Yoshi’s Jazz Club is an Oakland institution known for showcasing some of the most famous musicians in the world. But last Wednesday night, the club hosted a very different group of performers: 10 young people who are current or former members of Alameda County’s foster and probation programs and who had reached the finals of the 2013 Beyond Idol competition.

The event was produced by Beyond Emancipation, the county’s primary provider of services for former foster youth. The group serves more than 1,000 youth each year and helps them make successful transitions to adulthood and independent living. Now in its second year, Beyond Idol was conceived as a way to highlight the talents of Beyond Emancipation youth ages 16 to 24.

“The idea was to create a space where our youth could express who they really are,” says BE Executive Director Rick McCracken. “We wanted them to be seen in a healthy, out-there sort of way—to encourage them to talk about their experiences, if they felt comfortable with it.”

Although a number of the performers looked nervous, they nonetheless rocked the house of over 200 with their dance, singing, hip-hop and spoken word.

The eight finalists had made quite a journey to the Yoshi’s stage. Auditions were held Sept. 21, which just happened to be the day of a torrential downpour. Since most of the kids rely on public transit, this was much more than a mere inconvenience.

The eight finalists were then required to attend a workshop on a day BART was on strike. Every single kid managed to show up on time. “I think it’s absolutely incredible how these young people had a goal, really persevered, and then achieved their goal,” says Rick.

The performers included Alearria Blunt and Drake McCarthy (vocals); YM, D-Skrilla, Pretty Nikki and Raynel (hip-hop); and Rakarra Williams and Tekron (spoken word). Last year’s winners, Stephon Mills and Sade Daniels, were also featured.

Sade’s spoken-word performance was stunning and harrowing. Her piece focuses on a schoolyard beating she survived when she was 9, and includes lines like “What happens when the shattered innocence is where it all begins?” and “I’m living like a failed Plan B.”

But Sade’s story doesn’t end there. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in social welfare, and she wants to earn her master’s. Recently, she was a keynote speaker at the Foster Youth Education Summit in Sacramento. On the BE website, she writes that she “has every intention to continue writing and encouraging youth to take control of their lives.”

I had my own reasons for wanting to see the performances: Several Fairyland interns have come to us through Beyond Emancipation, and the relationship has been positive on both sides of the equation.

The event was co-sponsored by 51Oakland, whose mission is to ensure that all Oakland public school students have equal access to art and music education. The founder of the organization is Yoshi’s owner, Yoshi Akiba.

You may not think that the successful Yoshi would have much in common with the youth performers, but you’d be wrong. She was an orphan in post-World War II Japan and was raised in an orphanage in Zushi City. There was an American army base nearby and four times a year she’d go there to see visiting performers. The experience transformed her. “When I saw music and dance, it made me a different human being, it really helped me,” she said.

“Please keep up your art,” she urged the young performers. “It’s your soul. It keeps you alive.”

You can find out how to support Beyond Emancipation at beyondemancipation.org.

Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland. See our guidelines.

About The Author

Susan Mernit is editor & publisher of Oakland Local (oaklandlocal.com) a news & community hub for Oakland, CA. A former VP at AOL & Netscape, & former! Yahoo Senior Director, Mernit was consulting program manager for The Knight News Challenge, 2008-09; was a 2012 Stanford Carlos McClatchy Fellow; and is a board adviser to The Center for Health Reporting at USC, Annenberg School of Journalism. She has consulted with many non-profit organizations on strategy, product development and social media/engagement, including Salon.com, TechSoup Global, Public Radio International and the Institute for Policy Studies/Economic Hardship Reporting Project, led by Barbara Ehrenreich.

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