our grandparents music, and our great-grandparents music. This idea of taking the cultural expressions of those that came before us and putting our own new spin on it allows youth to stay connected to their roots while dealing with contemporary realities. Music keeps the students away from drugs and alcohol and provides a healthy choice for expression.”

Other mentors include guest artists like hip hop musician SlimKid3 (formerly of The Pharcyde), Tyrone Hendricks (drummer for Stevie Wonder and Prince), well-known Portland trumpeter Farnell Newton, who tours with Jill Scott and with the Legendary Rhinestone Rockstar bassist (and former James Brown sideman and Parliament/Funkadelic legend) Bootsy Collins, Tony Ozier of the Doo Doo Funk All-Stars, Solomon Trimble (actor in the Twilight series), Intisar Abioto (writer, dancer, and photographer), hip hop MC Dead Prez, and Mic Crenshaw, co-manager of Portland community radio station KBOO, hip hop artist, and social activist.

“I am of African descent, and I’ve seen first hand the way that oral and rhythmic traditions of indigenous African and indigenous American cultures as well as African American cultural traditions overlap and intersect,” Crenshaw says. “What surprised me [about BLL’s students] was how comfortable and trusting they are with themselves and each other. I hope that the youth incorporate the authenticity of who they are and trust their own voice and experience while crafting songs. Personal and cultural truth expressed through the lens of youth is the backbone of hip-hop’s authenticity.”

As mentors, Parrelli, Mortimer, Yamio, and Kalama conduct home visits throughout the year so as to include the students’ community in recording the students’ projects. “The home visits are designed specifically to reach students right where they are at, and to integrate their involvement with BLL into their daily lives,” explains Yamio. “Part of an artist’s journey and development is to explore who they within their environment. Helping them establish the practices of a successful artist in their home and setting up small music events in their communities pushes the students to find connection with the people living around them. When the community sees professional artists invested in these up-and-comers, they tend to rally behind the students as well. The community’s appreciation for the students’ artistic efforts helps connect the students’ families, too.”

BLL co-founder J Ross Parelli with students.

BLL co-founder J Ross Parrelli with students.

The Program

Over the course of sixteen months, each of the twelve students in this year’s pilot program will choose an individual project to work on, such as producing a music CD or music video. The students will earn five BLL certificates: audio engineering, music production, lyrics and song writing, music business, and music history. While BLL is not a school, the curriculum written by Parrelli, Mortimer, and Yamio follows the state’s Career Technical Education Standards. For example, in the curriculum section Recording the Band, the students learn eight, CTE-standardized skills related to microphone placement and using a digital audio workstation.

“As a musician and educator, the educational value of music production has always been clear to me,” Mortimer says. “However, not everyone gets that, so outlining in detailed form how our projects and work align to state standards has been helpful in communicating the value of this type of programming. There’s math, physics, and language arts all wound up in the story of how a sound wave is transmitted.”

The students are required to attend six conferences throughout the year, including three hosted by BeatsLyricsLeaders and three more national conferences presented in partnership with BLL like the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board’s THRIVE conference and the I Strengthen My Nation conference hosted by the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe in Canyonville.

During the three-day March orientation at The Colony in North Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood, students began dreaming up projects and BLL mentors began providing the steps and structure to accomplish these goals. “We talked about how to budget money and time for music projects,” Rondeau remembers. “It’s cool because the mentors are trying to help us see the long road. They present us with real life situations and ask us how we would solve these problems.”

In addition to their individual projects, the students and mentors are working together to produce an album that will be released next year in conjunction with PDX Pop Now!’s 2015 summer festival. Organizing twelve young artists to produce an album in a year is no small task, but last year BLL whipped out a high-energy album during a four and a half-day retreat. “It seemed almost impossible,” Mortimer recalls. “At the end of the week, although no one got much sleep, we had recorded 30 tracks of music, from hip-hop bangers, to traditional pieces, round dances, poetry, and instrumentals made from sampling sounds on the iPad. The dedication and range of talent coming from the youth is astounding.”

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Achieving Goals

The students credit BLL for turning their dedication into leadership. “Through BLL’s workshops I’ve learned to step out of my comfort zone,” says Ceci Renee-LaPier Fuentes, member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe tribe who’s been a BLL student from the beginning and is known by her peers for her energizing beats and dubsteps. “I feel like now I can reach out and talk to kids when I see them struggling because I have watched the mentors at BeatsLyricsLeaders do the same for me.”

Fuentes is now taking on leadership roles within BLL, including encouraging new students at the BLL orientation to stay away from drugs. “In my lyrics I like to talk about real life, about the things that people experience but are afraid to talk about,” she says Fuentes. “I’ve gone through a lot in life, and so I talk in my lyrics about my experiences with abuse, drug addiction, and treatment.”

Working through the BLL curriculum provides a pathway to explore not only the difficulties of reservation life, but also, as Mortimer describes it, “the wealth of cultural knowledge that is ancient and often hidden from contemporary culture.” Rondeau is a singer and drummer who is reviving the art of round dance. “I want Native people to hear a positive message that strengthens our culture and heritage. Through my music I want to show what Native people have to offer, and I hope non-Natives can be open to learning about us. I speak Klamath from my mom’s side and I’m learning a bit of Crow from my dad’s side so that I can use this in my round dance drumming and singing.”

Food, housing, classes, and materials are all provided through the World of Work Grant and matching funds by Northwest tribes. At the March orientation, as the students began creating budgets for their projects, they realized they needed additional funding and decided to create a fundraiser; in response, BLL mentors provided step-by-step challenges to help them launch an Indiegogo campaign. The funds raised on this site will go directly to the students’ music projects.

But despite all the early support, more is needed. OAC recommended that for BLL’s program to be most effective, the program needs an additional $80,000 of foundational support to adequately pay for student home visits, increased technological access, and more hands-on professional training with skills that translate directly into arts careers.

For the students, though, the professional skills are only part of what makes BLL so valuable.

“BeatsLyricsLeaders pushes us to our dreams,” Rondeau says. “Listening to the mentors’ stories and where they came from is crazy because you can relate to them. They tell us to go for our dreams and goals because we can make it.”

For more information on the students and their projects, check out BLL’s website and visit the students’ Indiegogo campaign site.

Bonus track: hear a story on BLL on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s State of Wonder.

Jana Hanchett is a piano teacher living in Portland.

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2 Responses.

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