The streets of Chicago can be a dangerous place for a teen. Crime and gang-related violence has led to more than 580 deaths among the city’s youth since 2008, according to a study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab.
Growing up in Chicago, Jabari Evans witnessed the violence firsthand, and rather than become a statistic himself, decided to do something about it. Inspired by his own music career, he started the Brainiac Project, a creative outlet and safe haven for at-risk youth with an interest in the music industry. And the city is taking notice. Evans recently received an Individual Artists Program grant from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to help fund the project.
“The reality is that a lot of the kids who live in Chicago’s neighborhoods don’t have anywhere to be from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., which is why you see a lot of violence,” said Evans, a nationally recognized rap artist who is earning a Master of Social Work through the USC School of Social Work’s Virtual Academic Center. “That’s why the city is putting more money into after-school programs and encouraging them from beginning to end to help them prosper.”
The Brainiac Project teaches students the ins and outs of the music industry, giving them a hands-on education in recording studio technology, networking skills and music writing from Evans himself, who also goes by the stage name Naledge and is one half of the hip-hop duo Kidz in the Hall.
Evans, an Ivy Leaguer who earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, established rigorous expectations for his students to improve their academic performance in school.
“They have to do an interview, essay, resume and basically go through the process of applying for a job to be part of the program,” Evans said. “It’s music industry meets life skills training, and I think that’s what is necessary to get some of these kids to get engaged and excited about their education.”
At the core of the program is mentoring that provides students with a support system for their professional and personal endeavors. With the practical knowledge the students are receiving, Evans hopes he is equipping them with tools that will improve their self-esteem and self-efficacy.
“Mentoring is key because a lot of them come from broken homes with parents that aren’t around all of the time,” Evans said. “For some of these kids, this is the first time they have been told that they could be anything, and they are very creative and have interesting stories to tell through hip-hop.”
The project’s students showcased their talents this summer by producing and releasing a single on iTunes to be followed by a CD and music video in October.
When he started the project in 2012, Evans relied on his own money, the help of friends and donations made through an online crowd-funding campaign. Evans was doubtful he would have been able to financially support the project for a second year, acknowledging the city’s perfect timing in keeping the program alive.
“Not only did the city provide a check, but I was also connected to people who could help organize and guide the program,” he said.
The project’s partnership with Little Black Pearl Art & Design Academy, a Chicago charter school that Evans described as a pillar of the community, is one of those beneficial connections. The school provides the facilities and resources for the program, and its students can participate in the project as an extracurricular activity for academic credit.
Evans hopes to add four more students to the six who completed the trial year. With every step forward, Evans is optimistic the project will move closer to becoming a nonprofit organization and expand to other schools.
With the second year under way and future plans in the making, Evans credits his School of Social Work education for helping to bring the Brainiac Project to fruition.
“I’ve been able to use my studies at USC to take my ideas that were blank canvases and frame them into proposals,” Evans said. “I still don’t know where this is going to end up, but I know that I’m passionate about seeing kids get excited about being able to utilize their strengths and gifts.”