students, University of Miami, Frost School of Music

Music is a change agent for disadvantaged youth

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

Music is a change agent for disadvantaged youth

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
Frost School of Music lecturer Brent Swanson’s class Music and Peacebuilding is helping to improve the lives of underprivileged Miami students.

Brent Swanson knows the power that music can have to unite people, or to divide them.

As a graduate student, Swanson chronicled the life of Rwandan musician Jean Paul Samputu, whose Tutsi father was murdered in the 1994 genocide by his best friend and neighbor, who was Hutu. Swanson learned about the role of music in driving forward the massive killings that eventually led to 1 million Tutsi deaths in just three months and shared it with his students recently.

But after a battle with depression and alcoholism, Samputu became a born-again Christian and began writing lyrics and music with themes of forgiveness and healing. Four years later, he was able to reconcile with his childhood friend and forgave the man who killed his father. He is still producing music that promotes the benefits of Rwandans working together toward a better future.

 “While all art forms can be used in peacebuilding, music is different from visual art in that it is physically embodied—you can feel it deeply in your bones—and that’s arguably one of the reasons it’s very powerful,” said Swanson, a lecturer in musicology at the University of Miami Frost School of Music. “But there are two sides to music—it can be used to create a culture of violence and it can be used for reconciliation and forgiveness.”

Swanson is now teaching his students about music’s ability to transform people, but they are seeing it in action, too, while volunteering with the organization, Guitars Over Guns, a Miami nonprofit group committed to helping disadvantaged youth reach their potential as leaders of tomorrow. The collaboration is part of a class Swanson is piloting this semester called Music and Peacebuilding.

“In music, empathy is fundamental, which is also central to peacebuilding,” said Swanson, who is also a church musician who plays percussion, bass, guitar, piano, and sings. “So, music is a tool we can use for reconciliation, and it’s a tool we can use to foster peace.”

Swanson decided to work with Guitars Over Guns because a few of his former students are involved with the group. It runs after-school programs throughout Miami and Chicago that create a safe place for disadvantaged students to receive mentorship, as well as musical training from professional musicians.

Last week, six students in Swanson’s class visited Citrus Grove Middle School, where about 40 students are in the program, said site coordinator Kim Cameron—a singer-songwriter who has worked at the Little Havana school for five years. She said the biweekly program has steadily grown each year and contains five subgroups—each led by a practicing musician—singing, rap, keyboard, guitar, and percussion.

“At the beginning of the school year, we don’t know about the influence we will have until the students tell you,” she said. “But several of my students who have graduated from the program will come back now because they feel safe and were influenced in a positive way.”

For example, Cameron sat with Gabriela Rodriguez last week as the University of Miami students did a question and answer session with the Citrus Grove students in the school’s auditorium, as part of the mentoring process. Rodriguez, who is now a sophomore at Miami Senior High School, graduated from the Guitars over Guns program more than a year ago, but often comes back to help. Before she began singing with Cameron after school, Rodriguez said she frequently experienced anxiety and paranoia, and often did not go out on the weekends because she was crippled by those feelings.

“The program helped me gain a lot of confidence in myself and it definitely helped me to face my fears,” she said. “It was fun and is a very supportive and comfortable atmosphere.”

Gillian Sanford, a sophomore at the University studying human resource management and minoring in music business and entertainment, said she initially signed up for Swanson’s class because it filled a course requirement, but once she learned more about the class content, she was intrigued.

“I’ve always been obsessed with music and noticed how much power it has to bring people together, but I have learned it also has the ability to tear people apart,” she said. “I’m excited to work with kids through Guitars Over Guns and see how through music, they can find a safe place to talk to people.”