A hip-hop community center could bring change to Syracuse youth: it needs the funding first

Community leader Hasan Stephens launches a campaign to build a multi-million dollar hip-hop center for at-risk Syracuse youth.

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Community activist Hasan ‘DJ Maestro’ Stephens wants to continue empowering Syracuse youth by building the Hip-Hop Center for Youth Entrepreneurship, in alignment with the efforts already sustained through the Good Life Youth Foundation

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Founded by Stephens in 2009, GLY Foundation began with creating and implementing a program for youth inside the Hillbrook Detention Facility. Using hip hop music and culture, the program taught life, finance, and entrepreneurial skills. Today, GLY is a recognized 501(c)(3) organization that equips teens and young adults in Syracuse with the same proficiencies, providing opportunities beyond the sometimes bleak streets. In the upstate New York college town, poverty and crime force marginalized youth into unfavorable circumstances.

“We use hip hop as a vehicle for understanding to shift many of the social outcomes like youth incarceration, recidivism, poverty, and violence. Ultimately, we’re trying to steer people towards entrepreneurship, to be self-sustainable, and to be able to alleviate the issues that are causing many of their behavioral problems in the first place,” Stephens tells theGrio.

According to data provided by the foundation, in 2017, despite being the home of a prestigious university, over 30% of Syracuse residents live below the poverty level. According to data, Black and Latinx residents face the highest level of concentrated poverty in the country.

The proposed home of the Hip Hop Center for Youth Entrepreneurship

“We have kids who we walk up to their homes and you would think that their homes are abandoned, but people are living there. Their family is living there. The front door [has] the glass missing and snow is blowing inside the home,” Stephens tells theGrio.

“A lot of kids are stealing out of cars because they’re looking for resources, they’re looking for food, they’re looking for money. They’re trying to get it by any means necessary. That’s what we’re seeing when it comes to poverty. Parents who are addicted to drugs and the kids at age 13-14 are the breadwinners in the family. If they’re not bringing that money home, they’re not eating and surviving. That’s what we see on a daily basis.”

Syracuse ranks number 11 of 15 on the 2020 Worst Cities for Black Americans list published by 247 Wall St. Research data says on average 37% of Black residents live in poverty, drastically higher than the 11.9% white poverty rate. The COVID-19 pandemic only made a bad situation worse. According to Syracuse.com, in Onondaga County, Black residents caught the coronavirus at three times the rate of whites on a per capita basis and have a 50% higher death rate.

Stephens, a Bronx, New York, native is not too far separated from these conditions. His upbringing in the projects, stricken with drugs and violence, inspired his current philanthropic efforts. Using education as his way out, he was able to experience a taste of what could be through his private school education.

“I’m from Edenwald projects and I grew up in poverty. The difference between the poverty that I grew up in, and what we see when we see concentrated poverty in Syracuse, is I was able to hop on a train and go to Manhattan and see visual examples of prosperity. In Syracuse, that exposure does not exist. You have kids that literally cannot move from block to block. They are in a two-block radius, because of the territorial violence that happens.”

Stephens tells theGrio the reason hip hop is the focus is to forge identity among the youth and to create a different identity that they can aspire to, saying “the biggest thing is these kids don’t know who they are.” Through music, fashion, and other aspects of the culture, mentors can connect with youth in need, provide examples of entrepreneurship, and help encourage sustainable lifestyles. 

Drawing inspiration from artists like Meek Mill, Jay Z, and Nipsey Hussle helps program participants recognize that you can become prosperous without denying your background. With the coaching and resources provided by GLY, the at-risk teens and young adults, aged 13-24, are able to redesign their outlook on life.

“It’s their space. It’s their building. It speaks to them. The building is not just a community center, it’s not just a gathering place for kids. The building is identity. The building is a culture. It’s a cultural hub for kids to come into,” the website states about the proposed center. 

Stephens’ campaign has raised $1,500,315 so far out of the $9M proposed budget for the 37,000-square-foot building.

The center was designed by Sekou Cooke, a Syracuse University professor and leader in hip hop architecture. Plans include a café to provide food and support culinary interests, a gallery to display and sell original artwork, and a music studio where teens can explore both the craft and business of the industry, among other amenities.

Stephens tells theGrio that for some participants, success is as simple as going to school every day and not returning to previous behavior. The rate of youth recidivism, or the tendency for released offenders to return to crime, was as high as 86% in 2013.

By 2019, the rate had dropped by around 30% with an equally significant reduction in African American and Latino offenders, and “the county directly attributes the drop in incarceration and recidivism to the collaborative work we’re doing,” reports the Good Life Foundation.

“Our goal is for this building to be a one-stop-shop. Kids walking in experiencing hip hop. You’re hearing Biggie playing over the sound system, you’re hearing new artists playing over the sound system, (clean edits, of course), you’re seeing visuals of graffiti, you’re seeing framed posters of hip hop icons and business people like Jay Z, Diddy and Nipsey,” Stephens says.

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“They can get mentoring, they can get mental health services, they can get academic support, they can get all different, things that they need to be successful, and learn the skills that they need to be sustainable. We want to create something where kids get that holistic support that they need to undo the effects of systemic racism.”

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