Edinburgh rapper helping troubled teens

Jordan Butler is the founder and CEO of Heavy Sound, an East Lothian-based community interest company that specialises in delivering music and arts-based services to young people. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Jordan Butler is the founder and CEO of Heavy Sound, an East Lothian-based community interest company that specialises in delivering music and arts-based services to young people. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Some of Scotland’s most troubled children, many of whom have experienced trauma, are having their lives turned around by the opportunity to learn music through hip-hop and rap.

The Community Orientated and Opportunity Learning (COOL) project is a modest, one-to-one approach delivered by musicians who have often had to face their own troubled backgrounds.

New research by Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) suggests such small-scale interventions may be more effective in addressing the challenges associated with “hard-to-reach” young people.

Funded by the Scottish Government and the European Social Fund, COOL Music is a collaboration between researchers at GCU and practitioners at Heavy Sound, an East Lothian-based community interest company focused on building young people’s confidence and self-esteem through music making.

Heavy Sound was founded by former rapper Jordan Butler, who was homeless by the age of 13 and a victim of physical and sexual assault, with a history of addiction to drugs and alcohol.

He now leads a team of tutors who use music to engage young people to improve their health and wellbeing. The project started last year and works with young people aged between 12 and 18, many with poor school attendance records.

One teenager, quoted in the GCU research, said: “At the end of it, I’m a different person and it’s helped me a lot. I learned how to be more confident in front of people.

“I used to be a bam. This project has made me think maybe I’m not all of that because I have been trying and a lot of things have been going good in my life now.”

Another 17-year-old said: “It gives me something to do instead of going out on the streets, causing havoc.”

Lead researcher Dr Stephen Millar said learning to make music helped hard-to-reach youngsters express themselves and share their problems.

“Some of the youngsters who have been helped by COOL Music admitted that they only went to school on the days when they were scheduled to attend sessions,” he said.

“If governments wish to effectively address issues facing troubled young people, it may be beneficial to allow community-based organisations to contribute to service delivery. When designing and implementing interventions for improved health and wellbeing of young people, the ‘bigger is better’ approach may not always be applicable.”

Darren McGarvey, one of Scotland’s best-known hip-hop performers, said the power of music could have a transformational effect on young people.

“Hip-hop evolved from street culture in disadvantaged 
communities,” he said. “For many young people growing up in adversity, rap is their first literary experience.

“As an art form it appeals to young men from violent communities, in particular, because they identify with the emotions and imagery of that experience. It’s also a great vehicle for connecting people who may otherwise find themselves isolated.”