While the star-studded March production of West Side Story is an attention-grabber, the bulk of the Somewhere Project is educational. The signature component is rooted in bringing music composition to at-risk students around New York City. Along with professional musicians Carnegie enlisted to help with composition, students wrote songs responding to the themes of West Side Story and will perform their work in a series of neighborhood concerts.
A January concert in Carnegie Hall’s educational wing previewed the event at the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in Queens, which takes place February 26. Students from Brooklyn’s Belmont Academy High, a school for youth living in group homes, were joined onstage by Brown Rice Family, a world roots band that Carnegie sent to Belmont. Students sang and rapped about elements of the show that resonated with them. “Mistaken Identity,” a dark electronic track, detailed the fatal effects of mistaken identities in the streets: gang members shooting the wrong guy or a bystander, police brutalizing populations they choose to see as threats. On reggae jam “Turning Point,” the young musicians shared their commitment to change: “The throne is mine, no more wasting time/Positive success, I’m standing in front of the line/Mom, I wanna tell ya this is our time.”
These are not empty lyrics written to placate adults. Rodney “Okai” Fleurimont, of Brown Rice Family, says the program changed students. “Some of them couldn’t be in the same room when we started because of beef, like, ‘You looked at me wrong’ or ‘I know you from such and such neighborhood,’ ” he explains. “By the end, you see the ones that were beefin’ cheering each other on.”
At the end of the set, Ann Gregg, the Weill Music Institute’s community programs director, stood onstage holding up a black wallet-size card with “V.I.P.” written in bold white letters. She offered one to every student, explaining it would grant them year-round access to Carnegie Hall. Later, she told the Voice this is a crucial aspect of Carnegie’s mission. “It’s great that [musical education] is happening while they’re in detention, but what happens after?” she asks. “If you spark this opportunity, how do you connect with them when they come home, to make sure they don’t go back into the system? We’re thinking about pathways for young people.” The idea is to change outcomes, rather than just offering possibilities.
It’s worked for at least one Belmont student. Inspired by Tony and Maria’s story, sixteen-year-old Jay wrote a love song, something he had never done before. “In the beginning, I was like, ‘I am not doing this.’ Then, after two weeks, I was like, ‘I really do like this,’ ” he says. “I’m gonna keep doing this because I want more positive in my lifestyle than negative. I have goals to achieve.”