Hip-hop brings peace, love and unity to Pomona
by Katie Madden
photography by Helen Arase
A young boy energetically dances across the lobby floor, eager to show off his moves to anyone who asks. He does not need music to feel the beat or to keep his rhythm flowing. He speaks passionately about dance, wisely saying, “You have to live it and really love it and want to succeed at it.” With eight years of background dancing for films and backup dancing for hip-hop stars under his sneakers, as well as a debut hip-hop album in the works, it is hard to imagine how one pre-teen could be so humble about his talents. However, a future sure to be filled with fame and success will not stop 11-year-old Malachi Murillo from returning to the place he calls his “second home.”
Home is the Hip Hop School of Arts (HHSA), housed in the long-empty Crocker National Bank building, on the southwest corner of Holt and Garey avenues. It has only been open since February 2013, but the school is already transforming the lives of underprivileged and at-risk youth in Pomona.
Hip-hop may open a flood of misconceptions about violence, gangs, misogyny and otherwise bad influences; nevertheless, for this organization in the heart of a city struggling with gangs, high drop-out rates, obesity and poor standards of living, hip-hop is a transformative force in the lives of youth. Simply put, the program gets them off the streets and into the studios. Guided by the vision of legendary “Bboy” dancer and HHSA executive director Julio “Lil’ Cesar” Rivas, coupled with the assistance of donors, hip-hop founding fathers, renowned artists, and volunteer instructors, the HHSA is on a mission to change lives through dance, art, music and education.
Starting a hip-hop dream
“Lil’ Cesar” or simply, Cesar, was born in and spent the first 12 years of his life in El Salvador before his family immigrated to the United States in 1981. El Salvador was ravaged by violent civil war that started in 1978, and Cesar’s family had to escape before he turned 12, the age boys were forcibly recruited to the government or guerrilla armies. The family moved to Los Angeles on 7th Street and Union Avenue in MacArthur Park. Surrounded by gangs, Cesar found solace and purpose at the Radiotron, a youth center brimming with creativity and life. At this time, hip-hop was making its way out of the underground and onto the troubled streets. This movement captured a generation still teeming with the fervor of the Civil Rights movement, yet desperate for an escape and its own voice. “The Radiotron impacted my life because, you know, as a youngster, I had a place where I could train and practice. My surroundings were really a challenge. There were so many gangs, and it was a challenge not to get into that, but hip hop really pulled a lot of kids, not just myself, away from gangs and gave us a purpose,” he says.
Cesar spent hours at the Radiotron practicing his dancing. He started to dance in a group called the Air Force Crew. Soon, the crew began traveling, first at competitions in LA, then to stages around the world. Cesar became huge in the breakdancing or “Bboyin’ world.” He traveled to more than 40 countries, dancing for Curtis Blow, Madonna, Janet Jackson and even for the Queen of England at her 2002 Jubilee.
In the early 1990s, Cesar revived the Radiotron and “took it mobile” by creating events and competitions similar to the MTV dance show, America’s Best Dance Crew. Fame brought donors, none more generous than film producer and documentary filmmaker Charlie Evans, who spontaneously contacted Cesar after following his career as a dancer and community contributor. Charlie told Cesar he was interested in what he was doing in the community, and that he wanted to support him with finances and resources to branch out his influence. Inspired by the Radiotron—the venue that served as his second home—Cesar decided he wanted to build a school. Charlie and the Charles Evans Foundation, a charitable group his father started, made a pledge to the future school, and Cesar’s dream started to take shape. With this new blessing, it was time to start looking for a place for the school to call home. However, finding a home for the school was difficult. Thoughtfully, but bluntly, Cesar says, “I did not want the school to be here [Pomona]. I wanted it to be in LA. But eventually it was actually my wife Norma who directed me here.”
Norma Umana, associate executive director of HHSA and called an all-around Wonder Woman by those who know her, described the couple’s struggle to find a school location. After reviewing Los Angeles locations, they could not find a place with the proper zoning for the needed studio rooms. The search for a location took a dramatic turn when Norma learned more about the city of Pomona. Compassion fills her voice as Norma explains their decision to move locations. “We had neighbors who moved to Pomona. They told us how bad it was there. Cesar thought that Pomona had a lot of rich people and didn’t need a school like this. I realized that this is what God wanted. He wants to create a miracle, and you gotta let Him in to do that.” Driving through Pomona, the couple spotted the old bank, a “for-rent” sign on it “shining like a sign from God himself.” The building had the proper zoning; they bought it and began construction immediately.
