Rap tutorials help troubled Scots school pupils turn the page

Jordan Butler is the founder and CEO of Heavy Sound, an East Lothian-based community interest company that specialises in delivering music and arts-based services to young people. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Jordan Butler is the founder and CEO of Heavy Sound, an East Lothian-based community interest company that specialises in delivering music and arts-based services to young people. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Some of Scotland’s most troubled children, many of whom have experienced trauma, are having their lives turned around by the opportunity to learn music through hip-hop and rap.

The Community Orientated and Opportunity Learning (COOL) project is a modest, one-to-one approach delivered by musicians who have often had to face their own troubled backgrounds.

New research by Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) suggests that such small-scale interventions may be more effective in addressing the challenges associated with “hard-to-reach” young people.

Funded by the Scottish Government and the European Social Fund, COOL Music is a collaboration between researchers at GCU and practitioners at Heavy Sound, an East Lothian-based community interest company focusing on building young people’s confidence and self-esteem through music-making.

Heavy Sound was founded by former rapper Jordan Butler, who was homeless by the age of 13 and a victim of physical and sexual assault, with a history of addiction to drugs and alcohol. He now leads a team of tutors who use music-making to engage young people to improve their health and wellbeing. The project started last year and works with young people aged between 12 and 18, many with poor school attendance records.

One teenager, quoted in the GCU research, said: “I used to be a bam. This project has made me think maybe I’m not all of that because I have been trying hard and a lot of things have been going good in my life now.”

Lead researcher Dr Stephen Millar said learning to make music helped hard-to-reach youngsters express themselves and share their problems.

“If governments wish to effectively address issues facing troubled young people, it may be beneficial to allow community-based organisations to contribute to service delivery,” he said. “When designing and implementing interventions for improved health and wellbeing of young people, the ‘bigger is better’ approach may not always be applicable.”

Scotsman columnist Darren McGarvey, one of Scotland’s best-known hip-hop performers, said the power of music could have a transformational effect on young people.

“Hip hop evolved from street culture in disadvantaged communities,” he said. “For many young people growing up in adversity, rap is their first literary experience. As an art form it appeals to young men from violent communities in particular because they identify with the emotions and imagery of that experience. It’s also a great vehicle for connecting people who may otherwise find themselves isolated.”