Irvine student James Koga helps teens find what he calls their “hidden voice.”

Student inspires teens to find their voices

by TOM BERG

For the past year, James Koga, 17, has helped hundreds of teens across America find what he calls their “hidden voice.”

Now he’s working on a documentary and book about his experiences.

“I’ve learned that real, genuine connections and communities matter,” says the University High senior.

This all started in January when Koga and Nathan Solomon (teammates on the Irvine Novaquatics swim team) won a $5,000 fellowship from the Dragon Kim Foundation, an Orange County nonprofit that supports youth community service projects.

The boys named their community service project The Hip Hop Workshop. “Our goal was to teach hip-hop as an avenue of self-expression for students,” says Koga, who’d been writing lyrics since he was a sophomore. “I felt a lot of kids go through a lot of stressful times and could benefit from the cathartic nature of writing about it.”

Finding their song

Their first workshops were for homeless teens at the Orange County Rescue Mission.

“One boy’s song was about retaining his self-pride,” Koga says.

Soon the homeless teens became friends among themselves and began writing lyrics on their own.

“That was our goal,” says Koga, “to teach them to express themselves.”

Next, Koga and Solomon taught a class of 16 developmentally disabled adults in the Aspire Creative Arts Program.

“One student talked about how she loved her big black dog and hiking on trails and hearing the tweet of birds.”

When Koga and Solomon played back the songs, all of the students were singing and dancing.

“It showed me that everyone can use music, poetry and hip-hop as a way to express themselves,” Koga says.

What happened next would have an even bigger impact.

An avenue for self-expression

By July, the pandemic had isolated people for months.

So Koga and Solomon launched an online poetry competition that asked,

“What matters to you?”

Their Instagram post reached 26,000 people in 26 states.

“It was inspiring,” Koga says. “People spoke of their relationships, their families and their identities.”

The response was so overwhelming that it altered the way Koga looks at his own future.

“Everyone has this inner voice that they want to express,” he says. “I want to provide an avenue for their self-expression. I want to be a part of forming communities that will last.”

Koga’s online poetry competition last summer reached 26,000 people in 26 states.