Give the Children Music: Inspiring Our Youth Through Hip Hop

They try to create a space where our kids can tell their stories and maybe start to dream and believe that their stories don't have to be tragedies.
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During the month of February, cries of disappointment in our education system have been made by a number of Philadelphia youth. In one neighborhood, students staged a walk-out in an effort to get their voices heard over what they see as a long list of unacceptable conditions in their high school -- a list that includes a high teacher turnover rate and being on their third principal this school year.

Students in another school struggle to find inspiration to study under a curriculum that has produced a 30 percent graduation rate with only 10 percent of their senior class enrolling in college.

Healing the school systems of our cities is a complex issue that will take a committed and coordinated effort from a number of institutions addressing curriculum, health, public safety, poverty, funding, testing mandates, teacher motivation, family life and much more. At the center of the problem, as exemplified above, is that students do not feel that they are being heard.

Instead of institutions of learning, many public schools have become places where students find themselves uninspired. This speaks to a glaring need of our children: a place where their voices can be heard and a place where they can be inspired.

Our urban youth are still inspired by at least one thing: Music. Specifically, the music and lifestyle associated with Hip Hop culture. Hip Hop is a beautiful thing. Being born in the cradle of the genre and youth movement in the late 1970s, it has been an ever present soundtrack to my life. At its core, Hip Hop is a critical, creative, prophetic, dialogical space -- an open "cipha" where all have a voice. A place where reality and inspiration pop, lock and break, daring you to get out of your seat and move.

Nathan Jones and his colleagues at The CODA Program seem to think that Hip Hop can also be a part of the solution of urban educational struggles by providing a place for kids to speak, be heard, and be inspired.

Jones has been conducting workshops with different gatherings of youth in the city of Philadelphia. Ten days at 10 different public libraries in ten different sections of the city. The goal is to produce one "city wide" song featuring the voices and stories of Philadelphia children all the while striving to inspire them to "hold on and to be strong" as the chorus of the song says. Jones and colleagues Ali Richardson and Devon Thompson are bringing their passion for music and their hearts to see our kids celebrated and inspired. They try to create a space where our kids can tell their stories and maybe start to dream and believe that their stories don't have to be tragedies. They're letting them know that someone is listening, that someone does care and that someone does believe in them.

And they do all this in just one hour at each site.

Much happens in an hour. These workshops, which Jones had been leading for years through his CODA Program, have included students of various ethnic groups who are as young as 3 and as old as 18, as well as their parents. These sessions are meant to introduce students not only to music history, but also to the process of creativity. At first, the workshop seems like a fun afterschool activity where kids get to learn about music production. But a second glance reveals that something far deeper is happening.

The workshops begin with a short conversation on music theory. Jones asks "Who y'all listening to?" The kids respond with answers like "Lil Wayne" "Nikki Minaj" "Soulja Boy." Jones nods knowingly. A kid asks, "Wait you know these guys?"

To Jones, staying current and connected is essential and an important part of working with kids. During a recent conversation over lunch, he shares how he believes we are living in a powerful moment with a unique opportunity.

"For the first time, we have 40-year-olds and children both listening to Hip Hop. And while we may have a tendency to look down on what they're listening to and dismiss it as not as good, or as deep as the Hip Hop we grew up with, by doing so we're missing an opportunity to connect. Music opens up a way to communicate with kids."

The temptation, he continues, is to criticize the latest rap artists for lyrics that may be offensive or even unhealthy. But Jones' method is to first appreciate and name what is positive, connect with students, and then use the music as a teaching moment. He does not judge their music tastes or critique them. For example, who could deny the lyrical brilliance and word play genius of artists like Lil Wayne or Eminem? Or the catchiness of the production of or Kanye West?

The kids are shocked when a 30-plus-year-old like Jones can even name these artists, let alone speak about them. Once he connects on that level, he says "Well let me also tell you about this! Lil Wayne is in many ways a part of the heritage of Black music with much of the Spiritual tradition, the Blues, and Jazz echoing in his music, for example the concept of call and response, the tradition of a Ring Shout, or even the necessary Blues narrative that tells all of our stories in one voice."

Jones is dropping knowledge on these kids. After this connection, there is a level of trust where one can also challenge kids about, for example, the portrayal of women in music and film. Teaching and inspiration is the goal not silencing and condemnation.

After the conversation about musical artists, he talks about song structure, the concept of keeping time with a metronome and more. Jones then introduces the kids to the music production and recording equipment that he brings to each workshop. And then, they begin to create. The kids democratically choose which instruments to include in the song that they will be recording and producing right there during the workshop.

In describing this, Jones can hardly contain his excitement. He tells story after story of brilliant kids who write full verses in minutes. Others who freestyle rap lyrics that can compete with professional artists. Kids whose voices are just as soulful as anyone on the radio. The kids come up and sing, rap, read a poem they've had in their notebook all year, beat box, give shout outs, or whatever they want to do. They come and tell their stories. And finally someone is listening.

Between the lyrics that are providing a window in the lives of our children, Jones has provided a chorus to this city wide song that he and Devon Thompson wrote last fall. The chorus reads:

"Hold on. Be strong,
Wipe those tears, life goes on.
I'll inspire, write those songs,
Come follow and right your wrongs."

This is real Hip Hop. I've been teaching courses on rap and Hip Hop culture for a number of years and Hip Hop is at its best when it is an open cipha with room for anyone to come to the mic and rhyme and tell a story.

Rap is not only done by the same handful of artists whose songs get played over and over on radio conglomerate owned airwaves.

Rap is also and especially alive in the cafeteria or playground of a high school where a kid is writing lyrics on a piece of paper trying to make sense of the world around her. It's alive in the teenager who is uploading YouTube videos of himself rhyming over beats that his best friend produced.

It's alive in the kid in Japan who's break dancing in the street, or the Palestinian or Israeli rappers rhyming about peace on their MySpace pages. Anyone anywhere, including young people in a public library in Philadelphia can come to the mic and have a voice.

Jones is trying to encourage these voices and to create space where they can be heard.

After the workshop, you can see Jones going up to one of the participants and telling them, "Thank you. You did a really good job. Keep up the good work."

In that moment, the inspiration comes. The student realizes that they can capture math in meter, English in rhyme. And we can all inspire can't we? We don't have to be down with the latest music trends or artists. We don't have to work in education. But we all know young people and it is crucial that we pour into them, listen to them, affirm them and inspire them the way that Jones and The CODA Program are trying to do through their project called INSPIRE. Word.

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