How a Minneapolis after school program trains a new generation of hip-hop stars
From the magazine: ISSUE 87, August/September 2013
After school art programs are often regarded as places for kids to get their yayas out—splatter paint, smash clay. The expectations are higher in Beats & Rhymes, the extracurricular rap class based out of Minneapolis’ North Community YMCA that produced “Hot Cheetos & Takis,” an ode to crunchy snacks that has racked up over six million views on YouTube since it went viral last summer. The program’s co-directors, Raphael Jones and J.T. Evans, let their pupils run around the gym when they’re stressed, but together they work toward the same goals they pursued with adult rappers in their previous careers as real-world producers: make hot tracks, captivate a wide audience. Each Beats & Rhymes session aims to produce an album and a video, the verses for which are written largely by the kids themselves. Evans and Jones had no prior teaching experience, but in the four years since they joined the program, they’ve become expert posse-leaders. Here, they offer some tips for successfully corralling kids’ energy toward great rap songs.
Learn as You Go
J.T. EVANS: At first I had no idea how to work with kids. We were just trying to figure out what to do for two hours. Our bosses would make us plan, but we didn’t know exactly what our goal was. In this community, kids don’t always get looked at in the most positive light. We were just trying to give them a chance to pound on desks, say what they were thinking. Then we realized we could make an album. With project-based learning, you have a project and you plan everything around that goal as a group. It’s key to show kids a starting point and an ending point. Now they know that if they put in a certain amount of work, they’ll have a CD to give to their friends and family at the end of the year, and perform in a big showcase.
Make a Plan
EVANS: At the beginning of the year we’ll go over rules and expectations: what we can expect of them, what they can expect of us. We list off ideas we wanna do on a big piece of paper. That’s how the idea of shooting videos came up—kids who’d been in the program for a couple years were looking for something new to do. Once we get those goals down, we start working. Each day is a specific goal. Monday we start making the beat, Wednesday we finish the beat and start brainstorming song concepts. The next class we work on verses and the chorus. Eventually we’ll record, finish the song, see if the kids like it and start over.
Listen and Lead
RAPHAEL JONES: From working as producers, we know you have to listen to what the artist wants. We’re not like normal teachers; we’re like teammates.
EVANS: But we do oversee everything. When you’re the producer of a song, you’re not just the beatmaker—you really have to make executive decisions. It’s the same with youth work. We try to give the kids as much say as possible, but we’re leaders and we make decisions that we feel are best for the whole group.
EVANS: Some kids come in with experience writing verses, and some kids are just really interested in rapping. If a kid’s never made their own verse, I’ll ask them to rap their favorite verse from a Nicki Minaj or Drake song to see where their skill level is at. Some kids write their own verses completely, and some kids are better at delivery. We always try to encourage them to start by thinking of what they want to say, even if it’s just to write a list of stuff they like to talk about.
Encourage Healthy Competition
JONES: When we have a few different beats and kids don’t know which song they want to be a part of, we’ll do like an NBA draft. J.T. and I act as captains and draft the kids we want for our songs. Then we compete to see whose team can make the best song; other classes come in and scream for which song they like best. Songs get done faster that way, and it’s fun. Hip-hop is competitive. Our kids already want to be the best.
Activate with Praise
EVANS: One kid used to be super shy and didn’t want to rap. He just sat in the corner. Then we realized he was writing raps for his brother. We started pushing him, like, Why don’t you try it? You should do it. You’re good at this. He became one of our better rappers and would help all the other kids write. We saw his confidence grow, not only within the program, but also in school. If you’re not afraid to rap a song for a bunch of people, that’s going to help you present a science project.