Damond Blue lost his father to violence when he was 3-years-old. Growing up on Asquith and Oliver Streets in East Baltimore, he said he didn’t have a lot of role models. Trouble in school would eventually land him into a writing program that would have a huge impact on his life.

Like many Baltimore youth, the after-school program provided a space for Blue to vent and hone his creativity. As a young adult, he decided to pursue a career in music and lead his own company, Dream Bigger Media Group. Understanding the importance of youth programming, in 2016 the rapper launched the Beats Not Bullets internship program and enrolled his first cohort of interns.

“I want to create a resource for the youth. I want to give them something they can hold onto, something that they can appreciate and something that they can learn from,” said Blue.

Blue reached out to music producer Kariz Marcel and former rapper Ogun Gordy to help implement the program.

This year Beats Not Bullets is operating out of the Creative Alliance on Eastern Avenue. The team of artists, engineers, and producers lead a small group of young talent. Inside the venue’s theatre, the workstations are covered with laptops, keyboards, speakers and headphones for the young aspiring artists.

Marcel, who also owns and operates Kariz Kids Youth Enrichment Services, is listening to an intern’s latest track. He nods his head and gives his seal of approval to Kamal, a 12-year-old in his first year with the program.

“They keep impressing me every time. From the beginning to now, the musicality, just everything is insane,” said Marcel as he reflects on the growth of his interns.

Marcel provided a curriculum for Beats Not Bullets that includes instruction for artists, writers, producers and engineers. For six weeks during the summer, participants receive training in professional and character development. Funded by Blue’s Dream Bigger Media Group and supporters, the multifaceted program teaches employability skills and insight into the various career opportunities in the music industry.

“You might come here saying ‘I’m a rapper,’ but you might leave here saying, ‘I want to be an engineer,” said Marcel. “We want to show them that behind every artist there are jobs.”

Although, participants are free to explore all types of musical genres, Gordy acknowledges the influence of hip-hop music and how it can be used to engage youth.

“Hip-hop has done a lot for me and Damond Blue personally,” said Gordy, who is the operations manager for Blue’s Dream Bigger Media Group. “So we think it’s important that we kind of use that as the draw as far as music in general because it’s a powerful thing.”

Angelina Reynoso, a 16-year-old vocalist, learned about the program from her friend’s mom. Coming from a family with a strong background in music, she joined the program to broaden her understanding of the industry.

“This is the career that I wanted since I was really young,” said Reynoso. “When I work with people that have different experiences from the ones I heard of already, it expands my knowledge on the industry altogether.”

With the homicide rate steadily rising, Baltimore City officials are debating several options to  try to stem the violence. More community based programming for youth is strongly being considered. Blue believes members of the community should lead the way.

“The community needs to take full ownership of everything that’s going on, not just leave it up to the government,” said Blue.

As Beats Not Bullets comes to a close for the summer, staff and partners are looking to expand the program all year around in Baltimore and other major cities like Atlanta. Blue is looking forward to offering new opportunities for youth.

“I’m excited for these kids’ lives,” said Blue. “I’m excited for the reform of Baltimore.”