By Gabe Ramirez, CNN
Los Angeles (CNN) - For a few hours a week in a community center in downtown's Rampart area, high school kids are learning to make music without any of the instruments in the typical school orchestra. Instead, they generate beats on computers and tunes they can use live shows at the center, or maybe on an album.
This is Sessions LA, an after-school activity guided by Patrick Huang, a 30-year-old Chinese-American man also known as DJ Phatrick.
He was raised in an upscale Houston suburb with nurturing parents and access to a great education, but when Huang got to the University of California at Berkeley, a career in business or science didn’t appeal to him. He'd always loved music; the most important things in his bedroom at home were his turntables. At Berkeley, he immersed himself in ethnic studies and applied his DJ skills to campus activism and made music as a tool for justice.
“I had learned about hip-hop culture and the power of hip-hop as a cultural art form,” Huang said.
Huang eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he began to volunteer with Sessions LA, which uses hip-hop to draw kids in and keep them from trouble. Huang helped to develop the program's curriculum, and helped it grow. It currently serves about 15 kids, most of them Latino, black and Asian. They're often the children of immigrants, and many have experienced trauma or abuse.
These are the kind of at-risk students, Huang said, who don't usually have much to keep them busy.
“The very worst that they would be doing is nothing,” he said.
Sessions LA staff uses the popularity of hip-hop and DJ culture to lure them in. It doesn't have the money or space to buy classical instruments or teach traditional music, so they focus on digital beatmaking.
“That’s the most accessible and cheapest and most efficient ways to run a program like this right now,” Huang said.
Sessions LA needs about $20,000 a year to keep the doors open, maintain equipment, produce live shows and pay instructor stipends. It is trying to raise $100,000 so organizers can upgrade equipment, hire a part-time grant writer and move into a bigger venue that can serve more students.
But they're also teaching students to work with what they have. It's part of the DNA of hip-hop – in its earliest days, young people, most of them poor with few resources, used whatever was on hand to produce the sound they wanted. Today, technology is the democratizer – anybody with access to a phone or computer can produce music.
“Literally what I tell kids is that if you have a lunch table and some folks ciphering, that’s hip-hop. It might not be music in the eyes of a closed-minded musician but it is energy, it is rhythm and it is community,” Huang said. “All we do is help the youth bring out the creativity that’s already in them.”
And while creative pursuits are important, there’s a bigger goal for the program.
“We really aim to develop the youth into critical thinkers, into, maybe, community leaders, and also, more responsible young folks,” Huang said.
What defines you? Maybe it’s the shade of your skin, the place you grew up, the accent in your words, the make up of your family, the gender you were born with, the intimate relationships you chose to have or your generation? As the American identity changes we will be there to report it. In America is a venue for creative and timely sharing of news that explores who we are. Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.