How Lessons in Hip-Hop Helped One Man Overcome His Past

Miky Solano’s 16th birthday was anything but ordinary. Instead of walking into a party, he walked into court.

He’d been arrested on a drug charge a few months prior. It was, he said, the first time he’d been in trouble with the law.

“The influences around me — I mean, basically I was just trying to get money,” said Mr. Solano, now 28, who grew up in Brooklyn. “And most of the time, kids around that age don’t really have too much around them.”

Mr. Solano received three years’ probation. It was during his last year that a friend who was going through a similar situation told him about Art Start, a New York City-based organization where he could learn about hip-hop and expand his creative talents while finishing probation.

At Art Start, Mr. Solano began as an emerging artist, a program that each year pairs mentors and up to 10 participants ages 14 to 20.

His mentor was Akir, who taught him how to structure a song. “I didn’t know what ‘bars’ were,” Mr. Solano said of the musical measurement. “I didn’t know what a ‘16 bar’ or even a ‘hook’ was, or how to create one, or how they were structured. Learning that was amazing.”

Mr. Solano said his situation was fairly unique. “There wasn’t a lot of opportunities like that.”

Art Start opened in 1991, as a nonprofit with a goal of using creative arts to transform the lives of marginalized youth. Since then the organization has served over 25,000 young people, said the co-executive director, Hannah Immerman.

Martin Feinman, director of juvenile justice training at the Legal Aid Society, said alternatives to detention are the courts’ way of saying, “I think that there’s an alternative that will better serve this kid and better serve the community.”

Ms. Immerman said Mr. Solano became involved with Art Start through its partnership with an alternative sentencing program.

“We know that art programs increase academic performance,” Ms. Immerman said. “We know that they can reduce stress. We know that they can also reduce involvement in the criminal justice system for young people.”

In addition to music production, the organization provides painting, writing and choreography, among other workshops.

After a decade working with the program, Mr. Solano has become a mentor and music teaching artist.

“Learning lyricism helped my vocabulary a lot,” Mr. Solano said. “It made me want to go search words up. And tapping into that language is hard.”

Tajh Owens, 18, is one of Mr. Solano’s mentees. Mr. Owens, an emerging rapper and visual artist, is working on lyricism and music production at Art Start through beat-making classes and one-on-one sessions with Mr. Solano, with whom he has been working for the last six months. He said he relates to Mr. Solano in more ways than one — he also came into the program while navigating the court system.

“I’m pushed more to want to do things. I’m always, you know, persistent and consistent. So I think I learned that from Miky,” Mr. Owens said. “Miky had like a really bad situation pretty much and he turned it around completely, so that’s always an inspiration and motivation.”