Cesar, now confident with the Pomona location, says, “We came here because there aren’t many programs here for these kids. I think that hip-hop does something for these kids who are in trouble or about to get into trouble because they can relate to hip-hop. Hip-hop is an escape for them, an alternate to their problems, and they get it out and create a talent.”
Making a new home for old school hip hop
Those who open the glass doors to the Hip Hop School of Arts find the front lobby and waiting area misleadingly plain, the only popping feature is a giant wooden desk crafted to look like a boom box. Beyond the lobby’s heavy wooden doors, however, the school opens up into a vibrant expanse, filled with framed art, murals and photos. A large orange wall with the mural of a Bboy dancer spinning on his head greets students and guests. A beautiful wooden sculpture, carved by Marcus Anthony, creates the image of “Kool Herc,” one of hip-hop’s founding fathers. Two giant spray-painted portraits, one of Cesar and the other of Charlie Evans, painted by urban artist Sergio Rueda, adorn two walls. Another large mural spells out “One,” the “o” created with a giant heart. Cesar says that this mural in particular is important for the school, because that’s what hip-hop–well, the hip-hop that he wants to teach—is all about. Excited to share his vision of hip-hop culture, Cesar explains, “Hip-hop is peace, love, unity, having fun and creating community. Hip-hop started because there was this social and cultural movement for change. It developed because of the struggles in the cities and the ghettos. It was a voice.”
These strong values start with the art on the walls and are anchored in the classes and workshops. The instructors and students share a common vision. Conduct signage includes “no swearing, no gum chewing, no black sneakers,” to remind students to uphold the best of hip-hop art. Although students learn the latest moves and are inspired by today’s current hit pop and hip hop artists, the fundamentals of “real hip hop,” as Cesar calls it, are constantly present. Cesar says that the hip hop we see on television today is not authentic hip-hop; rather, it is the product of people’s bad habits that have tainted the culture. While the media may exploit elements of hip hop, such as drug use, drinking, partying and disrespecting women, Cesar says that this is not the hip-hop he wants to teach his students.
What Cesar sees in his students is potential not just for improvement but also for greatness. His goals are for them to develop their talents, to use art and dance to express themselves and, most importantly, to gain greater self worth. For example, riddled with personal issues, many female students were self-harming when they first arrived at the school. Months later, Cesar says with a smile, “They don’t do that stuff anymore. These kids are finding ways to deal with their problems through hip-hop, and that’s what it is about.” Wonderfully humble, Cesar takes little credit for the positive changes the school has made for the students; rather, he looks to the people who help him run the school, most of them doing it entirely for fun and for free.
HHSA’s selfless army
“It takes an army to run this place,” Cesar says. “We have an incredible family here.” And it is indeed a large family. Cesar almost has a difficult time naming off each of the volunteer instructors, but he gets every name right. Among these instructors and volunteers are locking legend James “OG Skeeter Rabbit” Higgins, world-renowned urban artist Sergio Rueda, minister and community activist Mark Almada, and recent college graduate and public relations coordinator Brandon Murillo. There are many others. Inside and outside of the school, volunteers offer their services teaching classes in dance, DJin’, urban art and rapping; others provide emotional support and spiritual guidance, while still others use their influence to raise funds for the program. Several young adult volunteers spend their free time at the HHSA, using whatever skills and knowledge they have to help teach the younger students. Volunteers express a great love and respect for the school, aware of the impact it is having on the community. The school’s head of public relations, Brandon Murillo, came to HHSA as a school project, but he is not ready to leave any time soon. “I love the project, and I believe in Cesar’s dream. This school doesn’t just affect the kids; it affects the community.” Brandon smiles, his admiration is evident. “The people involved in the project have a lot of heart, and they stick around.” Much like Cesar, Murillo and the rest of the volunteers are all humble, shining the spotlight on each other’s contributions as well as on the men and women who came before them—those who paved the way for a school like this to become a reality.
Instructor “OG Skeeter Rabbit,” has a lifetime of hip-hop knowledge that he is willing to share with anyone who asks. His career is rich with credits, and he was there to help progress the genre in the 1970s, a time when he says “society tried to suppress hip-hop with disco,” a time when hip-hop was being founded by people of color who were trying to express the “struggles of the underprivileged.” However, he still credits other artists, from the Go-Go Brothers, to Don Campbell and the women of hip-hop, like Arnetta “Netta Bug” Johnson and Lorna Dune, who Skeeter says were hugely important and are sometimes overlooked. Skeeter views hip-hop as a spiritual experience, teaching the ways a person can become enlightened from it. He is writing a book about the spiritual connection between hip-hop and Buddhism.
