An after-school program that fuses hip-hop culture with the arts is giving youth the opportunity to discover hidden talents.
The popularity of the program ensured more and more teenagers arrived for ReFreshed sessions on Wednesdays from Nov. 9 to Dec. 14 at Morley's Bearspaw Youth Centre on Stoney Nakoda First Nation.
For about three hours inside the gymnasium, the hip-hop arts program serving youth in Treaty 7 First Nation communities and in Calgary offered teens mentorship, confidence-building activities and the opportunity to learn the ways of urban art, breakdancing, rap, making beats, deejaying and more.
“The underlying purpose for hip-hop is to give a voice to voiceless people,” said Nathan Lenet, ReFreshed executive director.
“The reason why it's hip-hop, for all of us, is it's the art form and culture we've been expressing for a number of years; there is meaning for us.”
ReFreshed was created by The Freed Artist Society and, with a handful of volunteers and paid-contractors known as the ReFreshed Crew, Lenet's goal is to break it down into three stages of sessions: exploration of the arts; building confidence through creativity and creation and then ending with a performance and/or presentation to applaud what the youth have accomplished.
During one of the first-stage sessions in Morley, teenagers sat in a circle, told their names to the group, then picked a colour describing their mood for that day.
Some of the teens called out confidently, while others sat shy and quietly.
At this point, the idea is that the youth are there and something has caught their eye. The very first step for the ReFreshed Crew is keeping youth engaged and wanting to keep returning to the sessions.
“Then you see an actual impact with the repeat visits, that consistency in every after-school program,” said Lenet. “That's our first win, to keep seeing these kids come back.”
Kevin Fox, rocking a backwards Toronto Raptors hat, was a regular at the hip-hop sessions because of its fun premise, he said.
Fox and Dace Hunter, a couple of the older teens from Stoney Nakoda, were receiving some lessons on turntable scratching and beat making from ReFreshed Crew member Gene ‘Gomo' Cabarroguis during one evening.
On any given night during the free six-week program, the crew set up and shot some basketball hoops; learned how to write their names graffiti-style; shown an outline on the basics of rapping; how to scratch and make beats on a turntable, and the proper steps of break dancing. Plus, a complimentary meal is served at each session.
“The bigger message is finding (their) voices, it's one of the key pieces of empowerment and giving people more confidence to express themselves,” Lenet said.
Lenet, who's Jewish Cajun, started rapping/emceeing at 15 years old as an outlet to find his own voice.
“When I was 19, I had an opportunity to work in Nunavut,” he said. “When I was there I made friendships and experienced some of the challenges – suicides, addiction, and so it was the harder side.”
While up north, Lenet invaded the airwaves with a weekly hip-hop radio show and started seeing a common theme.
“I found arts and music helped connect the people,” said the emcee.
The origin of hip-hop began in New York City's south Bronx in impoverished communities. As the culture grew and spread across the country, and then the world, it became a creative outlet and even offered hope for a better life.
In 2009, Lenet started ReFreshed, which is a registered not-for-profit organization, and has brought the leadership programming to communities such as Stoney Nakoda and Tsuu T'ina First Nation for nearly a decade.
Both First Nation communities support ReFreshed with the use of space and/or transportation, among others.
The hip-hop program even came to Canmore in 2015, and staff worked alongside Stoney Nakoda students at Canmore Collegiate High School.
This past November and December, ReFreshed celebrated the launch of dual after-school programs running concurrently in Morley and Tsuu T'ina.
“It had been a goal for a while and we did a little project together,” said Lenet.
The two communities collaborated on The Graffiti Project, in which the teens used their newly learned skills on how to use graffiti to sign their names on a small mural that had Stoney Nakoda, Tsuu T'ina and ReFreshed Crew proudly written on it.
“It really was awesome,” said Lenet. “We've done programs there (in Morley) for five years, so it was really exciting.”
Around the corner in 2018, Lenet and the crew will hit the road in a mobile ReFreshed studio.
“I'm finalizing the construction of a cargo trailer,” he said. “Then we could just roll up into the community and be able to bring in all the equipment we have – turntables, lap tops, paint, speakers, staging lighting – and set up to deliver full works shop and performances … to celebrate what the youth have accomplished.”
However, the man with the plan is still applying for grants to consistently remain in the communities to keep providing stable mentorship to youth through hip-hop.
“Right now, I don't have funding for the new semester, I'm still working on that,” Lenet said. “Some funding we did seek out didn't quite go through for us … we don't want to be in the community for a bit and then have to leave.
“The power of what we're doing is sustainable mentorship with these youth and we don't have these big gaps in between sessions.”
For more information, visit www.refreshedcrew.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Supporters of ReFreshed are Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Canadian Heritage and Calgary Foundation, plus the two nations.
“That's the thing, they're not just giving money,” Lenet said. “They believe in it and they support us.”