How To Unlock Your Creativity And Hustle Your Way To Success

Youth Radio alumni including HBK Gang’s Iamsu! share the crucial creative lessons they’ve learned from the Bay Area institution.

Illustration Leah Mandel
How To Unlock Your Creativity And Hustle Your Way To Success

In the early ‘90s, the American media’s reporting on young people, especially young people of color, focused on violence and crime. By the decade’s midpoint, the term “super predators” was in heavy circulation, used by politicians to conjure up a false and racist image of a remorseless and impulsively violent youth. But in 1992, journalist Ellin O’Leary saw a different picture. “I was covering more and more stories about youth,” she told me over the phone on an overcast Friday afternoon. “Rather than the stereotype that you see in the paper, I was meeting so many interesting, smart, young people around Oakland and Berkeley.” Spurred by her experiences, O’Leary founded Youth Radio, a radio production and education program for local high-school students in Berkeley. The kids learned about what it takes to make radio shows and be a journalist, while producing and hosting news and culture segments on local stations that showcased youth interests in entertaining and meaningful ways.

Today, over 20 years later, an average afternoon at Youth Radio’s spacious downtown Oakland headquarters is a scene buzzing with activity: students host live radio shows from a street level studio, others report on news stories they’ve pitched, while the rest tinker with beats they’re making. “We’ve stayed almost like a creative studio in a way,” explained O’Leary of the award-winning Bay Area institution she helped build. And thanks to Youth Radio’s media sharing partnerships with national outlets like NPR and the Huffington Post, the creative output of these young journalists and musicians is amplified far beyond their hometowns.

Founded on the premise that young people’s perspectives matter, Youth Radio encourages its students through a hands-on approach. All kids accepted into the program go through an 11-week introductory course on journalism, music, and multimedia production. As well as providing them with crucial insight and experience, Youth Radio teaches kids creative independence — it’s the catalyst that transforms young media consumers into imaginative creators.

“Young folks, they define themselves by their tastes,” Ben Frost, a Youth Radio alumni who heads up the organization’s music program, told me. “[To] be able to create music or create art that they’re actually excited about on those tools at such a young age, it’s a unique thing. Suddenly you can have an identity that isn’t just based on what you’re into and what you know about, but also what you’ve done.”

Here some of Youth Radio's students and alumni — including notable Bay Area artists Iamsu!, 1-OAK, and Rayana Jay — share the lessons they've learned in nurturing their own creativity and taking the first steps toward a fulfilling career.

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Value yourself and your story

Pendarvis Harshaw, journalist and photographer: The best thing that Youth Radio taught me was how to tell my own story and appreciate my story — not just for me but in the scope of other individuals who I represent. I am somewhat of a symbol: a black male in Oakland who’s educated. So now I represent a certain demographic and my story is representative of that demographic. The first piece I ever did was a comparison of my experience in West Africa and my experience in East Oakland. And that broadcast on NPR. I was like, “Dang, 80,000 people heard me. I might be somebody.” At that time, I was what I’d call passively suicidal. I’m smoking, I’m drinking, hanging with my patnas, I’m not going nowhere. I’m an 18-year-old in Oakland, I’m not doing nothing with my life. But seeing that I told my story and people appreciated it, [I thought] well maybe I need to eat healthy and take care of myself and grow up. Maybe I’m important.

Be open to the unfamiliar

1-O-A-K, producer, singer and member of Honor Roll collective: Honor Roll was formed at Youth Radio, most [members] of Honor Roll are from Youth Radio. What I learned in finding people that I connected with that didn’t even come from the same background as me was that art and music can connect people in ways that you could never imagine. We built something that’s been standing for 10 years now, and it’s because Youth Radio made this space where folks from different schools had to come talk to each other, folks from different economic backgrounds or ethnic backgrounds had to be in a group together and I think that was special. That was the spark. So artistically, I’m this gumbo pot of hella different influences because I got to listen and I got to interact with different people. And I made it a point to. It was music and it was the foundation that Youth Radio laid: don’t be afraid to talk to people, don’t be afraid to talk to people from different backgrounds.

Iamsu!, rapper and artist on HBK Gang: I would go there Wednesdays and Fridays and I would be super nervous and I didn’t know nobody really, but over time I came out my shell. One of the people that was super hands on and would grab my fingers and show me what to press to make beats was 1-OAK. He played a huge role in my life overall, helping me become myself and feel comfortable. I look to him as a big brother.

Hustle your way into opportunities

Ayesha Walker, photographer and graphic designer: I was sharing an office with the [Youth Radio] web team, and one day Trackademicks came into the office and said he needed some pictures for a magazine. He was talking to my boss Wilmer, but I begged him and begged Wilmer to let me take those pictures. We walked around downtown Oakland and we took the pictures and they came out dope! That night, I was like, “I can do this seriously,” and I went home and put those pictures on MySpace and from that day forward I called myself a photographer and everybody started identifying me as a photographer. Folks started calling me, people were respecting my work even though I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. People had a lot more faith in me than I did. So then I purchased my first camera and Youth Radio started flying me all over the country to document different instances. Some of the ones that were pivotal to me were like meeting President Obama. There was a day when Jacinda, the Executive Director at the time, came into the office and said, “Guess what I’m about to interview President Obama,” and I said, “Don’t you need a photographer?” And I swear to god I was just joking, I swear I was just playing, but she came back and said, “I got you in.” My mom’s like, “Don’t come back unless you get a picture with him.” I was able to get some really, really cool pictures of that man.

