Arriving at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston Mattapan Teen Center on a steamy morning last week, musician Shaw Pong Liu came prepared.
Armed with bongo drums and fresh baked bread, Liu, a classically trained violinist who for the past four months has been embedded with the Boston Police Department, was there to lead a curious jam session: a musical collaboration between police officers and city youth meant to explore the thorny intersection of gun violence, racism, and law enforcement. Ultimately, the group plans to perform songs at Town Field Park on National Night Out (Aug. 2), and again the following evening at the Center for Teen Empowerment’s Community-Police Summit in Roxbury.
“Share a positive experience you’ve had with a police officer,” Liu, 37, instructed the assembled teens by way of an icebreaker. “What’s something important about you that people can’t tell just by looking at you?” she asked both the police and teens.
Dubbed “Code Listen,” Liu’s project is part of Boston’s new artist-in-residence program, or Boston AIR, which in its inaugural round provided three six-month residencies for artists to work in city departments.
“We all recognize that one small program for a limited amount of time isn’t going to be a comprehensive solution,” Julie Burros, chief of arts and culture for the city of Boston, said of Liu’s residency. “But it’s so important, and it’s worth looking for new ways to approach this giant, seemingly intractable problem.”
Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans said the department welcomed Liu’s project, which he said was a way for city police to “reach out to people we may not be able otherwise to reach.”
“We’re never one to shy away from dialogue,” Evans said through a spokesperson. “Music is another form of conversation, and this is another way to engage the community.”
For Liu, that has meant staking a claim at Boston Police District B-3, in Mattapan and Dorchester. She’s gone on ride-alongs, made music at the station, and formed a citywide police band (also named Code Listen), which recently played a set at Jamaica Plain’s Porchfest.
But Liu’s project took a delicate turn last week, as she used music to wade into issues that have become increasingly polarized after a series of police shooting deaths were followed by the killing of eight officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La.
“This project is about using musical experiences as a starting place for such conversations,” said Liu. “It’s one small effort of many to start to create change.”
To that end, Liu led the teens and band-member officers through a series of songwriting exercises, having them speak individually before prompting them to write down potential lyrics that answered the question: “What do you wish every person you encounter on the street knew about you?”
“Just free-write,” she said, as the teens sprawled across the center’s blue carpet and draped themselves over furniture. “Don’t worry about the format. If it comes to you in a poetic form feel free to do that, but just write your thoughts.”
The group was soon improvising around the lyric “we are all the same,” with officers singing and playing bass and guitar, while teens played bongos, congas, and a box-like Peruvian instrument known as cajón. But the jam was short-lived, morphing quickly into an a cappella rendition of Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me.”
It wasn’t quite what Boston detective Jeremiah Benton had expected, but the tyro bassist seized the musical moment when he could, working a few lines before passing off his instrument.
“I have no expectations, just hope,” said Benton, 50, a 28-year veteran of the force who once performed as an Elvis impersonator. “If it doesn’t work today let’s do it again tomorrow.”
Sharing the microphone with officer Kim Tavares, Taya Hopkins, 17, said it was important to see beyond the negative stereotypes many of her friends have of police.
“At the end of the day when they take off their uniform, they’re going to be wearing regular clothes just like everyone else,” said Hopkins. Like many of the other youth there, Hopkins is participating in the project through Teen Empowerment, which trains young people to be community organizers.
“I’m getting a lot of pushback from it,” she said of her friends’ reactions. “The simple fact of seeing youth and police working together could really help out.”
One stereotype seemed to falter when Tavares, a vocalist who works a variety of duties as an officer, choked up while reading her lyrics, a heartfelt reflection on misunderstandings between police and the public.
“Are you OK?” one of the kids asked, as every teen in the room piled on for a group hug.
“We show emotion, too,” said Sergeant John Burns, 64, a drummer and community service supervisor. “We’re like everybody else.”
It may not have been musical progress, but it left a strong impression on Carrie Mays, 15, who came because she “wanted to see behind the badge.”
“She’s not just faking it,” said Mays, who said she’s had a “grudge” against police. “I’m not surprised because we’re all human, and I know that under the badge we all have family. We all love. We all feel pain.”
After a late-afternoon ice cream break, the participants divided into two songwriting groups. Their lyrics long-since misplaced, one group of teens began to work out a rhythm in an upstairs gym — a rambling musical kernel Liu said she hoped to cultivate into a full-fledged song in subsequent rehearsals.
If all goes well, that song will be on the program Aug. 2. And there’s even talk of a possible recording.
“It’s more about the process than about having an expansive repertoire,” said Liu. “If a great piece of music comes out of it that would be awesome, but it’s not really a high priority.”