Unsung Songwriting Competition Amplifies the Voices of Youth Justice

BreakFree Education’s mission is to radically improve education in the juvenile and criminal justice systems by investing in the potential and dignity of all its students. Part of that investment comes in backing various initiatives, including the annual Unsung Songwriting Competition. Through this initiative, students explore policy issues that impact their lives and harness the power of music to create, produce, and share songs that address issues related to juvenile justice reform. The initiative culminates in a national songwriting contest.

BreakFree provides a semi-structured curriculum focused on song preparation and production to help teachers throughout the year. A five-day curriculum of 60-minute lessons is provided with the remainder of time open to creating, revising, and selecting songs for schoolwide contests that lead to selections for the year-end Unsung Competition. Students participating in the competition have access to Soundtrap to support professional-quality music production, as well as tutorials to support effective use. 

We produced a podcast mini-series with five of the students whose songs placed in the top five of the 2020 competition to learn about the inspiration and process that led them to create award-winning music. The songs are personal, with second chances recurring as a common theme. Each of these students understands the power and importance of letting their voices be heard. Listen to the full interviews below or on Soundtrap’s Education Today podcast feed:

Part 1 – Songs: Racial Injustice and Second Chances

Students: Paige and Jordan

Paige and Jordan contributed to two top five songs, and they joined the show from Ventura, California, to share their stories. Their first song, Second Chances, reflects on Prop 57, the criminal justice reform initiative in California that passed in 2016. Paige and Jordan were both tried at 16 years old with long sentences, but through Prop 57, they received a second chance. They were able to serve their sentence in the juvenile system rather than carrying out extended never-ending sentences in the county system. In their song Racial Injustice, they take a hard look at the pain racism still causes today.

Music became their vehicle to express personal stories and make their voice heard. As they explored and freestyled, a new way of expression opened up. They let the pain speak through the lyrics and started to understand their true talent for speaking the truth. They touch on the idea that being silent often serves to suppress, and there’s a certain power in speaking up that has a way of creating positive avenues for change.

Part 2 – Song: Rules to This

Students: Andre and Dicac

Andre and Dicac from Anchorage, Alaska, discuss Rules to This, another top five song from the 2020 competition. “I’m pursuing the rapper side, and Andre is the producer,” says Dicac. They choose to make their music off impulse, finding themes that speak to their lives. In Rules to This, the songwriters begin with Rule #1, “Go get an education.” From there, opportunities have a way of opening up.

Education can come in all forms, from traditional learning to creative pursuits, but in the end, the songwriters recognize it takes a belief in self and hard work. “Music creates an ambition in you and creates a fire,” expresses Andre. It is that fire that can ignite interest in other educational interests.

Part 3 – Song: Decisions

Student: Jamil

Jamil joined us from St. Louis, Missouri, for the final interview in the series. He describes himself as a poet, first and foremost, and the music supports his lyrics. His song, Decisions, contains a message about making the right choices for success. Voting is a decision that Jamil spotlights in the song. Everyone needs to participate. Jamil feels strongly about placing those elected to political office with the expectation that they will continuously help the people. 

Jamil recognizes music’s universal appeal. He realizes that lyrics and messages can get through to many people when music is used as a supportive backdrop. It takes confidence and an intention of expression where truth matters most. If it stands out to the individual songwriter, it will certainly stand out to the listener.

Listen to the full songs in this YouTube playlist.

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