Hit Me With Music
Kyle Donald ’16 uses rap music to help prevent violence and crime.
By Edward Weinman
Photos by Matt Banderas
In the song “Trenchtown Rock,” the legendary reggae star Bob Marley sings, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
Music major Kyle Donald ’16 armed himself with these words and last summer went to work at juvenile detention centers in Boston to teach troubled kids that music can help them escape a future behind bars.
Interning for the nonprofit Genuine Voices, which councils troubled youth, Donald ran workshops that helped kids write rap songs and record their music as a means to express themselves through art rather than violence.
“One of the first rules was that there was no swearing in the lyrics,” Donald, a music major from Lake Port, Calif., said.
“The goal was to use music as a way to connect with them, help them gain resilience and find positive life skills that could help them with the adversity that they face.”
Because Donald was making music and teaching hip-hop, he became one of the most popular volunteers working for Genuine Voices.
“His ability to connect with youth and his charisma and compassion toward the kids made impacts on the lives of our facilities directors, staff and students,” said Juri Ify Love, the president and founder of Genuine Voices.
The kids with whom Donald worked were traumatized youth who had been through a tremendous amount of adversity. However, making music with Donald enabled these kids to discover that there was another way forward.
“Most didn’t have positive figures in their lives, so the kids bottled up their emotions. Through music, I gave them a way to express their feelings, to get the anger and depression out of them,” Donald said.
“There was a lot of swearing in their lyrics at first, but like I said it was against the rules. Over the two months that I was there, they realized they didn’t need to swear. They became so creative with their lyrics it became poetry. That was really cool.”
Prior to his internship, Donald wasn’t sure which direction he wanted to take his college career. However, after discovering the positive influence music had on the kids in the detention centers, he is leaning towards music as a possible major. This semester, he’s taking three piano classes.
“Music was a hobby, but after working with these kids it has become a big part of my life. It’s a big deal for me right now,” Donald said.
Since he’s been back at Whitman, Donald has started the Cypher Club, which is devoted to freestyle hip-hop. He regularly sets up impromptu rap concerts on the porches of student houses. He says all this started from a philosophy class he took as a first-year student.
“Last year, I took a class on punishment and responsibility. It was so interesting that it sparked me to work with troubled kids. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s what I want to do.’ So I searched for internships, found Genuine Voices and got hired.”
While writing songs and making music with kids sounds like a fun way to spend a summer vacation, it was a difficult job, because Donald was interacting with some rough kids.
“Kyle has served the most difficult gang members in the Boston community. He is a true testament to the description of Whitman College as an intentional community that takes great pride in diversity, character and accomplishments,” Love said.
“The boys he worked with always ask when Kyle is coming back.”
Donald hasn’t decided if he will return to Boston next summer. At the moment, he’s busy with school and the myriad extracurricular activities with which he’s involved, like his hip-hop club. However, the kids he helped this past summer are always on his mind.
“The kids would get so excited when I’d show up at their detention centers. They would wait all week to record their song. Seeing the smiles on their faces was the most memorable part of the internship.”