Next Level uses hip-hop to forge immediate and direct connections with the communities we visit. But those short-term connections can often take root and grow into deeper and broader relationships as time goes by. Our “Roots and Branches” series documents this aspect of the Next Level experience by talking to artists about how their residencies have continued to influence their work – and their lives – after the residencies are over.
This time, we speak to one of the first artists to participate in Next Level: Team Senegal’s beat-maker, Dr. Elliot Gann.
In addition to being an experienced DJ and hip-hop producer, Gann is also a trained clinical psychotherapist. And though those roles may not at first seem to go together, Gann’s work makes a strong argument for why they should.
As the director of Today’s Future Sound, a Northern California-based non-profit that teaches beat making and music production as a way to “build confidence, inspire creativity and help individuals create positive change,” Gann spends much of his time developing practical ways to connect music and emotional healing in ways that reinforce the most effective aspects of each. (1)
[Learn more about Today’s Future Sound here: https://todaysfuturesound.org].
As a psychologist, Gann had focused on helping individuals create positive change in themselves and their personal relationships, but his Next Level experience has increasingly led him to think about how similar strategies could be applied to larger communities in different cultural contexts. The idea of using therapeutic strategies to heal social conflict essentially requires a combination of diplomacy and therapy.
But, as Gann notes, the two practices aren’t really that different: both are fundamentally about resolving conflict. “Next Level has given me the language to frame my experience and talk about my ideas in terms of cultural diplomacy theory,” he says. “From the psychology standpoint, we can think about internal conflict and also external conflict. Whether it be across different ethnic groups or in a variety of other ways. And so that’s definitely made me more cognizant and proactive in terms of thinking about how we can use culture, art and music – but particularly hip-hop and beatmaking – as way to connect across cultures. And as a way to connect gaps and to facilitate conflict resolution.”To that end, he is currently developing his “Therapeutic Beat Making” (TPM) model and piloting Therapeutic Beat Making Groups in schools. The full model will be described in a journal article that he is preparing with a like-minded colleague, Dr. Raphael Travis, a professor in the Texas State University School of Social Work. (2)
Needless to say, the model goes far beyond what can be described in a blog post, but some of its most intriguing aspects have to do with making direct connections between musical processes and emotional processes.
“These kids may not have a lot of control over their lives,” Gann notes. “A lot of the kids we work with are exposed to a lot of community violence. They don’t have control over that. Maybe there’s some chaos in their homes. Intergenerational trauma, unresolved trauma. Maybe they aren’t good at school, or it feels out of control academically or in other ways. Maybe even emotionally, things feel chaotic for them internally. “
“But this very structured activity of beatmaking – it has a formula, it’s repetitive, it’s predictable and that they can master as they gain these skills – that gives them a sense of more control. So if your history is influenced by trauma or anxiety, there’s a certain kind of glue that that it gives you. And a certain regulation.”
“A repetitive beat is predictable; trauma is unpredictable.”
“And we know, neurophysiologically, that music opens us up. It changes our emotional and neurophysiological state. I think that that’s a really positive thing…And even with adults, this really can potentiate change and create a new experiences.”
“And in doing so in cultural diplomacy applications or cross-cultural applications,” he concludes, “that effect has been pretty universal. In terms of the interest and the engagement and the enjoyment. The joy. The expressions. From what I’ve seen, that’s been pretty consistent.”
Looking back on his Next Level experience, Gann sees a clear line between his experiences in Senegal and what he is doing now. “I was always interested in working across cultures,” he says, “but I think that learning the language of cultural diplomacy set my international work in motion. Next Level was kind of like the beginning. It was the small little snowball rolling down the hill, getting bigger and bigger.”
(1) Gann is one of a surprisingly large number of Next Level participants who also run their own community organizations. As a result, his Next Level experience allowed him not only to connect with artists in Senegal – many of whom he still works with – but also to build with the leaders of other local organizations making social change around the world. These webs of influence have only continued to grow in the three years since his residency, and have allowed him to share administrative strategies, philosophical principles and educational methodologies with people engaging in similar projects from Peru to Australia to Senegal to El Salvador.
(2) Gann makes a distinction between therapeutic uses of hip-hop and ‘hip-hop therapy’ as such: “I’m trained as a psychologist, as a psychotherapist. I view the work that we’re doing as having therapeutic benefit. [But] I don’t really explicitly talk about the work that we do as ‘hip-hop therapy’ because I’m wary of labeling something ‘therapy’ that doesn’t have the frame and the structure that I believe is required by designation as therapy: Confidentiality. Addressing specific systems or disorders and coming up with a treatment plan. And that kind of thing. As opposed to ‘therapeutic’, which means that it potentiates emotional change and growth. Healing, perhaps. It may resemble what happens in therapy, but it’s not synonymous with therapy. To me, it’s important to designate a difference.”