Brandon Steppe
True mentorship requires bold transparency
TEDxSanDiego 2017

Before I die I’ll inspire the next Hendrix, minus the overdose and the products of bad decisions. Imagine if Lenin was living, like Tupac he died by the bullet, never living to his fullest, the legends left us a blueprint through the power of music, I’m a teach the youth to use it and pray that they don’t abuse it.

And I get why the elders confuse it. So I offer my apologies for wrongs fill with misogyny. Obviously you see the pain and hatred disgust. You point the finger at the youth. They pointed it right back at us. Blame the man in the mirror for mistrust. And if there’s anyone to blame for the record it’s just us. See there’s two paths you could take with this movement. Tell them you shouldn’t choose it or use it to gain influence, encouragement to pick up a pen when times are hard. Life imitating art. Sincerely yours, David’s Harp.

Can I let you in on a secret. I’m not a rapper. Seriously, I just say thank you to all the young people that come to the studio that I get to rap with every single day. Kids from all around San Diego County come. They come from youth, and they come from foster care, and they come for hip hop music most of the time. So, I don’t rap because I love rap. I rap because I love youth.

So when I was asked to give this talk, I did what anybody would do. I was like, mentorship. I Googled it. And in that process I learned a few things. I learned that what we know about mentorship comes from a long line of fictional characters. Fictional characters that span all the way down the history starting with, a long time ago, a man named something, all the way down to none other than the master himself, the master of mentor ship, Yoda.

And I have to admit, Yoda was an amazing mentor. I mean this guy mentored the guy that saved the galaxy. So that’s hard shoes to follow. But the truth is nobody ever crash lands on my planet. Pops out. And asked for my advice. So the question then becomes how do we create lasting relationships with the people around us. Everyone in here has something that’s valuable, information that they have that’s valuable to the person next to them.

But how do you earn a voice in someones life to be able to pass that information along. In 2006 I stepped out on faith. I quit my corporate job, I cashed in my 401k, and I started a garage studio in southeast San Diego. And in that process, when I was done, I looked around and said, “So now I guess I actually have to do music for a living.”

And the most amazing part about that story, was it was my wife that inspired me to do that. So, after I was done, a young man named Ravaughn, he’s a 15 year old, he came to the studio and he said, “How can I get studio time?” It was more like, “Yo, I need some studio time what you got going on here.”

So I said, “No man, you can’t have studio time, I’m working, like I got stuff going on, I gotta work, gotta pay the bills.” Long story short, this guy pressed forward until I gave him studio time. I remember the first day that I knew that mentorship was what I was supposed to do in life.

Ravaughn and his friends came in that day. I gave him a high five. And I could see the day just melt off these kids. The struggles of the neighborhood. Everything they were going through at school. Everything that was pressures in their life, just gone as they interacted with music.

Something changed in my heart. I knew I had a heart for young people at that moment. I knew I had information that I wanted to get to them, because I’ve been through the same things I’ve been through, walked in the same streets. But unfortunately at the time my mentorship sounded something like this.

Ravaughn, everything that the light touches is your kingdom. But you must never kick it at the trolley station. So I mean. That didn’t work right. No, but genuinely, I really wanted to connect with these young people. I just couldn’t figure out how. In 2008 a young man named Austin marched into the studio, pointed right at me, and said he was going to make music to save the world. And he did.

Well, around that time in 2008 I was going through the most troubling time of my entire life. My wife had to close her business because of the economic downturn. Then two months later we found out that we were pregnant with my first daughter. And my gap insurance, and my COBRA gap insurance lapsed from my previous employer.

To make matters even worse. We got pulled into the doctor’s office and told that she had bilateral cysts on her ovaries that could potentially be cancerous and they might have to operate, and that my daughter had a 95 percent chance of being born with Down’s syndrome.

So in the middle of that storm I did what no college educated man should ever have to do. I walked into the welfare office, the same welfare office that my mother used to work at. And I asked for health insurance for my wife. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

So I was back and forth between the hospital and the studio, and, I had a studio session with Austin. I drove up to the studio, and I wiped my face and I did what most people do when they’re going through a really tough time in life. I put on the fakest smile I could possibly put on. I was like, “What’s up guys? How you doing? Let’s do some music.”

Twenty minutes into that studio session I was wrecked. I was done. I put my hands in my face and I just sobbed. And eventually I heard Austin, “Hey Brandon are you OK.” I wasn’t OK. So I just let it all go. I took the mask off. I let him see the struggle of my day, I told him all the details, and one by one these young people in the studio, they comforted me, and then, they started to tell me what they were going through.

That was the first day that I earned an authentic voice in somebody’s life, because I was willing to take off the mask. At the David’s Harp Foundation, as instructors we all have flashlights. And so do every one of you. This flashlight is so powerful because you have two options with it. You can either take the flashlight as a mentor, and point it at your mentee, and you can figure out what’s wrong.

We’ve got to fix that. That needs to be changed. You got to make sure you do that. Now don’t forget that, now you’re going to. You can either do that, or you can take that flashlight, you can hold it directly above your head, and as that light pours down on you, you can let them see your flaws, along with the things that you’ve been good at, the things that you struggle with, along with the things that you succeed in.

And then, if they’re willing, they walk into that light with you, and you can have a real conversation. All right, so I told you guys that the kids come for hip hop music. Now the coolest part about this is, hip hop music provides the perfect metaphor for mentorship. Are you guys ready? Alright, check this out. If you want to inspire voices like this.


That’s my little brother David. Now David is a special kid. The day that I met him I was actually struggling to figure out how I was going to keep the doors open to the studio. And I let him into that process. So today I represent truth in David’s life, even when he doesn’t want to hear it. Now the truth is, David is actually an amazing rapper. But I’m telling him he’s going to be a lawyer, whether he believes me or not. If you’re really ready to inspire voices like this.


Give it up. That’s LIvvy. That is my little sister Livvy. Livvy, when we first met, she was on the run from probation and her CASA brought her into the program. So she started to be trading grade’s for studio time after being out of school for almost two years. And I’m telling you she has a 3.87 GPA now.

All right. So let’s get to this metaphor. Let’s do it. Are you guys ready to make a beat with me. Let’s figure out what it takes to mentor and build a relationship. All right. So let’s go. Check it out. First.

First you got the kick drum. The kick drum in hip hop is the heart beat. Without love, I’m telling you, right now, you have no chance at having a relationship that’s worthwhile. You have to love deeply before you can have a mentoring relationship.

The second element, snare drum. The snare drum represents accountability. If you’re going to actually hold someone accountable in a relationship, to see past themselves to their dreams, you have to have a snare drum, that two and four kick. 1 2 3 4. So consistent.

Speaking of consistency the next element of mentorship, the high hat. Without consistency, without showing up consistently, your relationship crumbles. Most people stop right here. The go, ok, we got something here, it’s a structure.

But without the melody of transparency, this isn’t worthy of a voice, you haven’t earned a voice. But when you’re transparent, now that is worthy of you a voice. And then, and only then, you can do stuff like this.


All I ever wanted to do for the last ten years of my life was be strong for these young people. But I found out that perfect power is actually found in weakness. So the question is. Are we ready, are we willing to take off our masks?