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The Hip Hop School of Arts

A segment for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected" was created in tandem to this story. Watch it here now.

The Hip Hop School of Arts in Pomona is more than a dance school. For the last two years, this unique institution has been transforming lives and a community.

Forty-five year old Julio Cesar Rivas, the founder and President of the HHSOA is aiming to continue the lasting affirmative impact that the hip hop culture has had on his life with the children and families of Pomona and beyond. "Real Hip hop is a movement for positive change. That's how it was born as a voice, as a culture and a way of expression," says Rivas.

The importance of self-expression and play is something that has always been at the core of Julio's soul. As a 12 year old, Rivas escaped a war torn El Salvador and an abusive father to start a new life with his mother and sister in the United States. When they finally arrived and settled in the Macarthur Park area of Los Angeles it was total culture shock. "At first I was stunned at how beautiful it seemed but quickly realized that I had left one war zone for another." Confronted with drugs, prostitution, gangs and unable to speak English, Rivas hated school. "I couldn't communicate so I acted out," he says. His fate at this time seemed fairly bleak: "I was going to either kill, or be killed".

Rivas' rescue arrived at the movie theatre when he saw the cult dance movie "Breakin" in 1984. The film featured 'Radiotron', a sanctuary for L.A. youth that became the hub of west coast hip hop culture in the early 80's. "When I heard this place really existed and was close to where I lived, I had to find it. Suddenly I had a home." Rivas was making friends and Lil' Cesar, as he is now known, was born. "We didn't all understand each other's language but we could communicate through the dance. It was our outlet, our way of expressing ourselves and a way of staying off the streets."

Courtesy of The Hip Hop School of Arts
Courtesy of The Hip Hop School of Arts

Radiotron was an effective platform for Lil' Cesar, who became a pioneer of hip hop culture with his "Airforce Crew" and an inspiration for what he continues to do in the community. He has worked notable names including Madonna, Janet Jackson, Run DMC and Britney Spears and performed for the Queen of England.

In 2007, Lil' Cesar's contribution to hip hop and the community was recognized by Hollywood film producer Charles Evans Jr, who donated a million dollar gift helping establish the five year journey to create the school. It is the only institute of its kind that offers young people the opportunity to develop their skill set across the entire spectrum of what the world of hip hop: Dance, vocals, rapping and emceeing, DJ-ing, music production, design and urban art. Overall, the students learn basic entrepreneurial skills.

The School's impact on the community has been layered and significant. Mayor Elliot Rothman says he has seen the site of the former PFF Bank building transform from an empty, dark corner of the city to a reinvigorated streetscape. "It has been a boon for the local economy with nearby merchants enjoying a resurgence and new merchants coming in to the area," Rothman says.

Rivas and his wife Norma have provided more than just a meeting place and a training ground. It has become a life-line. "Some of the kids that come here don't want to go home," he says. "They feel safe here. That's why this place exists."

Although enrollments are up and the organization has received much praise, Lil Cesar is struggling to keep the doors open. Most of the students that attend qualify as low-income and so only pay $75 per year for unlimited access to each of the classes. The School's board insists that these are precisely the students that need access to these classes and so is focusing its fundraising strategies elsewhere. They are targeting business leaders and hip hop icons like Dr. Dre, Jay Z and Russell Simmons, as well as local business and individuals, who have directly seen the good effect the school has had on their community.

Two years after their February 27, 2013 opening, things are getting urgent. However Lil' Cesar will not be brought down to size by anything or anyone.

"I'm in good spirits," he says. "I know this is what I am meant to be doing. This will not be the end."


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