By Alex Eidman

Michael Yan, 21, relaxes outside the Sapphire Lounge before their monthly open mic night. He was released from Rikers Island last December and is now trying to make it as an R&B singer. Photo by Dominique Lemoine.

Michael Yan, 21, said he was 5 years old when his sister scalded her foot in the bathtub of their Bedford Stuyvesant apartment. Yan said the hospital called the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, who placed him and his sister in foster care.

For the next two years, Yan said he bounced around foster care facilities in The Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. At 8, he said he was expelled from school for fighting and transferred to Mount Pleasant Cottage School, a program for kids with behavioral issues.

Yan remembers a staff member, Pastor Chris, sitting him down at a piano to teach him how to read and write music. He quickly realized what he wanted to do with his life.

At the age of 13, he said he was transferred to The August Aichhorn Center.

Yan said he pined for the freedom he had at Mount Pleasant, but said he was thrilled to find a musical companion in Eric Dawkins, a younger inmate that he quickly bonded with through music. He worked on his R&B singing, and helped Dawkins perfect his hip-hop skills. Yan said he envisioned one day performing in front of a packed house.

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Yan was released from August Aichhorn at 16 and went home to live with his mom. Facing no restrictions for the first time in his life, Yan said, he developed a rebellious streak.

“I started breaking curfew and going to parties,” he said. “I was like a bird going crazy when it leaves the nest.”

Two years later, Yan was arrested for second-degree robbery. He said he only watched his friends mug someone, but the police caught him running away.

He was taken to Manhattan Central Booking, where a judge placed him in the Fortune Society, an alternative prison program, for six months.

“It was hell for me,” Yan said. “I had to report to probation every day, on top of doing Fortune and being in school.”

Yan said he had no one to help him manage his schedule and became overwhelmed and depressed. After a couple of months, he said he stopped showing up to everything.

A judge issued a warrant for his arrest for violating parole, and Yan said he was sentenced to six months in Rikers Island.

On his first day in jail, Yan said an inmate challenged him to a fight. He was placed in “the box,” the phrase Rikers inmates use for solitary confinement.

He said the only thing that kept him sane was visits from his then fiancé, Sulie Hernandez, and writing and practicing his songs.

Yan was released from Rikers in December 2012. He came home with assistance from the Rikers Island Discharge Enhancement program, which he said helped set him up on food stamps and get his finances in order. He said the readjustment was tougher than he expected.

“I got on the train for the first time in a long time, and I felt like I wasn’t really there,” Yan said. “It did something to my head, being in there so many months. I still have nightmares where I wake up in my cell.”

Yan said he and Sulie were married at City Hall a few weeks ago. He said he’s studying for his GED at Touro College and spends a lot of time in the studio the Door, working on his craft and towards the dream of studying music at SUNY Purchase.

“I’m gonna work as hard as I can to make it happen,” he said.

Michael Yan talks about the importance of music in his life.

 

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