Harlem Youth Advocate Uses Hip Hop To Educate Formerly Incarcerated Youth On Rikers Island

April 22, 2020

We love love, love positive and moving stories that show how individuals and organizations step up to provide services beyond their usual mission. In this case with hip-hop lyrics meant to educate and inspire formerly incarcerated young people.

The story of Messiah Ramkissoon is one of them. Ramkissoon, 36, an immigrant from Trinidad, has worked for the last eight years as Director of Programming to help formerly incarcerated youth on Rikers Island at Friends of Island Academy, a 30-year-old non-profit that pioneered a model for supporting formerly incarcerated young people and assisting them back into their communities.

Friends have now expanded its work by asking its Youth Advocates working in communities citywide to educate young people about protective measures against coronavirus so that these young men and women can take the information back into their friends and family.

When Ramkissoonh lived in Baltimore, he was chosen as Maryland’s “Youth of the Year” by his local Boys and Girls Club. He was awarded a $25,000 grant from Oprah Winfrey, which he used to attend Howard University. A poet and hip-hop artist, Messiah gravitated to helping young people who had spent time in jail.

Ramkissoon works in the Harlem office of Friends, which continues to provide support during the current health crisis via Zoom and phone check-ins.

Using his talent with words and gift for expression, Ramkissoon has written powerful lyrics that Friends Executive Director Chris Pahigian plans to share with the organization’s 35 Youth Advocates who build relationships, work with and support young people while they are incarcerated (at Rikers Island/Horizon) and when they return to their community; 500 active Youth Members, ages 16-21, that Friends works with and serves, either while they are in jails, the community, or in Friends’ programs; and the Youth Leaders, former Youth Members, who are now on staff or in a community building/mentorship role.

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Here are Ramkissoon’s lyrics about The COVID-19 Crisis that he wrote to educate and inspire the young people who are helped each day by Friends of Island Academy:

They say tough times don’t last but tough people do/

Young overcomer, in this case, “tough” equals you/

You’ve taken the bad..and instead of subtracting

you made it add like one plus one equals two/

You survived life before a COVID19/

See things no kid should see before 19/

You will survive this chapter of insanity/

Never alone; consider “us” a branch of your family/

Who is “us”?…Friends of Island Academy/

When no one is around, count on us to hold you down

like gravity/

In these times of anxiety, take a deep breath for clarity/

Prioritize your health; protect your anatomy/

Vitamin C is great for your immune system/

How to seek medical attention if you exude symptoms?/

Check the Friends Facebook page; it’s listed borough by borough/

We can’t just give you one..We’ve gotta be thorough/

If you feel fine then please quarantine/

Outside will still be there next month guaranteed/

Disinfect; scrub hands with soap. Wash them clean/

Don’t be mean to people if they cough or sneeze/

Just keep six feet distancing or better/ Remember

“social distancing” doesn’t mean we’re not in this together/

So if you feel well or somewhat feel a temperature/ Friends is one phone call away, text or Facebook messenger/

The concept for Friends developed at the New York City alternative high school located on Rikers Island, known then as Island Academy. Friends of Island Academy (Friends) was founded in 1990 by a collaboration between education and social service staff on Rikers and community-based advocates who sought to address the recidivism rates, untapped potential, and disproportionate confinement of youth of color who attend school on Rikers Island every year.

For 30 years, Friends has specialized in serving this vulnerable and underserved group of young people. They are a place where youth could find a community of peers and advocates who support them and believe deeply in their potential as they rebuild their lives after jail. Because of Friends’ pioneering work in adolescent reentry services, they are recognized for their expertise, tenure, and effectiveness with a very challenging youth population. Their Youth Members’ incredible strength and resilience inspire them and drive their work.

Photo credit: Kimneak Arnold.

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