It’s Saturday night, and in an otherwise quiet and sleepy part of Historic Filipinotown, you can hear music bumping from the door propped open at Search to Include Pilipino Americans (SIPA). There’s youth hanging out outside, catching up before the monthly concert commences. This here is not any kind of gathering, it’s Sessions LA—bringing up the next generation of DJs, MCs, and hip hop enthusiasts.
Sessions LA, which began organically out of an desire to introduce turntables to youth at SIPA’s afterschool program, is a DJing, music writing, digital music production and recording program aimed at youth ages 15-20 that live in and around downtown LA. Its core mission is to develop community, foster critical thinking and promote youth development through the process of creating music.
Arts education at the nation’s second largest school district, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), has suffered dramatic cuts in recent years. In 2012, amidst the funding constraints exacerbated by the Great Recession, LAUSD allocated a meager $18.6 million in arts education, a 76 percent drop from a high of $78.6 million in the 2007-2008 school year, some of the most severe cuts students and teachers had experienced. Many of the District’s schools still lack basic arts education programs (in clear violation of state law), especially prevalent in low-income neighborhoods that have historically faced a lack of services and creative outlets for young people.
I had the opportunity to interview Ali Bhai, Director of Sessions LA since 2011, to learn more about why these programs are so essential for youth of color in Los Angeles.
How long has Sessions been in existence?
It was a program started in 2005 by Michael Nailat , then at SIPA, which housed Sessions up until June 2015. Mike started bringing his turntables to SIPA’s afterschool program and would teach students how to use them. There was enough interest from the youth that they put a call out to teachers interested in teaching digital music. The first Sessions project was a mixtape comprised of music created by the students over the course of the school year.
Patrick Huang stepped in around 2009 with two additional staff thanks to a grant. I got involved as a volunteer after hearing about the program through Paul Laughlin, one of the DJ instructors. Sessions eventually became a non-profit in 2011 after a successful Indiegogo campaign to cover operational costs for one year—raising about $17,000. It was entirely funded by the community. That initial seed money was instrumental to getting the organization off the ground. It continues to be fiscally sponsored by the Pasadena Arts Council.
What was the impetus for creating an organization focused on music and youth?
One, it gave the youth a safe space to go to — Sessions is located in a low-income neighborhood with very few safe spaces for youth to be in. Two, music isn’t the end at Sessions, rather, it’s a means for empowering POC youth from the area to speak about their personal experiences by providing them with the resources, technical skills and an outlet. These experiences include, among other things, engaging with police, school, love, drugs, family, relationships, and death. And so we teach them the tools to express themselves, speak their truth, and decolonize their minds. Sessions is a place for students to recognize that their experiences, when shared through the medium of hip hop music, will empower others in the community by identifying with their personal story.
Every year, we put out a mixtape, and an original album based on community-centered theme that is entirely produced and written by the students. Past themes include “The Personal is Political”, “Growing Up in Los Angeles”, and” Trauma and Healing”.
Who is your target population and why?
Youth in and around the Hi-Fi [Historic Filipinotown] neighborhood – Central LA. Most of the schools in the surrounding areas don’t offer comprehensive, digital music programs that at the same time are culturally relevant and take into account the students’ interests. We try to meet our youth where they’re at.
Sessions is based on the Hip Hop ethos of creating something from nothing. Not all youth have the means to pay to learn to play an instrument or learn music theory, nor should they have to. If we give kids a basic understanding of how to make music, they can do it with very little resources. With arts funding being cut, this is done in a way that doesn’t require formal training.
Who are the youth who participate in your programming?
Resilient individuals. In spite of, and because of their experiences, our youth are strong individuals. We also try to get as many young women as we can. Many of the youth are coming from Miguel Contreras [Learning Complex], Roybal, Franklin High School, Inner City Arts. At one point we were doing programming with Middle-School students, some of whom came from neighboring Virgil Middle School.
Why do you see your work as so important today?
There are programs that do music education, but perhaps not with a focus on Hip Hop, though some do. Freestyle Fridays, our monthly concerts are a networking space for emerging artists. We have created a community space for people to be at and perform at, to showcase local thriving artists, and provide a performance outlet for students. (Each concert usually features a student)
We treat each student as an artist, first and foremost, that just need a little bit of guidance and resources in order to create.
Why is Sessions an insurgent space?
It’s an environment in which youth of color learn how to think critically about the systemic inequities that exist in and around Los Angeles. We help students realize that can be agents of change through their art. These are youth challenging dominant culture in and outside their community— addressing issues of race, class, power (power imbalance), and the abuse of authority.
Check out their music at: www.sessionsla.com and in this short documentary.
 Abdollah, Tami. “LAUSD Funding Cut 75% in Five Years.” October 10, 2012. KPCC. http://www.scpr.org/blogs/education/2012/10/10/10421/lausd-arts-funding-cut-76-five-years/