Transforming Tragedy Into Hope
One of the things I love most about music is its ability to transform tragedy into hope, as anyone who has listened obsessively to a "breakup song" knows. But, as artists like Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Joan Baez, and countless others have shown, songs can do more than comfort. They can change who we are as a culture and inspire us to work together to make the world a better place.
So, when I first met with a group of advanced music production students at the Media Arts Collaborative Charter School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I knew I wanted to do more than just help the teens make an album of original music. I also wanted to help them make a difference in their community—to tap into the transformative power of music to heal, to comfort, and to open a window of hope.
A Life Lost to Addiction
The high school class of eight fledgling producers, songwriters, rappers, and musicians were all highly enthusiastic about the project. When considering issues to address, they reflected on the senseless 2010 death of a schoolmate, 16-year-old Haley Paternoster, of a heroin overdose. It turned out almost all of us had seen someone—a friend, a family member—destroyed by addiction, whether from heroin, prescription drugs like OxyContin, or alcohol. Haley’s death offered us a tragic common bond.
The class decided to make an album of original hip-hop music focused on addiction, dedicated to Haley's memory. Her father, Steve Paternoster, a local restaurateur, talk show host, and philanthropist, talked to our class several times. His words were raw, real, and deeply moving. Other students, also touched by addiction, began sharing personal stories, allowing us to begin working through our losses and permitting us to dive in, fully aware and sensitive to how addiction can wreck lives.
Haley, We Miss You
It took just 2 weeks to complete the title track, "Haley, We Miss You." We pushed forward. It was very important to the students that we keep the message real, unlike many other antidrug education programs they had experienced in the school system. We wanted an album to be thoughtful and hard hitting while keeping in mind the many complexities surrounding the issue.
The students composed songs about the power of music, the apparent contradictions of the "war on drugs," and the hardships of growing up in the rougher parts of our hometown. They wrote about the dangers of prescription painkillers and how advertisers try to manipulate youth to buy their products. We looked at addiction as part of the larger context of the mental and emotional health of our community.
Jennifer Weiss of the Albuquerque Heroin Awareness Committee, whose son Cameron had overdosed after a long struggle with heroin addiction, approached us. Cameron was a poet and rapper who, before he died, had composed and partially recorded a song about his struggle, "A One Way Track To Hell." It was a haunting and powerful work that unknowingly foreshadowed Cameron’s death; we accepted the challenge of completing the backing music and remixing the song to include in the album.
A CD for Every 8th Grader in Albuquerque
The album was just the first step. Our ultimate goal: to produce a CD for every 8th grader in Albuquerque. Prevention experts suggest that 8th graders are at the highest risk for experimenting with opioid painkillers, usually in the form of OxyContin, which was the case for Haley before switching to heroin. We felt the best approach was to try to reach out to kids at risk of using before they start.
Our label, "SoundOven," was created both as a musical identity and as the name for the organization we wanted to launch using music and film as media for positive social change. We knew we needed a budget for CD duplication, printing costs, and a music video. So, we started a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo asking for help. The fundraising appeal has concluded, but you can still check out our pitch video.
We received an overwhelming response: in 90 days, we had raised more than $10,000. Haley’s dad Steve was personally very generous, but we also got a big helping hand when the Albuquerque Journal did a front-page story on our campaign, subsequently picked up in local TV newscasts. In the end, more than 100 people from 5 countries contributed to our cause.
The Mission Continues
I could not be prouder of my students, Floyd Moya, Robert Serrano, Falon Cole, Ruben Valenzuela, Caelan Harris, Issac Leeman, Alex Wilson, Quinlan Spears, and Alex Torres. Their creativity, passion, and dedication makes me excited to get up every morning to do this work.
But the work is not yet done. We now have 2,000 copies of the finished CD to place into the hands of youth at risk for opioid addiction—which could really be anyone. We are coordinating with the heroin awareness committee and Albuquerque Public Schools substance abuse counselors, the culmination of our yearlong effort.
Blake Minnerly is a musician, filmmaker, and educator whose passion is helping young people make meaningful, professional media projects that advocate for positive social change in their communities. Besides his work at the Media Arts Collaborative Charter School, he plays in several bands and does freelance soundtrack composition, sound design, and editing. He is currently in the process of incorporating SoundOven as an independent nonprofit to continue and expand the project started in his advanced music production class.
More than 300 people helped develop the music video for “Haley, We Miss You,” including funders, extras, cast and crew, fire marshals, and city officials who waived fees for permits. Mr. Minnerly would like to especially acknowledge the following organizations for their contributions:
- The Albuquerque film office for securing locations and permits from the city at no cost
- The Film Tech program at the Community College of New Mexico for raising our production values exponentially with their outstanding equipment and talented students
- The Mount Olive Baptist Church for generously lending their facility and the talented voices of their choir
Author’s note: Anyone wishing to use the video or the full album (available for free download at www.soundoven.bandcamp.com) for their own educational or prevention efforts can do so for FREE. Both are under a Creative Commons license that, with appropriate attribution, allows all uses other than reproducing the work for profit.