On the corner of Holt and Gary Avenues in downtown Pomona rises a massive, 24-thousand-square-foot cobblestone building. It once protected the savings and investments of Pomona residents, but now it serves a different purpose.
Spray-painted graffiti and images of hip-hop moguls decorate the walls of the former PFF Bank & Trust. A life-sized boom box has replaced the teller-counter. Walls that read, “Poppin’ & Lockin,’” and “Radiotron” were built from scratch to frame state-of-the-art dance floors. The only trace left of the former bank is a steel-door vault renamed “The Hip-Hop Library.” The Hip Hop School of Arts has turned the old bank into its new home, hoping to make a different kind of investment in the city of Pomona.
Near the entrance, an ocean-blue, spray-painted mural depicts Julio ‘Lil Cesar’ Rivas midway through his signature b-boy head-spin, among images of disc jockeys, rappers, and other dancers.
A hip-hop mural decorates the exterior wall of the Hip Hop School of Arts on Garey Avenue.
Rivas founded the school in 2012, opening doors for the children in Pomona, the way Radiotron, a youth center in the MacArthur Park area of Los Angeles did for him when he moved from El Salvador at the age of 12. He sees it as a way to chip away at Pomona’s crime and offer a refuge from problems that often entangle youth in his community. His dream is to open similar centers in Los Angeles, New York and other global cities.
Radiotron became a sanctuary for Los Angeles youth to participate in all elements of hip-hop culture including graffiti, breakdancing, emceeing, and disc jockeying. The South Bronx is called the birthplace of hip-hop culture that developed among Black and Latino youth in the 1970s. Hip-hop became a tool of expression for Bronx natives, and quickly spread throughout the country. Radiotron was the first West Coast youth center that catered to the hip-hop generation. Despite its popularity, the center ran out of money and was demolished in 1985.
Cesar Rivas leads a one-on-one breakdancing class with one of HHSA’s youngest students.
“Everyone who used to go to Radiotron went back to the streets,” says Rivas. “We had no other place to go. We were no longer dancing. We were just running for our lives.”
Rivas, who has danced and choreographed for hip-hop legends like Kurtis Blow and Run D.M.C., was no stranger to the menacing behaviors that consumed the streets of his Los Angeles upbringing. After his own run-ins with the law, he decided the West Coast needed another center that could act as an educational safe haven for those who love hip-hop culture.
Rivas realized his vision after a million-dollar donation from filmmaker Charlie Evans. The center functions as a volunteer-based, after-school program that offers classes on every element of hip-hop, ranging from hip-hop choreography to music production and entrepreneurial classes.
Community members and close friends of Rivas have donated most of the technological equipment and paintings. The founder was impressed by the support he received from Mayor Elliot Rothman, the Chamber of Commerce and local businesses. He said that each of these organizations saw a need for a place like the Hip Hop School of Arts in the neighborhood.
Saul Ochoa, HHSA b-boy instructor, freestyle dances during b-boy practice.
Of 270 neighborhoods, Pomona ranks 59th this year on the Los Angeles Times list of deadliest areas. Rivas says that the community saw a special need for a center like the Hip Hop School of Arts, due to the high rates of prostitution and violent crime.
In 2013, over 21 percent of Pomona residents lived below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census. Most of the students at the Hip Hop School of arts qualify as low-income. These families pay $75 a year for unlimited access to classes. Hip-hop was born in a low-income environment in the South Bronx, and Rivas and his wife do not want finances to limit access to the art form.
Although the school’s formal mission is “to provide a unique technical trade program to transform each student’s creative energy through marketable skills, education, guidance and self-expression,” what is most important for Rivas is that the young people of Pomona have a place to learn the elements of the culture that saved his life instead of being on the streets.
“When I stop coming here and when I stop exercising or eating right, everything just seems impossible again,” says Josue Martinez, 20.
Martinez is an emcee student at the Hip Hop School of Arts. He grew up on Magnolia Street in El Monte, Calif., which he describes as a trailer park area ridden with gang activity. Martinez never participated in the gang culture that surrounded him, but he began to experiment with drug use after befriending those who did.
“I was a meth addict for like a year,” says Martinez. “I tried cocaine, ecstasy, even LSD and those are things I’m really not proud of.”
Martinez turned his life around through music. He discovered the school after researching places where he could express himself through rap. His instructors saw untapped potential when they began working with him at the center.
“All we had to do was listen to him, love him, and care for him, and show him that there is hope,” says Rivas. “We don’t tell them, ‘Stop, don’t do that,’ because then we’re choosing for them.”
Mike Cook, a production and vocal instructor, saw so much potential in Martinez that he decided to help the young emcee build a recording studio at home. When Martinez is not working at Target, or picking his siblings up from school, the writer sits in his home studio, penning lyrics about his most trying moments.
