Symphony of Words

For many youth in OYA custody, making music is a form of therapy.

By H.P.
Youth at Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility

Music is a voice. Music is a big part of my life. When I’m sad, angry, or happy, music is always my go-to. I write music and poetry, along with many other kids who are incarcerated.

I have heard so many different people making music, and don’t judge any of it. Music is an art, and anybody who makes music loves it because it is special to them. Here is what music means not only to me, but also to a couple other youth here at Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility.

I have had a rough life and I was always silent before I was incarcerated. I would never talk about my pain. I would keep it locked up and never express my emotions, except through anger. I was never able to sit down and talk about things, until now. Music is my way of expressing my emotions and talking about things I have kept hidden within for so long. It keeps me from feeling stressed, depressed, or anxious because it is a way for me to get everything off my chest.

Music and poetry are my coping mechanisms. The genres I like to write are rap and hip hop. Here are some lyrics to one of my most recent songs:

“I need music, it truly sets me free,

It helps me to express the suppressed things that you don’t see, and 

I’ve been beaten, I’ve been broken, I’ve been bruised.

If you listen to my music, it’s like walking in my shoes.”

Youth perform at a winter festival at Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility.

Here at Rogue Valley, until recently, one of our QMHPs (qualified mental health professionals) helped us make and record music, and then posted it on SoundCloud so that our families and friends could listen to our work.  This activity is currently on hiatus because of changes to the recording space and staff interest, but I know that many of us are hoping it comes back soon.

I love making something and telling my mom to go listen to it on SoundCloud, because a lot of it is about my perspective of my childhood. Since I’ve been incarcerated, my mom and I talk about my perspective and hers to better understand each other and be closer. I have made about 20 songs, five of them within the last two months. I play the guitar, bass, and drums, and I recently made my first song with the guitar.

A friend of mine, E.H., is also really into music. He has played many instruments but is committed to the bass. He told me, “Music encompasses the entire spectrum of emotions. It is a way for me to process feelings that I normally wouldn’t be able to. It helps to feel empathy when listening to others’ music because it brings others’ perspectives to mind. Music is a very relatable subject, and when I get out I want to play for a church. Instruments and music are prosocial (activities) and now is the perfect time to hone (these skills).

“Something I talk to my dad about every so often is music,” he continued. “Era, techniques, and things like that. I haven’t been able to show him anything yet, but having a chance to in the future would be something to look forward to.”

E.H. is extremely talented. He started playing instruments when he was 3. It all started with the piano, then the trumpet, then the baritone ukulele, guitar, and finally bass.

“Music taught me how to process emotions,” he said. “It helped me to keep a regular schedule in terms of practicing and it shrinks my world and gives me a place to process things with my music. I can block out everything else and relate to others through my music.”

A room that contains a table with a laptop, speakers, and a small keyboard on it. Murals on the wall depict music and say "Keys Beats Bars."
The music recording studio at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn.

Next, I talked to J.B., a friend of mine who plays the guitar. He said the genres that best describe his style are alt Rock, alt Pop, and R&B. I asked him, what is your go-to when you’re upset? He said, “I sit there for a moment in a quiet space with my guitar, play a few chords, and sing whatever comes to my head.”

J.B. said that looking for a melody distracts him from what he’s feeling until he can deal with it by writing things he could never say to another person.

“Music has helped me to find a passion I can use to cope with my fears and sort my thoughts into something meaningful and healthy,” he said. “It’s a way to heal any pain I have, and (it helps me) understand the wrong I’ve done to others.”

J.B. started writing poetry about four years ago, and then he moved on to writing music about a year and a half ago. He taught himself to play the guitar in 2018, soon after he was incarcerated.

“Unfortunately, people close to me don’t know that I write music because I’ve been too afraid to show anyone,” he said. “I’m so afraid of my loved ones casting judgment on how I express myself with music. I’ve only showed my music to close friends that I’ve made while in corrections. No matter how many people like it or not, it’s meaningful to me. At the end of the day, my fear of being judged outweighs my fear of not being heard at all.”

Then I asked the most important question of them all: What is your favorite song you have written and what does it mean to you? J.B. answered, “One I recently wrote for my sister who tried to kill herself, and it hurts that I can’t show it to her.” Here are some of the lyrics of the song:

“You made it seem like it was the last time,

Why can’t you talk to me when you want to die,

Because you know I would.

Sometimes I think you’re gonna blow,

But you tell me everything’s fine, though, no

You don’t deserve to feel the pain you do,

If only you believed me too.”

“I wrote this because I thought writing a song to show her would let her know she is not alone,” J.B. said. “She has always been there for me, and I want to reciprocate that and be there for her. There are direct things in this song that are a response to a letter she sent after she tried to commit suicide. I saw an opportunity to show her I care, with something that’s specifically for her: the song. We have been slowly drifting apart over time and I need to close the gap.”

Music is our voice, and we have been using it in a positive way. We have posted countless songs on SoundCloud at Rogue Valley Studios and youth here have won five times in the Performance-based Standards Kids Got Talent competition. We have done many things with music, and hope to do even more so that we can express ourselves and let out all we have kept within.

H.P. is a 16-year-old who lives at Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility. He recently graduated high school and is working on an associate degree through Rogue Community College.

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