Utilize your network

Pendarvis Harshaw: The summer of 2010, the day Lebron said “I’m going to Miami” and the verdict came down on the Oscar Grant trial, I was in downtown Oakland reporting and a lot of that news got picked up by other outlets. That’s when I realized, I can be impactful because I have reach and I have access to this community that a lot of people don’t have. I saw outsiders from CNN and Fox coming out here and trying to talk to Uncle Bobby, Oscar Grant’s uncle, and I was like, that’s my homie, I’m about to call him up right now. So I did the Grant Station project, an audio project with Young Gully where he rapped and I did journalistic interludes and the interview with Uncle Bobby is in there. Uncle Bobby and I stayed in contact and he even came to [my alma mater] Howard University to speak because of our connection.

Find your own lane

Money Maka, producer and current Peer Teacher at Youth Radio: I listened to how my teacher Galnadgee goes about his beats, and how he plays his keys, and I started thinking, I’ve never heard this before ever. He doesn’t copy other people so why would I feel the need to copy other people when I could make something that’s my own? That’s what I’m going for. The Bay Area definitely has its own style and I think that has something to do with it.

Team up with your peers

Kuya Beats, producer and member of HBK Gang: Youth Radio gave us a lot of project-based work where we had to work with each other which was super important. [Iamsu!] was in the class under me but the fact that me and Su were from the same area doing the same exact thing kinda encouraged us to work together, which is all of our success. The first interactions we had were at Youth Radio and me popping my head in the studio when he was making music. DJ Tap 10 was working there at the time with Trackademicks and they were homies and they showed people that’s how you get stuff done — you work with other people and build something. When people that are super talented can come together and do something awesome, [it] means more than somebody who can just do it independently by themselves. I can just go out and produce music for other people, but I think the strength is that folks that are really talented put their egos aside and work together. It created this community of artists.

Yajj, producer and current Youth Radio intern: I was featured on Youth Radio’s last mixtape and one of my friends sang on one of my instrumentals. I’m really proud of that song, it’s called “Hey Mister” by Anastasia King. The beat itself was one of my beats I made before I got as skilled as I am now. Before she sang on it, I wasn’t very excited about the beat. But I’m happy it came out the way all together and it’s the first beat somebody has sang to and I’ve gotten credit for. So I’m proud of that as a collaboration with her.

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Seek mentorship

Iamsu!: I didn’t have Reason. [Youth Radio] gave me Reason and my mom went to Guitar Center and bought my first keyboard. After that happened, I would do everything I did at Youth Radio at home, except for sampling because I didn’t have keys. Brandon [1-O.A.K.] gave me a whole file of music from ATCQ to Daft Punk, expanding my musical palette. When I was in high school I rebelled from my mom showing me old school music. [After] somebody other than my mom [said] I need to expand myself, it came together and made a lot of sense.

Clay Xavier, music producer, instrumentalist, and current Youth Radio intern: My first mentor was teaching [me] how to solder together audio cables and how to put things together and technical stuff like that, but then [in the] second half of the internship I met Brandon, he taught me Protools, and I would do edits in the big massive studio upstairs. And when I saw this crazy studio, this super expensive vocal booth, I was like, yo, I need to step my game up so I can be in spaces like this all the time. So that was definitely one of the things that got me to quit playing around in high school as much and start to hone in and focus.

Diversify your skill-set

Clay Xavier: I learned how to DJ from DJ Fuze [at Youth Radio]. That’s been cool for me. I’ve learned a lot of different ways to generate income. I’ve learned how to DJ from here. I learned Photoshop from here and from working at AllDayPlay.fm. Now I’m trying to start a little radio show with my friend and I want to make my weekly cover art — I don’t want to have to pay someone for that. People are starting to hit me up for my own custom cover artwork. [My favorite] has got to be the [Youth Radio] mixtape cover. Just because that was a process that I worked on for months and it didn’t just make me get better at Photoshop, but it made me develop a personal style. And that’s the kind of stuff that I’m mostly getting asked to do for people now. Less so than me trying to emulate what I think a cover art should look like, people are personally hitting me up to do facial designs. That was really cool for me to spread out and put my own artistic twist on it.

G Baby, graphic designer and current Youth Radio intern: I learned how to DJ in Bridge [Youth Radio’s intermediate program], with Serrato using turntables. I learned sound design through Ben [Frost from Youth Radio] and also music production in general. All of that and then Photoshop. The experience that I have right now, I’ve already connected with people and made artwork for people that I’ve never met before — because they asked me to.

Practice honesty in your work

Rayana Jay, singer: This wonderful lady, Maeven McGovern [Youth Radio’s Director of Arts Pathway and Integrated Learning] taught me [that] if you’re honest with yourself and you’re honest with your craft, it will be flawless, off the strength of it being something that is really from you. She made us get down to the nitty-gritty part of our creativity, where we weren’t writing stuff to be cool or sound good, but we were writing stuff because that’s what we really needed to do. Coming from that super vulnerable and raw place helped us shape honest art and that’s what I still carry into my music now.

February 16, 2017
How To Unlock Your Creativity And Hustle Your Way To Success