Martinez performed some of his emotionally driven lyrics on behalf of the Hip Hop School of Arts in October at the Choices Expo in Los Angeles.
“And I don’t know what to do,” he raps. “I am lost as well like you, oh no, no, no.”
Every word is filled with raw emotion, as he bounces up and down with his eyes scrunched shut. His confident demeanor captures the crowd as they clap along to his intimate lyrics.
The school performs six times throughout the expo, showcasing various hip-hop elements. Student Kassandra Ramirez is hard to ignore as she backup dances during a performance by vocal instructor, Ariel Sweet. Ramirez, 17, wears a sassy smirk as she whips her hair and carefully hits each beat. She describes herself as an introvert, but her movements tell a different story.
“Hip-hop is special to me because it’s kind of who I am,” she says. “It just flows with me.”
Kassandra Ramirez, 17, stretches before her b-boy class at the Hip Hop School of Arts.
Ramirez is midway through her junior year of high school at a public charter school down the street from HHSA. When she is not working towards her dance concentration, Kassandra can be seen sweeping up the floors at the Hip Hop School of Arts in a ponytail and sneakers.
“I kind of had a rough upbringing and where I’m at right now, I don’t really feel so comfortable at my home,” she says. “I find time to escape here when I can to be comfortable. I love being in places that let me feel free.”
Ramirez considers the instructors and the students at the school to be a family. This is exactly the type of relationship Rivas hoped to foster between the instructors and the students at the school.
“The instructors that we have here, we all come from that world so I can relate to that kid’s life,” he says. “We got the best experience, not just by a degree but also by being there. You’re going to tell me that you can’t do and fulfill your dreams. How is it that I did it?”
Some parents are initially skeptical about enrolling their children in a school that focuses on hip-hop. Many have questions about the type of music and behaviors that students will be exposed to upon arrival.
“I do think that hip-hop is misunderstood,” says Tyrone Stokes, emcee instructor. “It’s because of the way it’s portrayed in the media and also because of the kind of music the industry is pushing because they know it will make money.”
Stokes says that misconceptions about hip-hop are the reasons why the Hip Hop School of Arts in Pomona exists. Rivas wants to bring the roots of hip-hop back to the forefront.
“Hip hop is for change, it’s to make things better,” says Rivas.
The 1970s “Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting” in New York marked a major event in the beginning of hip-hop history. Afrika Bambaataa, a legendary disc jockey and former gang member, was among the attendees who called for peace between neighborhood gangs and eventually pushed for self-expression via hip-hop. Rivas recalls this historical turning point, and wishes to inform his students of other events that served as catalysts for moments of change in hip-hop history.
“Here we go again,” says Rivas. “Hip-hop reinvents itself and we’re here, servicing the community.”
Why did rap get so big? How did b-boying make it into the movies? Who are the founding fathers of hip-hop? These are all questions that Rivas addresses in the school’s curriculum.
“It’s not just teaching you how to rap or teaching you how to breakdance,” says Stokes. “It’s teaching you some skills that you can take later on in life even if you don’t pursue hip-hop.”
“The kids who want to become rappers, they have to learn English and if they don’t like that subject, well, guess what?” says Rivas. “You’re going to have a challenge becoming an emcee.”
An HHSA student pens rap lyrics during his “emcee” class with Tyrone Stokes.
Rivas and his wife, Norma Umana, put their careers on hold in order to ensure the success of the school. One of his main concerns is making sure that the school gets enough funding to keep the lights on.
“Some people might think that we’re making this great money but that’s not the case,” says Rivas.
“Shoot, we’re not getting paid,” he laughs.
The amount of time and dedication that is required to make a change in the lives of the students at the Hip Hop School of Arts does not affect the mission of the volunteers.
“We come here, we’re volunteering all of our time and we’re helping these kids in whatever it is they want,” says Stokes. “If they need food, we’re going to buy them some food.”
Rivas and his volunteers have created a program that inspires students like Martinez and Ramirez, by their willingness to go above and beyond their mission statement. The Hip Hop School of Arts of Pomona serves as the prototype for what is to come. Rivas would eventually like to build centers in Los Angeles, New York, and other major cities across the globe. In the future, ‘Lil Cesar’ hopes to fulfill dream jobs for the school’s volunteers. If all goes as planned, the volunteers will eventually transition into paid, full-time instructors as the center slowly transforms itself into a full time charter school. The center currently serves about two-dozen students, with room for nearly 1,000.
The school marked its two year anniversary on February 27. What has developed in the former bank building is more valuable than money for all of those involved.
“This is what I was designed to do,” Rivas says.
This story is part of a partnership with USC Annenberg to explore what's working in Los Angeles and beyond.