NORTH BRUNSWICK, NJ—On eight Saturdays from August through October, Rose City Studios hosted the inaugural “Inspire Social Change Through Music” program, a youth masterclass that develops behind-the-scenes skills in the music and recording industries.
Coached by Lana Whitehead and partners, studio founder Kellen Sanders and Hub City Marketing maverick Richard Deloatch, also known as Rich Po, the program celebrates the end of its first cycle on Sunday, October 22 with a Night of Empowerment fundraiser.
More cycles are planned in the coming months, both for youth ages 6th to 12th grade and for adults.
Whitehead, the founder of Sharpened Mindz, organized the eight sessions on topics including studio etiquette, leadership, giving back to the community, marketing and brand building, podcasting, internet safety and more.
Guest speakers, including New Brunswick Today’s editor, gave presentations throughout the curriculum.
The program is “geared to get kids off the street,” Whitehead said, and “have kids be able to be kids” while learning how to navigate around a studio.
Guests and lesson plans inspire the students to think about careers in music apart from being the artist themselves.
“Often we find people want to be the artist, the musician, the rapper, the head, the people that we see all the time,” Whitehead said.
“This was our chance to help kids in underserved communities see that you can grow and make as much money as the artist behind the scenes: being a producer, people who work in the community, getting people together. People who book artists for concerts. All the behind-the-scenes people,” she said.
Whitehead herself grew up in New Brunswick’s Hampton Club community and Robeson Village, so named for the legendary Rutgers alumnus Paul Robeson.
Today, Whitehead is a published author, a life coach, a social worker, and still finds time to put together everything from multimedia lesson plans for the new music program to fundraising events to support the organization’s work and fund future sessions.
Sharpened Mindz started when Whitehead hosted forums for people to talk about emergent needs in the community that mattered the most.
“Where I’m from, we’ve always seen a lot of things happening, but it just felt like there wasn’t a lot of conversation around the emergent needs of our community, where our people felt confident enough to speak,” she said.
“And so that’s what Sharpened Mindz did, our life coaching practice,” said Whitehead, who is a Certified Professional Coach. “We’re about meeting people where they are, and uplifting their self-esteem.”
Just outside the city limits on Georges Road, North Brunswick’s Rose City Studios offers a bright example of this work, giving young people a chance to explore what a career in music looks like apart from the stage and spotlight.
Sanders named the studios to symbolize a rose rising out of concrete: tough, and beautiful.
He took over the building in 2020, envisioning a studio where multimedia professionals can meet all their needs.
Among the staff, he is the engineer, having wired the studio himself along with his father; Rich Po has the marketing and promotions background; and Whitehead is the team’s coach.
That convergence of skills is “how it all works” at the Inspire program, Whitehead said.
On a Saturday in September, this reporter sat in for lessons on podcasting and video blogging, or vlogging.
The lesson plans come from Whitehead’s workbook for the students.
“Everything is tailored because I’m a social worker; all the curriculum is written by me,” she said.
“I know whether kids are involved in school with IEP’s [individualized educational plan], and their preferred method of learning,” she said.
“That’s very important in our curriculum, because I want to ultimately sell this program to other community centers, schools and after-school programs, because that’s what I do.”
The “Great Communicators & Podcasting” session that day concluded with studio time, where the students recorded their own vocals and speech over existing tracks.
A producer was in their ear from the control board, instructing on how to respond to headset cues while in front of a microphone.
This first collection of students was already pretty self-motivated, Whitehead said.
“They love it. They really do,” she said in September. “Some of the kids actually have a show this Saturday and they’re going to be performing.”
Four of the students belong to the band Lil Asmar and the Garden State Prodigies, which has played on network television shows like The Steve Harvey Show.
Other students love podcasting and have followings on YouTube, and took the classes to help develop their content and production.
It’s also not just technical skills that they’re instructed on, Whitehead said, noting how her lessons “develop their confidence and self-esteem as well; positive affirmations, hold their head up, make direct eye contact.”
Both the soft and technical skills are emphasized in tune with serving the public as well.
“Our finale goes along with week number three, Giving Back Into the Community, which is about finding ways that musicians and creatives can use their gifts to give back to the community,” Whitehead said.
“So this will be a chance [at the fundraiser] on October 22, all the people will be able to see some of what the students have been able to do in our class.”
The fundraiser is set for 2-7pm at the Elks Lodge on Livingston Avenue and tickets are $20.
Over the past seven years, Whitehead has developed the Sharpened Mindz life coaching operation, broadened its reach with the nonprofit Sharpened Mindz World, and created another group called Girlz Vs World, which coins themselves “sophisticated philanthropists who give back to the community.”
“I think people really recognize us from giving back and what we’ve been able to do in the community, empower the community by giving back,” she said.
Whitehead said they’ve been able to put back over $150,000 back into underserved communities through Sharpened Mindz, Sharpened Mindz World and Girlz Vs World collectively.
One accelerator was the Covid-19 pandemic; the original life coaching operation expanded then to Sharpened Mindz World, and was able to reach first responders directly while other services were temporarily shut down.
They’ve since added corporate sponsors like Walmart and Amazon, and have worked with local groups including the Rutgers Cancer Institute, Hyacinth, the NAACP, the New Brunswick Board of Education, Catholic Charities, the Puerto Rican Action Board, YMCA, and Middlesex County’s Human Service Advisory Council.
“People kind of find me to engage an audience that people can’t find,” Whitehead said.
Sharpened Mindz World engages on many key issues, including homeless aid, re-entry, women’s legislative issues, and literacy, with workshop events like the Books and Barbershop program.
Another initiative is Pocketbook Outreach, where the group fills gently used purses with feminine hygiene items and delivers them to people that may not be able to afford them.
“At all of our events, we ended up just giving away parting gifts or something that we had in the community that we needed to get out there, like turkeys, or whatever season it was, items,” she said, including donations of “uplift baskets” and school lunches.
“And then it grew. As time goes, your brand grows, and then it’s like, Oh, we’ve been able to do this and that.
“It takes ten years to build the brand,” Whitehead said. “We’re on number seven.”
The latest event is this Saturday’s Night of Empowerment, to close out the first Inspire Social Change Through Music Program.
The plan is to offer the youth program again, maybe in early 2024, and also to offer a condensed version for adults this fall.
It all adds up to a full slate for Whitehead and her partners.
“You sound busy,” this reporter told Whitehead.
“I know, it’s a lot,” she said, and it’s in addition to her Monday-Friday, 9-5 job of the last 18 years as a social worker for New Jersey’s child welfare program in Trenton.
“Before that, I was a professional basketball player. Played overseas in Portugal. I played for the [WNBA’s] Miami Sol. It was fun,” she said.
“But that’s why I made the decision to come back to my community, and start giving back in a way, and coaching people using that sports mentality.”
Whitehead first starred in basketball at the Solebury [High] School in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and then at West Virginia University in its Big East Conference days, before professional stints in Miami and abroad.
“My sports and all my travel background has allowed me to be able to navigate the ups and downs of life,” she said.
“I feel like I’m really good at engaging and communicating that to different generations, bridging the gap.”
Her professional coaching mantra is to take clients from 100% to 200%.
“T.E.A.M.: together, everyone achieves more,” she said, citing the sports ethic. “I’ve been able to utilize that.”
Ben Kelly reports on music for New Brunswick Today. In 2022, he won the first place award for Best Arts & Entertainment Coverage for his coverage of the New Brunswick music scene, from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists.