Junior Lavagesse has turned his life around. Once a directionless boy growing up in a rough neighbourhood in Brooklyn, he is now a youth leader, hip hop artist and entrepreneur in Toronto.
The 20-year-old graduated in November from the Creative Institute for Toronto's Young Leaders (CITY), a United Way leadership program for youth working and volunteering in Toronto's communities.
Mr. Lavagesse, known as Jae Lejit in the music world, says hip hop, community youth organizations and his mentors saved him from the "thug life." He founded 16 Bars Hip Hop, a workshop that teaches young people the four elements of the genre – MC, writing, beat and dance, or as Mr. Lavagesse likes to call it: fire, earth, wind and water – for free in the Flemingdon Park, Thorncliffe Park, Victoria Village and O'Connor communities.
Mr. Lavagesse has written and recorded nearly 100 songs, and half of them are available for free on the music-sharing website SoundCloud.
How did 16 Bars Hip Hop begin?
My family friend encouraged me to record my music when I was 12, so I wrote and put out my songs on MySpace. I stuck with it when I moved to Toronto and a remix I did became a hit in the Jane-Finch community. I started networking with people in the music industry, community groups and organizations like the United Way, then the idea of creating a music foundation teaching youths about hip hop came to me. United Way provided me with the funding needed to run the workshops.
How did you come up with the name?
Every rapper knows one verse is 16 bars. With that, you can express a creative piece of life that becomes harmonious. Sixteen bars is the title because bars mean you're locked out. Through music we can express our suffering, struggles and obstacles, from where we find inspiration.
What does music mean to you?
Growing up, music was my passion and an outlet to express myself. Running workshops for 16 Bars Hip Hop made me realize my potential and released me from the thug life.
Tell me about your childhood in New York
I grew up surrounded by violence, trauma, drugs and discrimination in my school and neighbourhood. I was a timid and closed-off kid, and wasn't interested in school or studying.
At school, I was physically and verbally violated by boys my age. They'd call me derogatory and racist names. … People made fun of the way I dressed.
What was your family like?
My mom raised me and my seven siblings. My parents were from Haiti and my father left when I was seven.
My mom took us to Toronto when I was 15 to get away from the negative environment. I went to Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute in the Flemingdon Park neighbourhood, but got caught up in gang violence, robbery and selling drugs again because of the lack of money.
Acting out was a way to relieve my devastation and feelings of being mistreated and abused by society. The only person who stood up for me was my mother. She supported me my entire life. She lives her life to take care of me, and because of her belief in me, I feel like I now have to live for her.
What are your long-term plans after the CITY Leaders program?
I'm currently looking for ways to expand 16 Bars Hip Hop to reach everyone in Toronto and planning for its second annual showcase in July.
My ultimate vision is to build a leadership development system in the form of books, audio clips and a website for youths. Right now, I'm reading books and applying my CITY Leaders skills on leadership, finance and entrepreneurship and … to develop the blueprint for my business goals.
What projects are you working on right now?
Currently I'm working on a Youth in Action program, a single mothers project, and a documentary about my life and a website for 16 Bars Hip Hop to be launched [this year].
What advice do you have for youth who relate to your childhood experiences?
Find access to as many resources as possible. The resources are there, but the opportunities will not be handed to you, you have to take it.
Also, it's never too late. But you have to be the person of your own self, and then everything else will fall into place.