Two hundred students piled into the auditorium of Harlem’s Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School last Thursday to take part in a special assembly held by Young Faces Smiling.  The educational non-profit organization brings celebrity guest speakers into partnering urban-area high schools with the goal of relating to and inspiring at-risk teens through “reality teaching” experiences.

The latest to join the list of celebrity supporters was multi-talented producer/songwriter/singer Ryan Leslie, who took some time away from making hit records to energize youth about the things that he says make him most successful – a great education, persistence and hard work.

Leslie was welcomed with resounding applause and launched immediately into relaying his personal journey which took him from impoverished Harlem, through the prestigious halls of Harvard and finally to the Billboard charts. Ryan recounted how his early childhood was full of stories from his parents, immigrants from Trinidad, who instilled in their son the importance of making the most of every opportunity;

“The American Dream is being able to wake up every day and do what you love to do.”

Ryan Leslie Gives Harlem Kids 3 Tips For Success

Ryan then took a break to connect with his young audience; he asked, “How many of you love waking up and going to school?” As only a third of students raised their hands, Ryan reiterated his point: “You should {love going to school}… school is a place for you to come and learn to be a better person…love yourself enough to be the best person you can be. Go into the world and have the option to do not just what people expect kids from Harlem to do; have the option to do what you want.”

In 30 minutes, Ryan touched on everything from his own teenage angst to his first big break in music. Leslie remembered how he attended 4 different high schools in three years – moving constantly with his parents who worked for the Salvation Army – and how he struggled to fit in as a kid who “wasn’t cool enough… couldn’t afford the latest clothes, had braces, an afro with a part and Coke bottle glasses.” Through laughter he even encouraged the audience to check out his childhood picture on his Twitter page:  www.twitter.com/ryanleslie .

Taking a serious tone, Ryan commented on how students were wearing uniforms and how it was a chance to let their individualism shine: “When you are all wearing the same thing it doesn’t matter about the labels, it’s about what’s in your head and your heart…every time you interact with another human being you have the opportunity to show someone how beautiful and incredible you are.”

Leslie then took questions from the eager crowd where one of the most poignant moments of the entire event was revealed. When asked by a high school freshman if he had ever lost motivation, Ryan told the story of how he launched his music career. He spoke of being frustrated after graduating from Harvard and not being able to find a job. With melancholy nostalgia he remembers how his goal was to sell his own beats at $200 each, 4-5 per week with annual income of roughly $50K a year – things did not go as planned.

Ryan told the shocked student that he only sold 2 beats per month and was homeless for the first two months after graduating from college. He eventually allowed himself to swallow his pride and ask for help from someone who had supported him from the very beginning – his dad. Leslie moved onto his father’s couch, conceded to financial help in purchasing the production equipment he needed and the rest is music history.

Shortly after moving back home, Leslie went on to found NextSelection, signed R&B singer Cassie and obtained production management contracts from some of the top artists in the business, including Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. Ryan ended by saying that he used to rent a 1 bedroom apartment in a building on 136th street and now owns the entire building, proving to the kids that dreams really do come true if you work hard enough. “My dream is only over when I say it’s over. The struggle is only over when I want to give up. Not before.”

I caught up with Ryan on his way out to ask why he continues to give back and share his story with young people. With a smile, he replied, “When you give love, that’s when you get the most in return.”

–Andrea Michelle

Photography and Filming by J. Shotti for SoulCulture.

About Young Faces Smiling

Young Faces Smiling, Inc. is a non-profit organization that utilizes “Reality Teaching” in order to incorporate practical applications into educational lessons for inner city students. Rather than focusing on traditional teaching methods, standard textbooks that are unable to catch and motivate the interest of students, Young Faces Smiling, Inc.’s curriculum encompasses problems from various subjects that include a pop culture element to attract the students. These lessons will focus on the “reality history” of celebrities, entrepreneurs, politicians, sports figures, and leaders who will provide real-life examples and problems for the students to solve.

Young Faces Smiling, Inc. has already received celebrity support from the likes of Cedric Nash, Warren Buffett, Jim Maclaren, Pastor Juanita Rasmus, Pastor Frederick K. C. Price, Diana Hagee, Vickie Stringer, Dawn Fitch, Rob Thomas (Matchbox 20), Taylor Hicks (American Idol), Randal Pickett (The Apprentice), Rupert Boneham (The Survivor), Tichina Arnold (Everybody Hates Chris), Malik Yoba, Tye Tribbett, Styles P, Sean Paul, Lil’ Mama, Yung Joc, Patti Labelle, Doug E. Fresh, Hurricane Chris and many more. Young Faces Smiling’s board includes multi-platinum producer Dame Grease.