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    Monday, July 22, 2024

    Hip hop, hope and healing

    From left, Brian Johnson, Frank Colmenares and Jontay Lapoint-General of the “Hip Hop Healing” program. (Peter Huoppi/The Day) To see a video on the “Hop Hop Healing” program, go to theday.com.
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    Jontay Lapoint-General (Peter Huoppi/The Day)
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    Jontay Lapoint-General,18, is typical of many aspiring songwriters in his age group. The lyrical focus is often about young relationships — falling in and out of love — good times with friends, and familiar tropes that fit with whatever topical or video trends are currently topping the sales charts.

    A recent graduate of New London High School, Lapoint-General envisions a career in rap. In addition, Lapoint-General is an accomplished drummer whose video percussion clips have earned him a social media following of over 136,000 people. He’s excited about the future, and beyond rap those possibilities range from forming a band to pursuing songwriting to attending college.

    At the same time. Lapoint-General has had experiences that are difficult to speak about, and which are worthy of therapeutic discussion.

    “When I was 11, I actually lost my dad. He died on Blackhall Street in New London,” Lapoint-General said in recent interviews. His father, Raheeim General, was stabbed to death by a homeless man who was subsequently convicted of murder. “It took me five years to build myself back up. I didn’t know how to cope with it and the majority of the time, I was dealing with it by myself. I had some help, but mostly it was me. I finally tried to deal with it positively. One thing my dad really liked was watching me play drums, and that gives me the motivation to be great. But it’s hard.”

    A resonant concept

    That situation resonates in a big way with 33-year-old New London rapper/activist Frank Colmenares. Last summer, Colmenares explored hip hop as an exercise in self-therapy. He conceptualized a stage presentation that not only featured performances of the six emotionally revealing songs from his “Beautiful Trauma” album — directly addressing difficult issues Black men have traditionally regarded as socially taboo — but also included onstage and audience-participation conversations with licensed mental health clinician Jewell Jones.

    The production, also called “Beautiful Trauma,” was sponsored by the Black Health Collective and staged at the Garde Arts Center, and over the past year Colmenares was inspired to take the concept in a new direction.

    In partnership with the Garde and old friend/engineer Brian Johnson, Colmenares created “Hip Hop Healing,” a program encouraging young Black men at New London High School to use rap as a healing and learning mechanism in dealing with complex emotions and real-life experiences.

    “‘Beautiful Trauma’ was great, but I thought, ‘Hold on, we could definitely do more,’” Colmenares said by phone earlier this week. “To lessen the stigma of seeking help is definitely a good thing, and for me to go through therapy in front of a packed room at the Garde was cool – but it’s possible we were also playing to people who were maybe already to go to therapy.

    “But what about kids who haven’t been exposed to or who maybe don’t even know there are outlets to help? So we reached out to students interested in hip hop — because once you put kids in a nurturing environment doing something they love, mentorship and group therapy could happen naturally in an artistic way.”

    Rap lyrics as self-exploration

    Using flyers and social media, Colmenares and Johnson auditioned several 9th- to 12th- grade students for “Hip Hop Healing.” The Garde funded the program through a grant they’d received, Colmenares said, and auditions were held in the Garde’s Oasis Room. One of the students to successfully apply was Lapoint-General.

    “I saw the flyers passed around school, and I knew Frank a little bit,” Lapoint-General said. “He helped me out when I was younger and has been a mentor. I’m really interested in pursuing music as a career, dreaming beyond just New London, and this program seemed like a really good experience to have.

    “I liked the idea of using music to be inspirational and get a good message out to other people my age. Some people have to go through things they don’t want to, and we also don’t know when people might be struggling. Music can help.”

    “Hip Hop Healing” uses actual studio engineering/production mentorship as part of the process, as well as a lyrical focus beyond the typical youth-happy topics like girls and parties — which, Colmenares stresses, are perfectly legitimate — and examine deeper, troubling issues.

    When it was time to record, they shifted the base of operations to Colmenares’s studio in East Lyme. There, the songs were refined and analyzed and gradually took shape with actual recording sessions. In addition, they’d simply gather to talk about life, play video games and relax, and discuss what the young men were going through.

    Mentorship/friendship

    Colmenares said, at first, he and Johnson encouraged the participants to work on songs they’d already written or wanted to write — without the burden of digging deeper into personal doubts or anxieties. But, as everyone grew more comfortable with the process and their burgeoning relationships and students/mentors/friends, the writing sessions developed bigger themes.

    “They just come into the studio, and we just talk about their day,” Colmenares said. “All the things you’re going through in high school. Conversations would turn into us playing a beat and turning some of those thoughts and ideas and things they’re dealing with and turn them into songs.”

    “Brian and Frank taught me so much, and we developed the trust to rely on each other,” Lapoint-General said. “The original music I had been making? It was very derivative, and it’s all been said. Party, heartbreak, buying things; all that stuff. They collaborated and pushed me to go beyond my comfort zone and taught me that, if I go beyond my range, I can move beyond the negative and have a positive outcome.

    Make them proud’

    “I thought of my dad and my family. I think of my legal guardians, my aunt and uncle Rachel and Clarence Hill. He’s a bishop at Abounding Grace Church and they’ve taught me to walk with God. I think this positivity would make them proud.

    “I’m now thinking of putting out an album that, hopefully, people will connect with in a way that emphasizes the positive a lot more than what’s being released out there. We’ve got enough anger and sadness and heartbreak.” He laughed. “I didn’t even cuss on the last seven songs we did.”

    “Jontay is great, and I feel like he doesn’t even know his true power,” Johnson said in a video interview a few weeks back. “We want to help these kids develop as artists, to find their own voices, and to show them there are many ways to create. The artistic growth happened so quickly. We told him, ‘You can do this. This is your calling,’ and I think he understands that now more than he did at the beginning of the project.”

    By the time the 10-week project was finished, Lapoint-General had finished eight songs, and they’d started more that haven’t been completed.

    “We just kept building and creating and were so caught up in the work that we lost track of time and the idea that we needed to bring this thing to closure,” Colmenares said. “We’re so proud of Jontay, and I’m sure there will be some kind of album release at some point. We still connect and we will still keep creating because I never want it to seem I’m only here for the young homies only while there’s an actual funded program in place. I’m here for them.

    “The hope is to secure more funding and support for the program to resume and, through Jontay, newer participants will hear about it and want to see what happens and whether we can help. The Garde has been such a huge help, and I’m going to keep working to secure the budget to work with a larger number of artists in the future.”

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