A red carpet lined the hallway leading to Center Stage this past Oscars weekend and coincided with the arrival of the performers from one of Boston’s newest diversity collectives—the youth members of Boston Rise.
Alumnus Juma Inniss ‘13 started the collective in 2018. Boston Rise grants Boston youth the opportunity to perform original songs, rap, and slam poetry under the guidance of professional musicians, who help them hone and produce their work.
Their showcase at Emerson on Feb. 21 was the collective’s first public event. The group also created an eponymous album, which is set to drop in mid-to-late March.
“Boston Rise is an initiative to lift art, community, and culture in the city of Boston,” Inniss said at the event. “It is all about creating a platform that unites, promotes, and empowers Boston creatives.”
Before creating Boston Rise, Inniss founded a media literacy education program called The Message in 2015. Musician Jared Price, who is known by the stage name JPRiZM, works with Inniss as a DJ for The Message events and curates the music. Inniss said The Message reflected the entrepreneurial and creative skills he learned as a marketing communication major at Emerson.
“We go throughout schools and we offer concerts, we have a semester-long residency, and we also do talks,” Inniss said about The Message program. “They’re all geared around helping teenagers think critically and make positive life choices.”
Inniss and Price provided The Message to high school classes in the Greater Boston area—Brooke High School, Match Charter Public High School, and Weymouth High School.
Inniss said The Message classroom programs end with students presenting a creative performance or media project, and this aspect of the program led to the creation of Boston Rise. Most Boston Rise performers come from these schools, though some have graduated or discovered Boston Rise from outside of The Message program.
Inniss said both programs aim to help youth make positive choices surrounding their consumption and creation of media.
“Being able to assert your own destiny by gaining more control over how media messages influence you gives you more agency over your own decision-making and your own personal pathway,” Inniss said.
The Live Arts Boston grant, created by The Boston Foundation, funded Boston Rise in 2018. The grant can provide up to $15,000 for projects that create, produce, or present art for Boston audiences, according to their website.
Price helps record the students’ original songs at his studio in Allston, where he also works on his own material. Price DJed for the Emerson event but said the educational aspect was the most valuable part of the program for him.
“It’s just about being creative and having a platform to do that,” Price said. “Being able to pass on the knowledge is something that I’ve always wanted to do.”
The students in the program expressed enthusiasm and excitement for their newfound exposure to these skills and opportunities. Echezona Onwuama, a Boston rapper in his senior year at Weston High School, found Boston Rise through his friendship with Price. Onwuama said the original song he performed, “Go Hard,” expresses his unyielding drive to be part of the music scene.
“It’s just art at its best,” Onwuama said in an interview. “Even if I’ve got the whole world against me, no matter what, I’ve got to persevere, and show that I’m moving without any obstacles in my way to keep me from where I want to be.”
Onwuama said he hopes to continue his work in music, which was fostered by his involvement with Boston Rise.
“I’m looking for the next place to advance my passion, advance my career, and basically get to network and brand, get one step closer to achieving my dream,” Onwuama said.
D’Ana Levy, a sophomore at Brooke High School, sang her original song “Break Your Heart” at the event. Levy said she records all of her songs on her iPhone, and said that Inniss and Price helped her expand her craft through Boston Rise.
“It felt like a second home,” Levy said. “It felt like I was actually doing something with my life.”
Last Thursday’s performance was the inaugural event for Emerson’s School of Communication’s new Diverse Voices initiative, according to the school.
Lu Ann Reeb, assistant dean of the School of Communications and the director of entrepreneurial and business studies, said this initiative aims to expose new voices to the Emerson community. She said Inniss’ message of positive creativity and expression was exactly the sort of program her team wanted to offer in this new initiative.
Reeb commended Inniss’ creative approach to Boston Rise and noted that it was an amalgamation of his wide range of passions and skills.
“It’s really cool to see the connection between … him as an Emerson alum, music, and culture, and literacy, and the arts, and how he has brought that all together within the city of Boston in various different neighborhoods,” Reeb said. “It’s a great message, and it’s clearly part of what Emerson is all about too.”
Inniss said that he brought Boston Rise to Emerson because of the unique openness he remembered from his time here.
“In thinking about opportunities to present the work that we’re doing, Emerson came to mind as being a space where diverse voices and stories were always valued,” Inniss said. “So I reached out and it just so happened that the School [of Communication] was doing this new Diverse Voices initiative. The alignment was there, and we made it happen.”
Maximilien Collins, a freshman who attended the event, said he appreciated the collective’s optimistic approach to musical expression.
“Nowadays in this trap music world, it’s very hard to find the message, and so I definitely think it’s really cool that they’re emphasizing the message part of the music so much,” Collins said.
On the Diversity Initiative, Collins admired the work of Emerson and Boston Rise to amplify diverse voices but emphasized that there is still work to be done before there is true equality.
“I think it’s cool that they’re doing more initiatives to expose us to a diverse culture and diverse events,” Collins said. “But at the same time, I do feel like it’s just a start.”
During the event, both Inniss and Price sang and danced along with their students’ performances. Price joined in with a microphone on the final song, a rap duet between Onwuama and rapper Clark D, a student at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“That was probably my favorite part—mentoring and making songs with them and teaching them to write and the format and things like that,” Price said. “You know, it can’t get much better than that.”
2/28/19: A previous version of this article stated that Jared Price co-found Boston Rise and The Message with Juma Inniss. Price did not co-found Boston Rise and The Message. He works as a DJ for The Message’s events and curates the organization’s music. The article has been edited to reflect that.