A Safe Place for Self-Expression
Downbeat 720, a city-sponsored open mic night for teens, is a platform for performance without fear of judgment
By Christina Campodonico
Between competing in today’s college admissions race, fending off cyber bullies and knowing that campus shootings are a very real threat, it’s not easy being a teen these days. (Has it ever?) But at Downbeat 720 there’s a community where young people can feel safe about expressing themselves.
At 7:20 p.m. on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month, about a dozen high schoolers assemble on the steps of the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica. One might strum a few practice notes on his guitar. Another might excitedly show a line of poetry to a friend on her iPhone. And while anticipation lingers in the air, there isn’t the fever-pitch anxiety about performing that you’d find at a school talent show, high-stakes football game or some other pressure-cooker of public display.
Here, blazing rap anthems are cheered on along with unfinished poems, forgotten lyrics are forgiven, and false starts receive as much praise as full-out performances. Whether you’re a teen rapper, slam poet or singer-songwriter, all forms of expression are welcome at Downbeat — as long as you follow its Ten Commandments (more on that later) and are willing to laugh.
Not laugh at yourself or your peers, that is, but at the program’s three zany MCs: actor-comedian-poet Joe Hernandez-Kolski, his comedic partner Joshua Silverstein and their friend DJ Jedi (aka Terence Fredericks). On the night I visit, they tease and throw jokes at each other. Hernandez-Kolski recites a self-deprecating poem, Silverstein beat-boxes with abandon, and DJ Jedi uses his stereo equipment to announce “World Premieres” with a booming radio voice.
The kids laugh and giggle at these antics, but Hernandez-Kolski, Silverstein and DJ Jedi don’t mind. Shining the spotlight on themselves takes some of the pressure off the kids to perform perfectly. And all the jokes are in good fun.
“We do try to be our most authentic selves on stage at Downbeat. While we’re grateful that it puts the kids at ease, we’re also hoping that it inspires them to be themselves,” says Silverstein.
“We have found that the best kind of comedy is the kind that comes from the heart,” Hernandez-Kolski adds.
An HBO Def Poet alum who’s opened for Hilary Clinton, Hernandez-Kolski co-founded the city-sponsored Downbeat 720 program 13 years ago with actress Ammenah Kaplan after Santa Monica Cultural Affairs Supervisor Justin Yoffe put out the call for an after-school open-mic program at the Miles. Hernandez-Kolski brought Silverstein and DJ Jedi on board soon after.
The mixture of laughter and art over the years has created an atmosphere where kids feel comfortable opening up.
“Here it’s a very free place,” says 13-year-old Jobim Zeichner, one of the youngest members of the group and nicknamed “Poet Laureate of Downbeat” for his way with words. “Downbeat is all about really being free and being able to not worry about how other people are interpreting or judging you, because it’s not a place for judgment. And it is instead a place for trying new things out.”
Even if those songs, poems or raps are not quite finished.
“This poem, I wasn’t going to do,” says Miles McAliley, a local high school senior, who is hesitant to share a recently written work. He doesn’t have a “beat” for it. But after some coaxing from Hernandez-Kolski “to try it a capella,” the slam-poet-rapper launches into an onslaught of rhythmic musings on youth and art. Spouting out an impromptu rhythm, McAliley almost doesn’t need a beat to guide him. It’s coming from deep within and it’s all his own. A teen once afraid of an uncertainty now embraces it.
Changes in program are common at Downbeat, but the fount of creativity is endless as teens of all skill levels and talents take to the stage. No subject matter or style is off limits.
There are a few safety and courtesy rules dictated by Downbeat’s Ten Commandments and their amendments, recited playfully, but in dead seriousness, by Silverstein and Hernandez-Kolski at the start of every session. Summarized, falling on your face is okay, but keep your act to under five minutes. Respect others and turn your phones to vibrate. Take the chatter outside. Use profanity selectively, if you must, and no toy guns allowed, ever.
But the rules enhance creative freedom rather than impinge on it. For regulars, Downbeat is as much a workshop for new songs, poems and raps in development as it is a laboratory for experimentation.
Hernandez-Kolski and Silverstein offer mini-critiques to the student artists after every set, but always with positivity and special attention to the skill level and goals of each participant. When I visit, they not only persuade McAliley to rap a capella, but challenge Jobim Zeichner to write an “anti-poem.”
“You get jewels every time,” says McAliley, adding that traditional open mics foster criticism and competition, whereas Downbeat offers encouragement and inspiration in a “friendly” way.
Santa Monica High School sophomore Julia Paymer feels the same way about the way Silverstein, Hernandez-Kolski and DJ Jedi run the show.
“They make everybody feel … I don’t know a better word for it than safe. They just show that they care and they’re going to accept you and they critique you in a good way. They want you to come back the next two weeks feeling better about yourself and feeling like you accomplished a lot more,” Paymer says.
“Downbeat’s a space where they get to have their own experience of themselves in real time,” says Silverstein. “We’re giving them permission to be where they are. I feel like that validates them and makes their voice seem powerful.”
At Downbeat, it’s not what you say, but having the courage to get up on stage to say it that’s the most powerful statement of all.
Downbeat 720’s next meeting is at 7:20 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 24, at Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are free. Adults are welcome but encouraged to bring a high school student. Meetings continue ever second and fourth Tuesday of each month. Call (310) 458-8634 or visit downbeat720.com.