It’s audition day for Beyond Idol. Contestants pace around a large waiting area at Laney College, practicing softly to themselves as they wait for their turn.
This is a contest for Alameda County’s foster and probation youth, designed to showcase their talent and boost their self-confidence. Categories include original poetry, singing and rapping. There are definitely jitters in the room as each contestant goes before a panel of five judges. But the judges are kind in their feedback, like Judge Ralph Hall.
“I'm glad you didn’t say I messed up, let me start all over again,” he tells one contestant after stumbling a couple times during his audition. “You took your time with it. And personally knowing you, you've shown tremendous growth and I respect it. Great job with that man.”
Twenty-year-old Rakarra Williams prepared an original poem. It’s short, but she doesn't falter in her performance. Williams won’t know whether she advances to the finals for another week or so while scores are tallied.
She’s one of about a dozen contestants to audition today. All are hoping to become the grand finale champion, who gets to perform at Yoshi’s in Oakland and win $200 in cash. But all contestants get a chance to do something bigger -- to overcome the challenges of growing up in the foster care system.
This goal resonates with Williams. She has trouble letting people into her life.
“I'm so used to people rejecting me,” she says. “To people saying no, rejecting me, not wanting me. So I tend to push people away and run.”
Williams has lived in group or foster homes for almost half of her life.
“Give or take 12, or 13,” she recalls. “I can’t really count, probably more than that.”
Before foster care, she lived with her grandma. But when Williams was 11 years old, her grandmother passed away.
“ After my granny passed, my mom took all the other kids,” she says, referencing her six siblings on her mom’s side. “I never understood why she took all the other kids. But from what people say, I was autistic or something and she didn’t want to deal with that. So I was passed down to my auntie.”
Williams then started acting violently and running away. But for the past couple of years, she’s been working with counselors and mentors to learn how to deal with her emotions. Now, she takes a step back and breathes when she feels anger. She’s determined to bring some positive change to her life.
“So I'm starting with that change,” she says. “Whether it’s doing poetry, going to school, getting a job, trying to make something better for me and to help those around me as well.”
Ryan Peters is the event coordinator for Beyond Idol, and she says that’s what this contest is all about. “We want kids to feel confident about who they are, what they’re bringing to the table, whether it’s artistic, educational or culinary,” says Peters. “And be able to step out into the world with full confidence and full knowledge of themselves."
Rick McCracken is the director of Beyond Emancipation, an organization that helps young people navigate the foster care system. It’s also the organization behind the contest. He says he got the idea while watching American Idol at home with his kids. He figured it could be a good way to showcase the talents of foster youth, who face tough odds for success as adults.
“If you look at the homeless population in Bay Area cities, San Francisco, Oakland and around the Bay, roughly 50 percent of those people are former foster youth,” McCracken says.
There are more than 50,000 foster youth in California, and a recent study shows only 45 percent of them graduate from high school. But McCracken says these kids are resilient and against these odds, they still reach for their dreams.
Take for instance, 18-year-old Raynel Johnson. The Beyond Idol audition is his first time performing publicly, although he says he’s been making music since he was 13 – the same age he entered the foster care system. So his audition day is significant for him, but for more than one reason.
“It's my sister's birthday today,” he says. “I was already down today, so [the audition] was a stress reliever.”
Johnson’s sister was killed in a hit and run four years ago. She would have turned 15 today. His dad’s in prison and he’s estranged from his mom, so he lives with his grandma near Lake Merritt.
“If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be musically inclined,” he says. “I wouldn't know about the soul of music and where it comes from because that's all she listens to, is the oldies.”
Johnson’s small bedroom behind his grandma’s kitchen doubles as his music studio. Inside, he has two keyboards in the middle the room, with two more tucked away in the corners. Posters cover the walls, including a handmade sign. Johnson made it himself and held it where his sister died. It says "11 year old killed by a hit and run." When I ask about it, he doesn’t lament on his loss, or his situation.
“I'm not too much of a talker,” he says.
Instead, he uses music to express himself.
“Usually I come here and play with the keys,” he says. “I don't really know how to play the piano.” But he hits chords like he’s had years of lessons. “I just be knowing how to play with keys,” says Johnson.
He says making music is what inspires him most.
“I always seek for better, I always look up to something,” he says. “Music was a father-figure. It made me perfect my craft. That's how I looked at it, like a father or someone that could take care of me.”
Johnson has gotten more confident thanks to the mentorship and coaching that’s part of Beyond Idol. Event producer Ryan Peters says she's seen similar changes in other contestants, including Rakarra Williams.
“[Williams has] a bubbly personality but when it was time to hit the stage or grab a microphone, she completely went inside herself,” says Peters. “Now she approaches the stage with a whole lot more confidence. She also approaches adults, and I think that’s the most important thing, adults and her peers, with a whole lot more confidence. She can look people in the eye. She can feel confident about what she has to say.”
Peters tallies up the scores to see who will move on to the final round. Eight out of a dozen contestants are chosen. But at the Beyond Emancipation office in East Oakland, Peters gives the contestants some big news before they prep for the finale performance.
“You’ve all won your category,” she says.
There will not be one champion this year; All the finalists are Beyond Idol winners.
A couple of weeks later, the winners hit the stage at Yoshi's in Oakland. The youth look nervous, excited and filled with adrenaline. There are a couple of false starts, but encouragement from the audience propels them to shine.
As the evening comes to a close, all the winners take a final bow. You can see it in their eyes -- they look ready to take on the world.