I can already hear the music as I arrive. It bleeds through the soundproof door of the studio: heavy base, staccato lyrics, and a haunting melody.
Chris Syrus, 33, is a mentor, musician, poet, businessman and the 2012 recipient of the Croydon ‘Top Role Model’ award.
His CV is impressive but the most striking thing about him is that, for all these accomplishments, you get the impression that the thing he’s most proud of is the four young men in the room, referred to him by Croydon Probation Service.
Listening not talking
Syrus has found a way to reach young people, often considered unreachable, and it starts not with talking but with listening. These guys would otherwise fall through the cracks of “too difficult”, or “we don’t have the resources”.
But for Syrus they are the focus: ”Probations, Pupil Referral Units, Youth Offending Teams, and those considered hard to reach are my preferred group to work with.”
When I ask how he manages to connect with these young people, it’s Romayne, 24, one of the young men, who answers the question first: “He talks to us,” he says.
Syrus runs workshops focusing on music that teach young people to express themselves through song writing, poetry and performance. The session I’m watching is one of a series of weekly meetings, and it’s intensely creative.
These workshops are run as a way to engage young people in a process both artistic and cathartic. They have the chance to express themselves and have others listen. For some, it’s the very first time they’ve ever had the opportunity.
It’s not just about music though, Syrus tells me: “It’s an intensive six weeks where I’m with these young people for three days a week, and it’s about building young entrepreneurs. These are budding artists, and they’re developing their skills in production and performance, and they’re learning what it is to run a business and market themselves by coming up with their own brand…”
One song in particular seems to resonate. It is the haunting melody I heard when I first came in and it speaks of struggling to find not just yourself, but the right path when it seems that the ground has fallen out from under your feet. The song is called “The Abyss” and when Sherkai, 19 and Jermaine 20, say it, I can see it stretching out in front, waiting to swallow up the unwary, and it’s something that Syrus knows personally.
Nine years ago, Syrus, like the young men he now mentors, was facing a similar abyss: a prison sentence. It was an experience that helped inspire much of his work. “I think my mindset changed even before I entered prison. My mindset changed in the courtroom, when I saw the disappointment of my family…I had a clear change: I was not going to be a re-offender.”
Syrus’ book, LoveLife6958: Memoirs From the Pen is a collection of poetry that he wrote while serving his prison sentence, and it details his experiences. He earned qualifications in youth and social work and left prison ready to help at-risk young people.
Determination and goal setting
Although he doesn’t subscribe to traditional methods, it’s clear that Syrus is teaching, or as he described it “facilitating”.
“The word we prefer is facilitator, because we facilitate the learning more than we teach. They know the stuff themselves, so it’s just facilitating more than teaching.”
The things the boys are learning aren’t being taught through rote learning or dictation, but through the emphasis on teamwork, responsibility, determination and goal setting. And in the process, he’s helping to cultivate some real raw talent.
“This is a fun way of learning. The amount of fun they’ve had today and the amount of learning and growth they’ve had today as well is amazing. You build, and it’s practical. ”
He frequently stops the boys throughout the session to push them to be louder, and more confident. In response, there’s no grumbling, no irritation. Instead, they grin sheepishly when he commends them on a performance or their delivery, and the determination shows in their faces when he reminds them of what they need to do next time.
The atmosphere is relaxed, almost family-like. Syrus doesn’t speak to the boys as an adult to a group of kids; he speaks to them as one man to another. There’s a mutual respect here.
I asked Myles, 19, what he thought of working with Syrus: “I want to be doing similar things to him, I want to have my own record label to be honest. That’s where I see myself in five years… he makes me think deeper and that… it’s inspiring, and good vibes as well.”
There is a clear friendship between him and the young men in his charge. They joke and laugh together throughout the session, and the boys all seem to get along as though they’ve known each other for months – even though they were strangers just three weeks ago.
Jermaine had attended one of Syrus’ other workshops, and Syrus never lost touch with him. The bonds here are part of what makes these workshops work. It’s clear that friends are made, and kept.
It sounds so simple when Syrus says: “Art is a very powerful form. When I was writing my poetry it was very therapeutic, and it’s a way to give other people that therapy, where they can write, where they can express, where they can build up their confidence. It’s just a method of working with people.”
But the truth is, he’s doing something extremely difficult: he’s making a difference.