How rave culture is helping youth workers to empower disadvantaged kids

Gateshead's CoMusica project not only allows some of the area's most vulnerable young people to experiment with music, it also offers a relatable way for them to connect with their local community

Globe-trotting DJs, classical musicians and local rave legends: these are just some of the alumni of a unique music and arts programme in Gateshead.

Since 2002, CoMusica has offered training in music and creative arts, as well as educational support, to some of the region’s most vulnerable young people.

Those not in employment, education, or training (NEET) as well as children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities all get the chance to experiment behind the decks and to learn how the music can tell the stories of local people.

The programme is part of Sage Gateshead, the world-renowned music centre on the south bank of the River Tyne.

They’ll look at the urban music programmes and realise actually, they’ve more to say than just MCing at a hundred mile an hour talking about being off your nut or getting chased by the bizzies

Among CoMusica’s longest-running projects is their Arches programme, tucked away behind the main building, where aspiring DJs, MCs and musicians make tracks, mixes and promos. The videos produced during these sessions have racked up hundreds of thousands of views online, and several Arches participants have gone on to forge successful careers in music and beyond.

“We don’t necessarily run the projects with an expectation that we’re training up the next generation of musicians or performers,” programme leader Sandy Duff tells The Big Issue. “If a young person comes to the programme and gets a record deal or gets to go on tour, that’s fabulous, and I’m over the moon for them.

“But if a young person comes in and manages to find some kind of inner peace, or newfound confidence in the turmoil of everything that is going on around them, that’s just as important. To have music as that engagement tool to try and help improve their lives, that’s really the driving force of what we do.”

CoMusica lets some of north-east England's most vulnerable kids get behind the DJ decks

A mainstay at the Arches is makina, a style of 180bpm Spanish hardcore techno that’s accompanied by MCs. The genre has been ubiquitous in North East youth culture since the early noughties, when now-infamous Sunderland nightclub The New Monkey was the genre’s hub.

The Arches has helped foster some of the best-known faces in the local makina scene, as well as in a multitude of other genres including grime, hip-hop, and drum and bass.

“CoMusica is peer led, so it’s what the young people are into that leads the direction of the programme,” Duff says. “Obviously in the North East there’s a big fanbase for makina music, so naturally that’s always been a part of it. There’s a lot of stuff going on right now in the North East that’s a result of the mentoring in the project.

“In the hip hop scene for instance, the main guys right now are PVO, and they’re all ex-participants. And they’ve set out on their own and they’re running their own really successful brand. That idea of sustainability and the young people coming through the programme and entering the wider scene is a vital part of our work.”

Duff insists that the centre has become a melting pot of different influences. “It’s quite interesting to see. A lot of young lads come in saying ‘I proper love makina, I want to be an MC’.

“But there almost always comes a point when they’ll look at the urban music programmes and realise actually, they’ve more to say than just MCing at a hundred mile an hour talking about being off your nut or getting chased by the bizzies.

“Actually they want to talk about the relationship they’ve had with their parents, or ask questions as to why their parents didn’t look after them.”


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CoMusica’s latest project uses the work of jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron to teach NEET participants about political activism and poetry, with a collection of the work they create in response to be showcased at Sage’s Words Weekend in December. “As expected, they didn’t really connect with the music at first,” says Sandy.

“But as soon as they realised that this was the roots of something they quite liked, they started listening to the lyrics. And then they’re going: ‘He was just a radgie (violent person) wasn’t he? He was just getting wrecked and he hated the bizzies!’ So we had these 15-year-old Geordies actually really relating with Gil Scott-Heron and the struggles he went through.

“The groups are making music reflecting on his stuff. Some of it’s quite interesting with hard trance mashups! But you know, anything’s fair game, it’s getting people creating, I’m all for it.”

You can catch a showcase of the Arches Academy’s Gil Scott-Heron-inspired work at Words Weekend at Sage Gateshead on December 7

Images: Scott Akoz