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Incarcerated teens find escape in music and poems composed with artists

Teens in jail in Virginia collaborate with musicians to compose songs, write poetry and find their voices after run-ins with the law.



In recent months, frightening stories about young people have been in the news, stories about kids getting hurt and causing hurt. At some point, some end up incarcerated. As of 2020, the last solid numbers we have, some 25,000 juveniles were spending time, even growing up, behind bars.

JAYLENE: People just - they just think of us just as delinquents, just as rebellious kids. We make mistakes, but we want to change, you know? The system looks at us as animals. But I appreciate people like them taking their time to come in and work with us because they know we got potential. At the end of the day, we still kids, you know? And a kid is going to be a kid forever, no matter what.

MARTIN: Jaylene is among several teenagers I met recently in Alexandria, Va., at the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center who participated in a three-day workshop with artists from the Sound Impact collective. The artists work with kids of all backgrounds in all kinds of settings, helping them learn to express themselves through the power of music and spoken word. Over the course of three days, they accompanied the teens as they crafted and recited poems and played small instruments. And finally, they performed a piece made up of melodies the kids had written for two violins, a viola, a cello, a flute and a trumpet.


JAYLENE: (Reading) Fruit of my labor, about to go and chase it. In this life there's no escaping. I don't take it slow and patient. There's no need to go and waste it. It's basic. Just face it. There's no escaping the Matrix.

It's just, you know, just because of where I'm at, you know?

MARTIN: Where are you at?

JAYLENE: Been locked up for five months now. I grew up really rough. My father was in my life till I was about 10. But when he was in my life, it was very abusive. He was an alcoholic. He used to hit my mom physically. And, of course, that brought me trauma. Started vaping in eighth grade and tried to fit in. And I moved on to marijuana and Percocets. So I moved on to straight fentanyl. And I overdosed once, and I was in cardiac arrest. I also had drunk, like, alcohol with it, too.

MARTIN: What's it been like in here?

JAYLENE: My father, my uncles were locked up in here, you know? So it's a cycle that I want to break. I'll be leaving in September. I've improved a lot - my demeanor.

MARTIN: Participating in something like this, what does it do for you?

JAYLENE: Time is flying by. You know, I'm turning 16 in here. And, you know, I just want to enjoy being a kid. It's like, yeah, we're locked up. But also, we're building family. We're building strength. And we're building a childhood in here, as well, you know? We just made music, you know, in a matter of two days. All my friends engaged with it. Music is my escape, you know? That's my therapy right there. I love rap. I even make my own, you know? It's the violin. The cello is beautiful.


KEISHA JOHNSTONE: My name is Keisha Johnstone. I'm currently on one of the board of directors for Sound Impact organization. My background is education. I've worked in so many different programs with at-risk youth.

MARTIN: What is it that you think that music specifically does for the kids that helps them to feel the way they do?

JOHNSTONE: That music makes you OK to feel whatever way you're feeling. You know, and we create that safe space in here for them to express themselves. We also, like, you know, work internationally with international communities. You know, so it's a universal language. That's the thing wherever you go. You hear that - the "Billie Jean." I could take it to any country. I could - no words. And they're going to recognize it.

MARTIN: A number of the kids we talked to - they've really been through some things that would be hard for adults to take, let alone kids to take. And I just wonder if you think there's something about this work and this experience that can be healing in that way, as well.

JOHNSTONE: Once they start to see their talents when they wrote that song and our our musicians came, you know, behind them and started playing - and when they started playing that music and they're like, I wrote that, they were like, I can write. I can produce. I'm a poet, you know? So it starts to produce that self-confidence, that self-worth. All you got to do is start planting that seed or laying that little crumb. And it's three days. So imagine if it was longer.


AUNNER: Awake, awake. Cast away the darkness which fills deep within.

Hi. My name is Aunner.

MARTIN: What was your inspiration? Tell me how that came to you.

AUNNER: So it was a very dark time. I lost a lot of hope. I struggled with substance abuse and stuff. So at one time, I really thought I was going to be lost in the streets. You know, I thought I had no future. So it was just - it kind of just resembled to me like, don't be afraid to shine your light. As a young man, you're - you know, society tells you, like, you don't cry and stuff like that. But it's OK to let those emotions go. It's better to let it out than keep it in with you.

MARTIN: How did you pick up the violin?

AUNNER: My grandfather was a fiddler, so I always loved the sound of the violin or the piano.

MARTIN: Do you like any particular kind of music?

AUNNER: I listen to anything as long as it got a good beat, you know, and it got a message. Since I've been here, I've been changing my life around and trying to build that support that I need so that when I get outside, I'm more prepared. I've done a lot of things. I raised - I helped raise money for fentanyl awareness. I'm just trying to spread my word and share my experiences with the kids, especially the youth, because, unfortunately, a lot are heading down that path. And it's very unfortunate. I don't want nobody to go through what I had to go - you know, I've - mother kicked me out, you know, problems with the law. And it's just not worth it.

MARTIN: What was the best part of this project?

AUNNER: The goosebumps and stuff. I love when you hear beautiful music, especially, like, instrumentals. It's very beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.