In the corner of a basement space in the Grand Avenue Mall is Seayannah Owings, a 14-year-old aspiring DJ, working on her scratching skills. Across the room is Trevaughn Price, 18, who hopes to take his talents to Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) and pursue a DJ career. Both are active members of True Skool’s Just Rockin’ Music Program.
True Skool targets middle- and high school-aged youths and offers non-traditional arts courses, including music production and how to be an MC or DJ. The after-school program attempts to fill the gap left when arts programs in Milwaukee Public Schools were decreased due to budget cuts.
Price attends high school at the New School for Community Service, 609 N. 8th St., which he said had an art program last year, but not any more. He said his musical taste knows no boundaries and this love for all genres of music got him interested in being a DJ.
“I’ve always loved music,” Price said. “I always wanted to learn how to DJ but I didn’t know where to go.”
The first DJ class was held by the well-known Milwaukee DJ Rock Dee in 2005. He died unexpectedly in 2008, but True Skool continued the workshop in his honor, with beginning and more advanced classes. The program is open to youths between 14 and 19. The students must commit to attending classes at least three days a week and complete a project at the end of the year for each class. True Skool’s programs begin each fall and extend into the spring, culminating with a performance that showcases what the students have learned. Only 12 spots are available for the DJ classes each year.
Tyrone Miller, 30, is the Just Rockin’ program director as well as one of two instructors for the DJ classes. Miller has been with the DJ program since spring 2011. Students learn a variety of skills from turning on the equipment to scratching and looping techniques. They have access to professional equipment, enabling them to improve their skills.
True Skool aims not only to educate youths in the arts, but also “to use the urban arts as a tool to engage youth in social justice and humanities education, leadership and workforce development,” according to its website. True Skool students do not pay tuition; they must complete 20 hours of community service. Miller said the school promotes community involvement to give kids a sense of the bigger picture.
“We want the kids to know they have a greater purpose in life,” he said.
“True Skool is a creative outlet for them that isn’t in a lot of schools,” Miller said. “It’s not just about creating music or improving techniques but about becoming a better person.”
Students may come to the DJ classes to learn new skills, but they stay for the atmosphere.
“It’s like a big family when you come here,” Price said. “You have sisters and brothers who support you.”
True Skool gives a sense of belonging to many students who walk through the door. “I love True Skool because it’s my second home,” said Owings.
“It’s all about letting the kids be themselves and really getting their voices heard,” Miller said, adding, “that’s where I think the sense of family comes from.”
Owings initially got involved in True Skool because her older sister, Jaylen Perez, went through the DJ class and “I wanted to take a step forward with it,” she said. Owings started her True Skool career in the music production class and moved up to the advanced DJ class.
“Music is my passion. I hope I can be as good a DJ as my sister.”
Perez, now 19, entered True Skool in 2011 at age 14, when the after-school program only offered DJ classes. She now works full time but is a DJ on the side. “True Skool sets up a lot of my gigs,” Perez said.
Perez admits she initially struggled with her younger sister following in her footsteps but realized, “Seayannah is doing something productive with her time when she could be getting in trouble like other kids her age.”
Perez has noticed positive changes not only in herself but in Owings. “We both are kind of introverts so we don’t really go out of our way to meet people,” the older sister said. “True Skool has forced Seayannah to come out of her shell and, academically, helped to motivate her to continue to keep her grades up. She has really grown.”
An aspiring veterinarian, Owings is the only girl of three students in the advanced DJ class. She said she feels the competition sometimes, but sees the advantages.
“I feel the pressure because I’m the only girl, but I also think I get more attention [from instructors] because of it,” she said.