Living in a different country as a teenager can be daunting.
Young immigrants and refugees living in metro Portland face pressures to learn English, keep their grades up and make friends — all compounded by the often-traumatic experiences that brought them here. With balancing multiple responsibilities, the time for artistic and creative endeavors can easily fall by the wayside.
But this summer, a group of Portland musicians came together to help give these young students the chance to tell their truth through music education.
Pass the Mic is a free weeklong music camp that connects experienced local musicians to immigrant and refugee youth, mentoring them into learning instruments and writing original songs. Many of the youth bring little to no music experience at all, yet by the end of the week they’re in fully formed bands, capping off camp with a concert showcasing their songs.
The camp set up shop at Hosford Middle School this year. The halls echoed with drum beats and basslines as students workshopped the kinds of music they wanted to learn.
The campers were from all over the world, from Vietnam to Guatemala. Language could be a barrier, but the camp founders said that music could overcome the differences.
“We’re working with a lot of youth where English is not even a second language, it’s not a language at all in the equation,” said Wilson Vediner, the program director for Pass the Mic.
“Music really is its own kind of universal language. There’s a lot of laughter involved,” he said.
The camp’s roots began in eastern Oregon. When he wasn’t playing guitar in bands like Months and Point Juncture, WA, Vediner was spending his summers helping with Pendleton’s Rock Camp. Vediner was contacted by Ben Moorad, Pass the Mic’s program manager and co-founder, with the idea of providing a music camp for immigrants and refugees with zero barriers.
The camp is now in its second year, and the co-founders were overflowing with excitement. Moorad said it all comes from a place of cultural responsiveness and youth empowerment.
“There was a moment this week where a Vietnamese student invited a Guatemalan student to be in her band — it was really beautiful,” Moorad said.
“People want to build those bridges and break out of the group that they’ve been defined by.”
Some of the students at the camp are unaccompanied minors with no legal status, coming from child and family services in Portland. Others are a part of second language programs through Portland Public Schools. While their lives present a slew of responsibilities and difficulties, the camp offers a creative outlet.
“I’ve had a couple moments where youth shared stories with me — personal stories,” said Emiko Badillo, drummer for punk band Puppy Breath. “They’ve gone through so much, like most people would not even believe. To still be even alive, it’s kind of a miracle in a lot of cases.”
Through the week of music workshops, the positivity and encouragement from mentors was tangible and offered moments for cultural exchange.
“I’ve noticed kids will try an instrument for a little bit, and then they get kind of curious about something else, so they’ll switch to that. It’s almost like the Sorting Hat [in Harry Potter],” said Lisa Adams of the Portland rock band Sama Dams.
“I think the exposure is the biggest part. You just have to have a chance to try it and figure out what you like the most.”
While most students opted for the guitar or drums, some performances weren’t your standard rock band lineups. Hip-hop artist and educator Mic Crenshaw said it’s important to encourage students but also to have safe creative spaces that respect students’ boundaries.
“Sometimes if you push too much you lose a connection. You never know what somebody has been through,” he said. “I think it’s a privilege to get exposed to what some of these young people are willing to share — to gain their trust and to hear their stories,” he said.
Linh Doan comes from Vietnam and is a junior at Franklin High School. She found out about the camp through the Portland International Scholars Academy, or PISA, a multicultural language program within the school district that serves newcomer students. Doan said the camp helped her find her footing when singing in front of large crowds.
“Before this, I never really thought I could sing with everyone. I just sing alone,” Doan said. “But now with this camp, I feel more confident.”
At the end of the week the young musicians shared their original songs to a packed school auditorium, with genres ranging from hip-hop to cumbia.
When they walked off stage, all of the students were able to take their instruments home with them for free, thanks to instrument drives from community supporters like the Rock ‘N’ Roll Camp for Girls and Food Fight! Grocery.
The folks behind Pass the Mic are aiming to continue zero barrier arts education with Let’s Make an Album!, an after-school program in the fall where youth will collaborate to produce a full record in 10 weeks. Pass the Mic will return next summer.