A bunch of teenage girls, outfitted in their best vintage gear, stand around a set of turntables at the Sol Collective in Sacramento. Nicole Martinez is teaching the all-girl class how to line up tracks and change songs during a DJ set.
“Got it?” asks Martinez, as she switches from a bass-heavy track to a Bollywood beat. “You’re a star!”
For the past several years, California schools have faced a series of harsh budget cuts. Art and music classes are typically the first to go, which can leave low-income kids without much-needed creative outlets. In Sacramento, a community organization called Sol Collective was founded in 2003 to specifically combat this phenomenon.
It’s a homegrown arts and activism center that offers free and low-cost after-school classes to kids of color. The building houses a recording studio, an art gallery and performance spaces. Images of Frida Kahlo are everywhere, along with Día de los Muertos themed posters.
The all-girls DJ class is just one class in Sol Collective’s vast summer offerings.
Most of the girls here are a little self-conscious, but not Karina Lopez. She’s 15 years old and wears a pair of bright red headphones.
“The first time I got into DJing, I was like 8 years year old," says Lopez. "I kept on listening to music 24/7. My dad was like, Nina get off your music and do your chores!”
Lopez is brimming with enthusiasm. She looks up to famous DJs like Skrillex, and her goal is to one day spin like the 26-year-old Dubstep legend. Lopez’s mother saw a Facebook post about Sol Collective earlier in the summer and jumped at the chance to sign up her daughter.
Sol Collective was founded by Estella Sanchez, who’s a DJ and performer herself. Like the young female DJs, Sanchez writes and records songs for her own band, called World Hood, in Sol Collective’s recording studio.
Sanchez started Sol Collective while working as a teacher in 2003. She witnessed firsthand how state budget cuts were affecting kids. “There was really nothing for them to do,” she says.
So during her lunch break, Sanchez saw a huge empty building with a “for rent” sign. She had a little extra income from living with her Dad and decided to put it toward renting the space.
Now, more than ten years later, Sanchez receives substantial outside funding. Her biggest supporters are the California Endowment: Building Healthy Communities, (which also funds the RYSE Center in Richmond) and stores who rent out space at Sol Collective.
But Sanchez wasn’t always a multitasking artist and teacher. Her parents were immigrant farm workers from Mexico and they didn’t have a lot of money for extracurricular activities. So Sanchez had no creative outlets, a problem which she cites as one of the reasons she dropped out of high school. Sol Collective is for kids who remind Sanchez of herself.
“We get a lot of young people who are first-timers, right?” Lopez says of Sol Collective’s students. “Who maybe haven’t had the ten years of piano or like a whole background of working with software and programs on the computer.”
Sanchez eventually went back to school at California State University at Sacramento. She discovered that some of her professors there had been members of the city’s most famous radical arts collective: The Royal Chicano Air force. Back in the 1970s, the group painted murals all over Sacramento and showed up at United Farm Worker protests in military garb as an act of political performance art.
One of the group’s founding members, Jose Montoya, painted bold Mexican-style murals and wrote poems about themes common to the California-Chicano experience, like the famous Highway 99, which stretches across the Central Valley. In his poem On the 99, the speaker addresses a young Chicano man named Gabi who was killed in the Vietnam War.
“That impersonal 99, and not even crosses for the dead alongside this road…and in that infinity you dared to dream, Gabi,” wrote Montoya.
Sanchez sees herself as standing on the shoulders of Montoya and the RCAF.
“I often say that with the work that they did, it allowed me to dream that we, as young Chicanos, could have a place like Sol Collective,” she says reflectively.
State Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) has been a supporter of Sol Collective since he first visited the space a few years ago. Dickinson says that the center fills a vacuum for underprivileged kids.
“Over the years it’s become something of a Sacramento institution," says Dickinson. "But I also think it points out that virtually everywhere, especially in California with our diversity, has a population that needs a place like a Sol Collective.”
And it’s a place where Karina Lopez has come alive. She and her new friends look energized after a few hours of spinning records and mixing songs. “When I first walked in through here, I felt a really good connection with it. I just had a feeling that this might work for me,” she says.
No one is quite mixing or scratching like a master DJ yet. In fact, one of the girls’ teachers, Sal Herrera is making the class get back to basics and practice clapping to the rhythm of a song. He warns the all lady group that the road to becoming a female DJ will be difficult.
“This is a male dominated, you know, type of arena, and they feel females can’t do it," said Herrera. "You just let them know, right off the rip, hey I know what I’m doing, I’m going to do my thing.”
At its most basic, that’s Sol Collective’s mission; Recognizing that it isn’t always easy to make art when you’re a woman, or low-income, or Chicano -- but providing the tools to go ahead and do it anyway.
To listen to Sanchez's band World Hood, go to worldhoodmusic.bandcamp.com