There was a sense of warmth in the air during the afternoon’s events on Thursday, July 9, but it wasn’t just because of Miami’s unbearable heat. A group of individuals that could essentially be called a family had gathered in a cozy, vibrant room decorated with children’s artwork in Allapattah, Miami.
They were celebrating the opening of the Allapattah Music and Literacy Center, a new space for the area's youth to enjoy everything from music lessons to academic tutoring.
At the heart of the day’s festivities was DJ Irie, a native Miamian and resident DJ for the Miami Heat. It was the Irie Foundation, with some help from Merrill Lynch and youth development agency Motivational Edge, that was responsible for the new Allapattah center.
Having reached exceedingly high levels of success with his music career, Irie is all too familiar with the adoration that comes with fame. But the tables had turned at the Allapattah Center and Irie became the fan for the day. Students of the center performed original songs for Irie and presented him with their artwork. Irie held himself with an overall charming attitude, endeared further by his quick ability to joke around with the kids about things like the best time of day for rap battles.
For Irie, the center — which will be run and operated by Motivational Edge — is his chance to provide kids in the area with early opportunities; something he felt was key in his own success.
“Music was a huge influence for me at a young age," Irie says. "I grew up in a musical family. Not that any of my family played any instruments. They just played music really loud all the time."
What started as family gatherings around a record player eventually led Irie to sneak a few listens on his own, enjoying albums from legends like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Bob Marley.
“I’d go to school and I’d be singing these songs in my head and it started to just be ingrained. That was the first spark to really ignite that fire and that passion to pursue music,” says Irie.
“As I went through high school and got into college, more and more opportunities started to present themselves where I could actually explore this passion even more and on a professional level.”
In a society where music isn’t necessarily pushed — and often discouraged — as a career path, Irie and the team behind the center feel it is especially important for the kids to know that music is a tangible option. While the Irie Foundation's ultimate goal is to increase the graduation rate among the kids it serves, it has always done this with a special emphasis on arts.
“[The kids] understand that it is something that is obtainable because there are other artists from here, from home, that are doing it at that level and are making themselves available to express that, 'Hey, this is how we did it and I’m not that much different from you because I'm from right here as well,'” says Irie.
Beyond the music, there are lessons to be learned, skills to be developed and bonds to be formed.
“Even if kids want to be a doctor, or they want to be a lawyer, you get that confidence and you get to learn how to express yourself,” says Christian Beltz, a site director for Motivational Edge.
“It’s so important when you go into a job interview, when you go into an interview for college, when you have to write a personal essay — you need to be able to articulate yourself and you have to be able to strongly stand and represent who you are," Beltz says. "That’s basically what our job is here, we teach them how to represent themselves to their best abilities and be their best version of themselves.”
Site director Desmond Symonette says it is all about love and family within the center.
“We do it for the kids. Being born and raised in the city, I know a lot of the hurdles that they face. Most of them need a way to express themselves, and that’s what we offer here,” says Symonette.
For Jeff Ransdell, the head of Merrill Lynch in the area, the decision to partner with the Irie Foundation was an obvious choice, as he is fully supportive of the positive outlet the foundation presents to the kids. A van wrapped with artwork by Romero Britto was donated by Merrill Lynch so that students can be easily transported to and from the center.
“There’re a lot of kids in this community that — for all practical purposes — they’re alone," Ransdell says, "Irie and his team are creating opportunities for people, for these young kids to learn and express themselves and be around other like-minded children who want to do something very positive with their life."
“I’m just proud to be a part of it," he continues. "I don’t think anybody that sees what Irie and this team are doing can walk away and not become a part of it.”
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As for the students themselves, they're quick to express appreciation for the center, calling it their home away from home.
“This place has really changed my life. It’s offered me the opportunity to express myself and do my art. It’s given me money in my pocket and a place to stay off the street," said one student who has used the Irie Foundation's resources to form a rap group called Young Visionaries.
"If my friends and I didn’t come here, I don’t know what we would be doing but it would definitely not be as poppin' as this."
For more info on the Allapattah Music and Literacy Center, call Motivational Edge at 1-800-641-2201 or visit themotivationaledge.org/ifamlc.