Refresh Collective helped me find my voice

At first, Malia Mills wasn’t quite sure if Refresh Collective was for her. About two years later, she couldn’t imagine her life without it.



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Picture this: you’re in ninth grade, sitting in class. Your teacher is droning on about the importance of computer engineering. You’re slowly but surely dozing off when suddenly, a 40-year-old man with a crazy-looking hat and big, colorful sneakers walks in, along with people carrying speakers, microphones, keyboards, and samplers. 

You, along with everyone else, stare in awe. Then the man in the hat looks straight at you and says, “You all are going to make music.”

Doc Harrill is the founder of Refresh Collective, a nonprofit that helps students and adults write and record original hip-hop music. He visited my school in 2020 and walked each and every one of us through the processes of beatmaking and lyric writing. 

He also introduced us to his companions “Quill The Messenger” and “Sinned The Grim Rapper.” Sinned was only a year older than I was, and had already gotten on the news for a song he’d created with Refresh Collective. The endless possibilities blew our minds. 

My initial reactions were shyness and insecurity. As I looked at Doc, I thought, “I am not going to do this. Writing music and beatmaking, that’s not me. That’s too much pressure. I’m 15. I can’t make music!” 

Doc, though, thought otherwise. Over the course of multiple classes, he encouraged me to trust myself and step out of my comfort zone. 

The first thing we did was make a beat. Then we moved to writing lyrics and performing in front of the class, which made me extremely nervous. After practicing this way every day, however, I grew more confident.

Ultimately, I ended up performing my verse for the entire school. I managed to pull off a confident attitude, but trust me: my heart was beating out of my chest. 

  My work with Refresh didn’t end there. Last summer I took part in the Collective’s summer camp. In this program, I joined with several other young, aspiring artists under the name “The Fresh Force.” We worked together to make beats, record music, and shoot and direct music videos, with Doc as our executive producer. It was a great opportunity for me to learn how hard you really have to work to bring a project to fruition and move forward in life. 

Malia with the “Five Fingers of Fresh” shirt she designed.

The next stage with “The Fresh Force” was working for the Collective itself. Every weekend, I worked at the Fresh Lab, a storefront on Detroit Ave. in Cleveland that sells screen-printed apparel and clothing. 

We didn’t just sell shirts and make music, either. We also helped design advertisements and promote the store on social media, and taught ourselves PicsArt, Photoshop, and Adobe Premier, among other software programs. We also gained interpersonal and team-working skills. I even designed my own shirt, “Five Fingers of Fresh.” 

It was a lot of work, but it was worthwhile. Just being around so many talented people inspired me to do my best. 

Before I met Doc and the Refresh Collective, I was an antisocial mess of doubt. I never would have believed that someone like me could accomplish much in life. 

Now I’m an apprentice of Doc. I’m learning a lot every day, and I know that no matter what challenges I encounter, I can and will accomplish my goals. I’ve broken out of my chrysalis and emerged as the butterfly I never even knew I could be.

Learn more about Refresh Collective on their website.

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