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Artists share freedom of music with homeless youths

 Street Roots (USA) 01 November 2019

These musicians look ready for any of Portland’s music venues. Torn jeans. Tattoos. Long foppish hair or asymmetrical buzz cuts. Painted fingernails. Dangly jewelry. Baggy faux business attire and skate shoes. But they’re not here to cut an album or polish a performance to get a percentage of some club’s cover fees. Instead, they’re a group of homeless youth. (1756 Words) - By Devan Schwartz

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 The Artist Mentorship Program. Photo: Ken Hawkins

The electrical buzz of amplifiers predominates in the small studio space. A drummer strikes a three-count and starts laying down a beat. The second drummer hesitates only for a moment and joins him, throwing in a little extra high-hat and the deeper sound of the toms. Before long, rhythm and lead guitars have joined the jam, as has a bassist. The musicians communicate with eye contact or Spartan verbal cues when it's an agreeable time for someone to solo or shift the tone to better match the group.

They're jamming for a couple of hours before Portland's shelters open up for the evening. It's just your average night at AMP - the Artist Mentorship Program - if such an average night exists.

Leading the charge is Adam Sherburne, a volunteer mentor who's been with the non-profit organization since it started up five years ago in East Portland, after a migration from San Francisco. He's playing one of the guitars and circulating around on the balls of his feet.  Energetically he hollers at everyone to keep going and stay on the same page, even if the proverbial page is torn, shredded or otherwise ripped to confetti amidst the cacophony of their amorphous project.  Sherburne sees me tapping my foot while I scribble notes.

"Here," he says, passing two rhythm sticks with a Henry Rollins intensity that matches his military haircut. "Why don't you write with these?"

I set down my notebook and try to match the drummers' beat. The youths immediately start to relax and I can see they're accustomed to everyone taking part in the music, rather than simply watching. This isn't a performance in the traditional sense; it's more like an inclusive musical dialogue. Inclusion is a main component of AMP's ethos, and one strongly influenced by Sherburne's own musical experiences.

As a former professional touring musician with the Bay Area-based Consolidated, Sherburne is a tremendous asset to this bare-bones nonprofit. As a musician, he sold thousands of albums and travelled the world. But he brushed up against a music industry that seemed obsessed with the bottom line. Rather than taking interest in his sense of genuine musicianship - one that united people - he saw the industry as bent on separating performers from spectators. Instead, Sherburne sought avenues that worked to emphasize equitable participation and self-expression rather than perpetuating social hierarchies.

Now a social worker with New Avenues for Youth (NAFY), Sherburne helps to recruit participants for the lessons and jam sessions of AMP. During the program hours, he cycles through different instruments in order to demonstrate and facilitate the music. The inherently valuable creation of music is decoupled at AMP from short-term notions of success and the need for 'progress' or deliverable products. As a kind of dual principle, Sherburne explains what AMP offers.

"There are the authorities of these musical traditions that you see from these still extant school music programs," he says. "Which is a banking system of forcing kids full of music knowledge, with lessons and performances, reciting for other people - things like that. Well we've given those lessons. We've offered the band space. But simultaneous and parallel with that, we've produced nothing and moved forward with an anti-pedagogy based on a dual and dialectical meeting of the adults, with their egos and their backgrounds, and the youth with their experiences and their interests.

"We don't demand but we do facilitate basic communication with instruments that will compel people from very different aesthetics."

So who are the 16- to 24-year-old participants showing up weekly to the AMP program's downtown space? Are they rough-around-the-edges musicians looking to become rock stars? Youths just looking for an outlet and a chance for self-expression? Those who play a little music and want something to do before the shelters open up? At the risk of sounding like a standardized test, the answer is all of the above, with between five and 20 youths showing up each night of the program.

Ivan is 19 years old and frequently stays at Outside-In. His interest is marked by the ambition to sing and make music to perform in front of crowds. He says he's been in bands before and heard about the program two years ago through NAFY. In addition to the jam sessions every Monday evening (they also have Thursday sessions), Ivan has been working one-on-one with Sherburne.

"I've been going there kind of to get good at playing guitar and I've picked up drums a little bit," says Ivan. "I started tweaking around and said, hmm, this is kinda fun."

In the course of a single evening, Ivan moves between drums, guitar, and the microphone. And though he strives for his own musical aesthetic-he wants to start a death metal band-he sees the complement of other musicians' talents and styles.

