Bronx Youth Band Looks to Strengthen Borough Pride Through Positive Music
BRONX — While New Yorkers are famous for the pride they have in their city, Bervin Harris, of the Renaissance Youth Center, noticed that children in The Bronx did not seem to share this feeling.
"We were finding that kids were just really unhappy about living in The Bronx," he said. "I think it’s because of what they hear and what they see. Every time you turn the radio on or something, it’s always something negative about your community."
Harris decided to counteract this during a visit to a local middle school by writing a song with the students called, "The Bronx is a Beautiful Place to Be," which emphasized the positive aspects of living in the borough.
The song led to the idea for the Music With A Message band, a group of 25 members aged 6-21 who write songs about social issues such as asthma, homelessness and gun violence. The group, a project of the youth center, is now in its sixth season.
"It echoes sometimes a lot stronger than what you and I could do as adults," Harris said, "so it helps keep them out of trouble."
Capt. Steven Ortiz of the 42nd Precinct, where the youth center is located, agreed that MWAM was an effective way to teach kids about self-respect and respect for others.
"He and his kids provide a positive image for themselves and for the neighborhood as a whole," Ortiz said.
The group plays at local venues, such as the Fordham Road Renaissance Festival, but it also travels to venues outside the state, such as Boston's Berklee College of Music, Hersheypark in Pennsylvania and the Experimental Aircraft Association show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Al-lisha Burns, a 17-year-old vocalist in the band, said that performing at nearby and distant locations were great experiences.
"Being able to step out into our own neighborhood and step out into someone else's neighborhood and just show them everything that we can do is just an amazing thing and an amazing feeling," she said.
Elvis Perez, 21, who plays guitar in the band, described the feeling of seeing their songs uplift the crowd as the best part of being involved with MWAM.
"You actually know that what you're doing, you're not just doing it to kill time," he said. "It’s actually affecting people."
MWAM generally performs between 45 and 60 concerts each summer and about 100 shows throughout the year, which helps the kids get a feel for what it would be like to work in the entertainment industry, a goal that many of them have, according to Harris.
Debbie Velez, who works at the youth center and whose 16-year-old daughter Celece Laracuente is a singer and dancer in MWAM, credited the band for helping Laracuente overcome her shyness.
"She couldn’t even hold a conversation, and now I see her talking to strangers," she said. "It’s normal to her, and that’s the biggest growth I’ve seen in her."
The group gets better and better every year, said Harris, and he hopes to increase their exposure going forward.
"This year, I wasn’t able to give them the visibility they deserve," he said. "These kids should be on 'The Ellen Show.' They should be on Fox 5. They should be on national television performing because they really are just that good."
The band practices every Saturday from 4 to 6:30 p.m., and anyone interested in auditioning for a spot can contact the youth center at 718-450-3466.