Therapeutic Impact: Beats Rhymes and Life Celebrates 20th Anniversary with an Appearance on the Kelly Clarkson Show with Rapper Common

How many organizations get to hear directly from Common, rapper extraordinaire, about how powerful their work is?

Beats Rhymes and Life (BRL) shared the limelight on the Kelly Clarkson Show recently with renowned rapper  Common, who praised the therapeutic power of hip hop and Beats Rhymes and Life, a groundbreaking organization in the area of hip hop therapy.

BRL, co-founded by Tomás Alvarez III, M.S.W. '06 (who did not appear on the show), and Rob Jackson in 2004, has been a leader in providing therapeutic programs specifically designed for boys and young men of color originally, addressing significant health and social disparities within communities of color. In 2006, John Gill, M.S.W. ’07 and adjunct professor, joined and became chief operating officer in 2011, and the organization has continued expanding its offerings on the East and West coasts in the years since. BRL employs the therapeutic power of hip hop to inspire youth, fostering healing and self-expression at both individual and community levels.

Tomas Alvarez speaks during the 2018 centennial celebration. He is seated wearing a white shirt and gesturing with both hands.
Tomás Alvarez III speaks during the 2018 Centennial celebration at Smith College SSW. Photo by Shana Sureck.

Originating from Alvarez's innovative 'Hip Hop Therapy' model, which he created during his time as a school social worker, BRL's approach has shown clear results. Participants reported improved mood, self-esteem and a reduction in at-risk behaviors, along with a positive shift in attitudes towards mental health.

“We really wanted to create an opportunity for young people to heal,” said Jackson, BRL executive director, on the Kelly Clarkson Show. “We know in Black and brown communities in particular, we don’t really trust people when it comes to our business, right? At the same time, because of that, we internalize a lot of the trauma- complex trauma, post-traumatic stress. So…we partner social workers and therapists with teaching artists and peer specialists to do group work for youth ages 12-17…it’s about combining things like narrative therapy and solutions-focused therapy, self psychology, marrying those two together and partnering with our triads- social worker, teaching artist and peer specialist to do our groups. And here we are 20 years later, sitting here talking with Kelly Clarkson and with Common!”

Common expressed his personal connection to hip hop as a form of therapy, acknowledging that the genre serves as a powerful means of self-expression and a tool for examining subconscious experiences.

“I feel like hip hop has been one of my versions of therapy, so I love that you all make the connection because I really didn’t know until later when I would write certain songs, I would release certain things that were in my subconscious, things that I had been through, they were coming out in my songs, and I would kind of get to examine them when I would hear them…I really see the connection to hip hop and therapy,” said rapper Common in response to hearing how BRL operates.

Kelly Clarkson, who said how much she loves hip hop herself and made a donation to BRL to recognize the importance of their work, also noted that hip hop is a form of testimony, reflecting individuals' life chapters and societal experiences and moments.

John Gill (far right) poses with the team from Children's Services of Roxbury outside the mobile Beats, Rhymes, Life recording studio. Photo by Simone Stemper.
John Gill (far right) poses outside the mobile studio run by Children's Services of Roxbury who use the Beats, Rhymes, Life model. The bus made the trip to SSW in summer 2022 to offer students the opportunity to see the model in action. 

Over the years BRL has evolved, offering training for providers in social services. The organization is committed to eliminating health disparities by making mental health services more accessible and culturally relevant. BRL is the only organization offering this type of programming in major urban settings, utilizing teams of clinicians, teaching artists and peer mentors to deliver Hip Hop Therapy.

The acknowledgment by Common and Kelly Clarkson on a national platform underscores the transformative impact of BRL's work. The commitment to providing innovative therapeutic care and building community and system change is central not only to the profession but to the very roots of Smith SSW and the principles that guide our community today.