"It's nice because then I can hear different styles of what people play. Because you can get several people that listen to the same song and they'll all play it just a tad bit different…it's kinda cool how that works when you play with different people."

In contrast, there's a youth named Michael, a more clean-cut and mild-mannered participant. He is much newer to AMP as well as new to the acoustic guitar. He says he played a little piano as a kid, but now he's apart from his family and staying at Porchlight Youth Shelter. He's working on learning chords and a few basic songs with Will Kendall, the founder and current program director.

"It's just cool," Michael says of the experience. "I thought it was odd that up here there's music everywhere. It's like this entire floor is just music. It's pretty cool. It's something to do and get good at and learn. They have what you need here to learn an instrument."

Will Kendall is the laidback counterpart to Sherburne's Dionysian energy. By day, Kendall is the enterprise manager for NAFY's youth employment program, Ben and Jerry's Partnershop. At night, he often holds down the fort at AMP in the quieter room. There, youths work on acoustic instruments, design tracks on donated computers or make visual art, much of which adorns the walls.

Kendall mentions the very first fundraising effort in Portland upon transitioning AMP from San Francisco. Of all things, it was a poker party. It netted them $400; a modest sum but, incredibly, that was all it took to launch. That and a firm belief in the organization's mission.

"To really have your self-expression valued - it's such an important part of youth development, such a crucial part of the rehabilitation of a lot of these youths who've seen very traumatic situations," says Kendall, noting that such a musical element was lacking when he first arrived in Multnomah County.

Though they've changed spaces and expanded their offerings, the program director still cites an annual budget of only about eight thousand dollars. Much of this streamlined operating cost can be attributed to an all-volunteer staff, with dedicated mentors whom Kendall says, "have (mostly) been here a minimum of three years."

For Kendall, the mentors provide a tangible model for the youths of how to grow and mature, without compromising important parts of their personalities.

"Youths can engage with professional musicians who are, I think, probably the best versions of mentors you can find," Kendall says. "Because it's a tangible mentorship; we've got ex-punk rockers who still have that punk-rock edge but who are responsible and who are paying their bills and who are drug-free. And it gives the youth a role model per se, to sort of aspire to."

The youths of AMP are often inspiring in their focus and dedication to music, but the underlying strains of adolescence and street life are ubiquitous.  Having gotten too old for youth services, one participant recently undertook an emotional departure to Arizona - an uncertain place offering only an uncertain job prospect. Others talk dejectedly about the competition for Portland's limited shelter beds.

One evening in the quiet room I speak to a youth named Thor, who dons a new mohawk. He started coming to AMP a couple weeks back as a good way to overcome strong feelings of violence and rage.

"I was looking at myself just not as myself," says Thor. He was glad to be able to channel his emotions by playing an instrument. Though he thinks others don't understand that AMP doesn't require prior experience.

"I know a lot of people who are like, 'oh a band's not my thing.' And I'm like, 'you're missing out.' It's their loss."

Another important part of AMP is a mentorship that dissolves traditional notions of the relationships between students and teachers. Theresa, a mentor of three years, works with Thor on some visual art during a break from his music playing.  She notes that "it's all teaching and learning. I never took art in school and so this is my introduction."

As a visitor to AMP, it's interesting also to see the instincts of fundraising and marketability arise. With each musical breakthrough and each jam that sounds like a good track on a record, it's hard to ignore the desire for a polished product that could be delivered to donors, or quantified as a measurable outcome for a grant application. These instincts are both innately limiting in their scope and represent a bottom-line approach that AMP seems happy to avoid.

Whereas the mentors of AMP are well aware that some of their participants might seek tangible musical improvement, or monetary success down the road, this is also a mentality that may work against its own best intentions. The focus is on the relationships forged between the youths, the mentors and the music.

"We're about just being here for them and whatever they create, that's of them. That's really important, really valuable," says Sherburne.

"Whether it's not pretty, or ugly and painful to look at, that's important art," Sherburne says. "And that's an important thing to get in touch with. So you can have a healthy relationship with yourself before you take off and become part of the system that rendered you a homeless youth."

At the end of the night they set down their instruments. The drumsticks go back into the five-gallon orange buckets. The speakers for the guitar and bass are turned off. The microphone starts to cool down. The chill whisper of downtown Portland's night air is a bit of a shock as the youths discuss which shelter they're headed to or whether they'll be coming back in a few days for the next jam.

Originally published by Street Roots, USA. © www.streetnewsservice.org

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