David’s Harp strikes a note with at-risk teens
Brandon Steppe’s life took a sharp turn in 2006 when a 16-year-old neighborhood boy named RayVaughn showed up at his garage music studio and asked to record some raps.
Steppe, then an aspiring hip-hop producer, sent RayVaughn on his way but he soon returned, more determined than ever. Steppe offered him a deal: free studio time in exchange for good grades.
That was the beginning of the David’s Harp Foundation, an East Village creative youth development organization that provides studio time, technical training and mentorship to more than 200 at-risk youths each year.
Steppe and his team of eight part-time mentors and music and video producers work six days a week with mostly teens ages 14 to 18 who are in homeless shelters, foster care and the juvenile justice system.
The most motivated teens are invited to sign a “record deal,” where they can earn twice as much studio time if they bring up their grades and improve their behavior. Most kids honor their contracts.
One of them is a teen rapper named Olivia who came to David’s Harp two years ago. At the time, she’d been on the run from her group home for two years and hadn’t been in school for a while. Within two months of signing her record deal, Olivia was a top student, earning a 3.8 grade point average at her high school.
“These kids have the aptitude, but nobody has ever held them accountable,” said Steppe, 37.
Last year, student grade point averages programwide went up 16.9 percent. Many teens in the program have moved onto college, several are recording albums and one is now a national touring artist.
But for Steppe, the greatest achievement is seeing how teens like RayVaughn have been transformed through the magic of music and mentoring.
“When I saw how he responded to the music, it changed my life,” Steppe said. “When he was in the studio, the heaviness of the day just melted off him. He could be 16 again instead of just trying so hard to be 20.”
Steppe grew up in Southeast San Diego where his family has a long record of community service. His great-grandmother Rebecca Craft was president of the local NAACP chapter and founded the Logan Heights Women’s Civic League. His now-retired grandfather, Cecil Steppe, was director of the county’s Department of Social Services and CEO of the Urban League of San Diego County.
Brandon Steppe’s goal was to make his mark in the community in music. He played jazz saxophone in high school, gigged around town as a musician and did some producing on the side.
In 2006, he was managing a car rental agency when his wife encouraged him to follow his dream. He quit his job, cashed in his 401(k) and set up the studio in their garage. It wasn’t long before he found his calling with David’s Harp and he’s never looked back.
“I think it has to do with my Christian faith and finding my purpose,” he said. “It’s seeing young people transformed after coming in without a sense of hope and finding a place where we meet them right where they’re at.”
Steppe named his foundation after the Bible story of David, who could ward off evil spirits whenever he played his harp for King Saul.
Steppe said his biggest revelation came in 2008. In the midst of the recession, his wife had to close her business, his studio bills were piling up, his COBRA gap insurance lapsed and his wife, then pregnant with their first child, was facing health problems.
The upbeat attitude he practiced around his mentees cracked one day and he broke down and shared his troubles. To his surprise, the teens reciprocated and opened up like never before. This style of openness is now a cornerstone of David’s Harp, which became a nonprofit in 2009.
Steppe’s transparency appealed to David Higareda, 19, who started at David’s Harp Foundation two years ago and is now one of four former mentees studying music and video production at San Diego City College.
The aspiring filmmaker said Steppe “helped me see the blueprint that’s possible for my life.”
“Brandon tells you about his struggles and you feel comfortable sharing your own,” said Higareda. “You feel like he’s walked in your shoes and you can learn a lot from him.”
David’s Harp runs four programs. Shelter Nights brings children in area homeless shelters into the studio every Tuesday night. Voices for Children is a songwriting day program for children with court-appointed special advocates. Student Studio is a six-week training program affiliated with 17 local schools and foundations. And the just-launched Studio in a Backpack program takes the six-week program into the East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility.
One of the key figures behind the growth of David’s Harp is its board chair, Brinton Miller, who is senior vice president of technology strategy and architecture for Discovery Communications, the parent company of Discovery Channel, HGTV, the Food Network and more.
Through a family connection, Miller has known Steppe for nearly 20 years and calls Steppe “the best person I’ve ever met.”
Back in 2006, Steppe sought Miller’s technical advice in building his garage studio. Later, he asked for tips on raising a couple thousand dollars to buy a couple of cheap laptops and toy sound mixers for his mentees.
But Miller grew up playing multiple instruments and knew firsthand how musical training can improve grades, focus and discipline. He urged Steppe to dream bigger.
“I was the one jumping up and down and saying if you’re going to do it, go big,” Miller said.
Miller tracked down a state-of-the-art film mixing board in Hollywood that they adapted for use in a music studio. He also launched a yearslong partnership where Discovery donates its used laptops and video equipment to David’s Harp, which then re-sells the products to fund its programs.
Miller has also helped Steppe arrange partnerships with Sony, Avid Technology, Adobe and other firms whose eqipment and software donations have allowed David’s Harp to build a world-class music production studio at its 16th Street headquarters, which opened in 2012.
“The kids are in awe when they first walk in,” Miller said. “The respect that they show for the facility and for the team working in the facility is so much greater.”
David’s Harp is run on a $250,000 budget. Miller said the board’s immediate goal is to improve fundraising so the organization can expand its outreach in San Diego and hopefully open a second studio in the next two to three years.
Running the onsite mentoring and music training program with Steppe are director of programming Joseph Mack and instructor/manager Rashaad Graham. Both have volunteered their time to David’s Harp since 2008 and only recently started collecting a part-time salary.
Mack, a longtime local music producer, gave up his full-time corporate job in April because he feels so strongly about the mission, saying: “It’s inspiring to see the progress we’re making.”
Graham, a music producer and drummer, said David’s Harp has allowed him to combine his two passions of making music and working with children.
“Seeing the success of these kids gives us renewed focus. These kids lives are being changed,” he said.
Among these success stories is 20-year-old Jesus Villegas, who started at David’s Harp in high school and is now studying video production at City College.
“When I first came I had anxiety around other people, but they listened to me and they helped me find my passion,” Villegas said. “Brandon doesn’t judge me. He lets me describe what I want to do and then he says, ‘let’s figure out how to get you there.’”
For information on David’s Harp Foundation, visit davidsharpfoundation.org.
Sign up for the Pacific Insider newsletter
PACIFIC magazine delivers the latest restaurant and bar openings, festivals and top concerts, every Tuesday.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Pacific San Diego.