Tucked away inside a downtown Nashville recording studio, Ben Thomas appears to be deep in thought.
He presses the play button on the console in front of him and unleashes a steady stream of brisk hip-hop rhythms.
He delivers a spirited verse that shares his positive vision for the future.
One rhyme at a time, he announces himself to the world.
Thomas, a senior at Hillwood High School, spends most afternoons working on his music in the RhymeLab recording studio at Rocketown, a youth outreach facility that features a variety of after-school classes and activities for students in grades 7 through 12.
Rocketown gives kids the freedom to explore and learn and encourages them to push the limits of their creativity.
Thomas is only too happy to oblige.
“I have a problem with boundaries,” he says. “Ever since I was a young child, I’ve been told I can go beyond the clouds and achieve anything. Here you get to bond with great people and absorb that positive energy.”
The pursuit of harmony has helped Thomas navigate the exciting but turbulent life of a modern teenager.
Through music he expresses his faith and his joy, his pain and his sorrow.
“I consider music to be one of the core essentials of my existence,” he says.
“Being creative is good for me because I see it as a way that I can breathe. People are able to really see who I am when I put something from my mind out into the world.”
His time in the studio also serves as a relief from, and a challenge to, the world waiting outside. Most of the kids who come to Rocketown live just a few blocks away, in a public housing complex often rife with conflict.
As Thomas creates songs that promote peace and understanding, the neighborhood around him produces a much more troubling sound, defined by shouting voices, slamming doors and wailing sirens.
Every now and then, gunshots echo in the distance. He has heard enough.
“People overlook some of the violence that happens here in Nashville,” he says.
“Walking downtown along Broadway is like a playground or amusement park — almost paradise. But I record with a lot of people who don’t even know about what’s going on downtown or on Music Row.
“It’s a different world where they live. From my viewpoint here, where there are so many opportunities, I’m able to understand the parallels of my society. This is a place where everybody can come together.”
Sharing a powerful voice
In the shadows of this urban sprawl, Rocketown bridges the gap between these two different cultures.
For kids from public housing and those who live in safer neighborhoods, this is a common ground where they can work, play and grow.
The goal is to help maximize their potential and overcome any obstacles in their path.
“When you think about many of these kids, the world may have given up on them,” says Sara Queen, associate director of outreach at Rocketown.
“They come here and they can channel their energies into something productive.”
The variety of programming at Rocketown features activities that encompass physical, mental and spiritual health.
Rocketown addresses the immediate needs of their students by offering free healthy meal plans, nutrition workshops and tutoring services.
Counseling services are available and regular discussion groups allow kids to examine topics relevant to their daily lives.
“This generation is so much more aware of what’s happening around them. They have access to all this information through the internet,” Queen says.
“They’re ready to talk politics or talk about social issues that may be affecting them, like drug use or violence.”
At Rocketown, kids are encouraged to share their hopes, fears and concerns, knowing they can do so without being judged or criticized.
“Our staff is highly trained in mentorship and community building. It’s not just a place where you can have fun,” Queen says.
“When kids come here, they want to hang out with their friends, but they may also need someone to talk to. They may not listen to their teachers or adults, but they may listen to someone more their own age.”
Circling back around
Thomas expects to attend Nashville State Community College next year and plans to eventually pursue an audio engineering degree from Belmont University.
Even after he graduates, he wants to maintain his ties to Rocketown and give kids the same support he received.
He believes he owes it to a community that has been so crucial in his development.
“I’d like to see even more kids in here so we can learn and grow as a whole,” he says.
“The major challenge for people my age is that they don’t understand their potential.”
“They just don’t know who they are and how they can be what they want to be. I hope to give these kids a chance to go out into these different industries and find their interests.”
That may be where Rocketown has succeeded most, helping kids to understand their own unique talents and use them for the good of others.
“Success looks different to every kid,” Queen says. “Whether that’s post-secondary education, a skating scholarship, or a career in the music business, we want to support that.
“We hope they realize that they have a world of opportunities available to them.”