LifestyleMusic therapy helps D.C. youth express themselves positively

Music therapy helps D.C. youth express themselves positively

Excited voices accompanied by music with a pounding bass track filled the air at the DC Dream Center. Dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of mental health, on World Mental Health Day (Oct. 10), in the music production classroom on the lower level of the center, 10 children animatedly began creating raps about experiences that formed their self-identity.

Lyricist Charles “Eclipse” Barnes Jr. creates an environment where open self-expression is celebrated. (LaTonia Sanders Photography)
At the helm of the RAP (Rhythm and Poetry) program, Music Arts Therapist Charles “Eclipse” Barnes, Jr., 44, instructed the group in composing a rap that expresses their view of themselves internally and externally. 

Creator of an innovative music arts therapy program, Barnes was keenly aware of the importance of the youth gathered in his program on Oct. 10, and the need for early mental health intervention.

“Mental health has played an extreme role in my life for good and bad reasons. Growing up, my father struggled with substance abuse. He was physically present in our home but absent in actually being a father to me,” said Barnes, a master lyricist and oral storyteller. “As a young boy, in many ways, it forced me to become the man of the house and take over the role that my father was not fulfilling. I had to rapidly adapt to adult thinking and planning while getting hit with life circumstances that I wasn’t equipped to deal with.”

Serving children much like Barnes, DC Dream Center Program Director Christina Henderson, 79, added, “Mental health is very important to children because they experience so much but often have no positive opportunity to tell their story and freely express themselves.”

“ManMan” (in red), 11, takes lead vocals on a class song about self-identity. (LaTonia Sanders Photography)
Studies from The American Psychiatric Association have shown that music therapy is an evidence-based therapeutic intervention that provides a safe and supportive environment for healing trauma while decreasing anxiety levels and improving the functioning of depressed individuals.

As a lyricist and oral storyteller, creating a music therapeutic outlet was important to Barnes.  

“I am very aware of the need for a person like me to come in and fill these needs and gaps.  My uncle, who stepped in as a surrogate father, was brutally murdered when I was 12 years old.  It changed my life forever.  Because I felt that there was nowhere safe to turn, I became a violently angry child, who had completely given up on life all before turning 13.”

Dr. Judy Walton, 77, Board of Director for the DC Dream Center, stressed the importance of raising mental awareness for people of all ages.  

“How you communicate shows your mental state and how you feel about the world. Expressive arts programs like RAP teach us to relate to each other,” said Walton. “Taking care of our mental health is just as important as taking care of our physical health.”

The Dream Team (from left): Charles “Eclipse” Barnes Jr., Donta Cunningham and Ernest Clover (LaTonia Sanders Photography)
Director Ernest Clover, 39, emphasized that the focus on mental health awareness during the month of October specifically aligns with the mission of the DC Dream Center.  

“If you can’t dream, if you can’t think, if you are unable to be present with self, confident in your skills and ability, it will be extremely difficult to reach your God-given potential,” the DC Dream Center director said.  “Our success moves at the speed of relationships.”

He also praised the success of the RAP program. 

“The RAP program has allowed children to find their voices and articulate emotions like grief and sadness in a positive way,” Clover said. “I have watched Mr. Barnes use words and beats to speak life into kids forming trust that has blossomed into amazing relationships.”

Clover’s vision is for RAP to become one of the premier programs in the Washington D.C. region in which to learn rhythm and poetry.

The center houses a music recording studio, which prior to the RAP program, was not being utilized.  Under the tutelage of Barnes and the skills of engineer Donta Cunningham, 22, youth are able to have their music professionally recorded, mixed, and mastered during program sessions.  

As a mother and a grandmother, Outreach Coordinator, Mable Carter, 80, said, “I want these young people to be able to communicate. Their ability to express themselves positively is a lifeline out of poverty, and in many cases out of potentially dangerous situations.”

Youth rapper Jayden “ManMan” Young, 11, added, “RAP is important to kids because it can make them a better person and get them out of the streets.”

The Inspiration Behind RAP and Barnes’ Music

Barnes explained that his biggest method of coping with trauma came through his father.  

“The one thing that my father and I shared and bonded over was music.  A drummer in a band, my father, practically from birth, carried me to all his shows, from clubs to concert venues.  Understanding musical arrangement, writing songs, rapping, and commanding a stage, these things came naturally to me.  While he failed to provide the lessons sons critically need to learn from a father, my musical talents are a direct credit to him.  As an adult, I love him dearly for struggling to connect with me in the only way he knew how.”

It is important to Barnes that his music, distributed under his own label  Dark Squad Entertainment, holds transparency about mental health.  

“I want people to know that it’s OK just to be human.  As a man, It’s OK to cry, to talk about your sadness and to express it.  In most music we talk about how great we are, we big ourselves up.  And that’s OK.  But it doesn’t make you any less of a man to be real and share loss, pain and grief,” Barnes explained.

Barnes, who recently released his second EP, Code, said, “What I would most like people to take away from my music is authenticity.  When I speak about my pain, anger, fear, joy and sadness, know that I speak from a real place. The Bible says, ‘From the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.’ And that’s what my music is, my heart speaking.   I also want people to know that I understand.  From human being to human being, I understand.  I am telling the story of my life but in many ways, I am telling a story that belongs to all of us.”

October’s focus on mental health is deeply personal to Barnes. 

 “I have seen many people fold and crack under the pressure of mental trauma.  Starting at 12 years old and continuing, I’ve lost dozens of close friends and family to suicide and murder.  On many occasions growing up, I have nearly fallen victim to the same fate. ”

Barnes’ innate understanding of District youth has led to the RAP program quickly becoming popular amongst D.C. parents and children.  Through his program, he hopes that youth build confidence and belief in themselves.  

“Know and understand that whatever you may go through in life, there are other options that you can find that will keep you out of trouble,” Barnes said. “Every action does not deserve a reaction.”

Support the RAP program at The DC Dream Center.

Source: Washington Informer

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