Starting off on a good note

Music and mentorship to shape youth with Beyond the Bars

2 minute read
Four children/young adults in a studio. 2 play guitar, two hold mics. Camera equipment pointing at the guitar players

Beyond the Bars (BTB) is a student-driven music and career skills program dedicated to interrupting the cycles of violence and incarceration while helping Philadelphia youth recognize their potential.

Through various community-based programs, BTB provides instruction in music production, instrumental performance, and music writing. The program hopes to create safe spaces for youth impacted by homelessness, trauma clinics, or gun violence to express their emotions. Once they have joined the program, they receive career counseling, connection to social services resources, and one-on-one opportunities with professionals in the music and production field.

Matthew Kerr, co-executive director of BTB, started as a high school history teacher bringing music programs to schools without any. A students’ mother was the warden at a jail and asked Kerr to teach music to inmates. Kerr taught by himself at first but later brought other teachers, community leaders, and artists to build a program together, introducing music programs to youth who experienced trauma prior to their incarceration. The program later branched out and began partnering with places such as shelters, recreation centers, schools, and trauma clinics to build over 20 musical labs in Philadelphia. The labs teach youth how to play instruments, produce music, write songs, and record. Along with a space where they can grow in music, the program also includes a lending library providing gear, computers, and instruments to students.

The labs built by BTB and community partners have produced over 200 written and recorded songs. BTB has a student teacher program training youth to play music, but also providing opportunities to pay it forward by teaching music to others. Student teachers help support many of the music labs throughout the city and are compensated for their work.

Kerr believes “systemic problems require systemic solutions, and that is why we partner with over 30 organizations to make sure we are working together to holistically support our youth.”

BTB has taught over 650 students in almost seven years of work. Of the tenured students they have taught, 100 percent of the youth identified an increase in self-identity, self-expression skills, and belief in their future.

BTB recently won a PA SHARP grant to extend their programming and reach to more youth in the city. By creating as many accessible musical spaces and supportive communities as possible, BTB and their amazing team of teachers, youth, and community leaders continue to passionately work to support Philadelphia youth. Music and mentorship can greatly affect a child's life in a positive, uplifting way. “Music is how we can communicate what is difficult to express,” says Kerr. “It is a way to grow, state how we feel about our world, and envision how to fight for a better one while being supported by a larger community.”

What, When, Where

Find out more about Beyond the Bars online at

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