Other volunteers, like Almada, a Pico Rivera minister, are happy working behind the scenes. Almada’s son, the up-and-coming little star Malachi, was part of a dance documentary. When Almada met Cesar, the two hit it off big. They created a friendship that has led Almada to be Cesar’s right-hand man for spiritual guidance and for random favors. As a youth pastor, Almada’s close connection with young people shows when he says, “Some of these kids don’t get much support from their parents. You have to invest in their dreams. We try to encourage kids and show them that they are accepted, and that they matter.” He explains that the students call him “dad” due to the close bonds he has formed with them. As if on cue, a teenage student runs by, and Almada asks her what she calls him. The girl says, “uh, dad,” like it’s the most obvious answer in the world. Almada chuckles.
Besides helping with day-to-day tasks and teaching students the various media of hip hop, the instructors have taken a twist on the common art school syllabus. They teach math, anatomy, physics, entrepreneurial skills, history health and English. Yes, you read that correctly. Unlike any other school of its kind, the HHSA has the “core curriculum,” a program designed to interweave academics and art to create better-rounded and truly educated youth.
Putting ideas into action
“We’re bringing education and guidance to the hip hop culture.” Cesar says. He explains how the curriculum relates hip hop to academics. Break dancing involves physics, anatomy and math, from the way the dancers’ bodies move to the angles and formulas involved with spinning just right. Health is essential to keeping a dancer’s body in top shape, and that’s where nutritional instruction comes in. Crafting complex rhymes for raps is not a task that should be taken lightly, so students learn poetic theory and grammar skills. Knowledge is vital to developing in any field, and the HHSA wants its students to understand how hip-hop started, grew and transformed into the phenomenon it is now through related history classes. The school is also concerned with turning the talents the students are learning into marketable skills, so that is where entrepreneurial classes come in. These lessons also address an issue that is extremely pervasive among the city’s school children–a high drop out rate.
Cesar explains, “Here in Pomona, there is a 26 percent drop out rate in high school and from 9th to 10th it goes to as high as 50 percent. So when kids come in here they don’t like math or history, and they think school is boring. But then they come here and realize they have to learn about these things. Then, they realize there’s a good reason for them to learn so we’re using this to help them reconnect with school. This is the reason we are here; we are here to help and empower the next generation of kids.”
Although focused on hip-hop, many genres of music— from rap to pop to salsa—flow out of the various rooms and mix with the sounds of sneakers sliding across the wooden floors and the energetic shouting and giggling of young students. Twelve-year-old students Lynn and Natalie break from their homework to excitedly show visitors their new routines, dancing to Ke$ha’s “Crazy Kids” and Beyoncé’s “Run the World.” The chatty and sweet young girls are happy to talk about their time at the school. “This place is just so great. I really like to come here every week and just dance and have fun,” Natalie says while Lynn shakes her head in agreement. “Everyone here is just so cool and nice.” Many of the older students have taken on the roles of mentor to the younger ones. The girls Cesar says were struggling with self-harm and depression now come to class each week happy, excited and nothing but positive.
The atmosphere at the HHSA is one that is truly unique. It is impossible to not find at least one student or instructor who is not eager to share a story or simply ask how they can help. Frowns are a rarity, and everyone seems to genuinely get along. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the school is its incredible diversity and sharing of culture. Oftentimes, music groups can become very polarizing and elite. Rock, country and even indie genres are predominantly white. Some music snobbery occurs in those groups, where you are scoffed at for not being knowledgeable enough. That is not the case at the HHSA. With a wide racial range between its students and faculty and an accepting atmosphere, the HHSA is about welcoming people into the culture of hip-hop through community, education and encouragement. It is truly difficult to find a place like this school. They speak the hip-hop language and want to teach anyone who will listen.
Hip Hop School of Arts future
The school impact is tangible through the progression of its students and its consequent effect on the community. Programs, such as urban art, take talented youth who used to tag the city and bring them into the school to learn how to channel their art into positive and marketable skills for the future. In fact, Cesar is working with Pomona Council Member John Nolte to decrease vandalism and encourage education in the city, further expanding the school’s impact.
Even though current school support and funding has sustained the program and allowed it to excel by providing students with superior books, equipment and instruction materials, keeping the program not-for-profit is no easy task. The HHSA continually solicits help. It needs dedicated and generous donors, donations of hip-hop literature to fill its library, computers to fill the lab, and gear to completely outfit the music studio to top-notch standards. The school has already shown the impact it has made in a year. It is vital for Pomona and the surrounding cities to show the school love and support and to do everything possible to keep the program thriving. While these students may continue to live in difficult situations, their futures now look brighter than ever, perhaps lined with future shining marquees with their names on them, thanks to Cesar’s heart, drive and vision to create the Hip Hop School of Arts.