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Urban Art Beat - Staying After School Never Sounded So Good
Saturday, May 10, 2008

It’s a Tuesday afternoon. School is over for the day, but, in room 129 of South Bronx Prep, a group of MCs are moving a crowd. These artists aren’t performing a concert, though, they’re mentoring a group of school kids in the arts of rhyme and song creation as a part of an after school program called Urban Art Beat. Conceived by English teacher Rosaleen Knoepfel, the inspiration for Urban Art Beat, which is now in its third year, came from Knoepfel seeing the day to day issues her students faced growing up in the rough areas surrounding the school.

South Bronx Prep is a public school located in a part of New York City that is the second poorest congressional district in the country. With poverty comes struggle and with struggle comes violence. In 2005, Knoepfel had seen enough. “In the summer of 2005, there were three shootings where young kids got caught in the crossfire and not very far from the school. I was like, this is ridiculous, the guns need to stop.” Right around that time, an MC by the name of Bisc1 was feeling the same way and voiced his concerns at a show where Knoepfel happened to be in the audience. Knoepfel, who ironically enough grew up in Maine and didn’t really get introduced to hip-hop until age 19, remembers, “I saw Bisc1 at a show talking about the subject. I invited him and a couple of friends to come up and do a one time thing where they’d talk to the kids and tell them how to use music to fight back.” The reaction was so great from all parties involved that the “one time thing” turned into an eight-week program. This year, they’re working with 35 middle school students and 20 high school kids.

MC and mentor Tah Phrum Duh Bush, who was also involved with the creation of Urban Art Beat, knew there was a need for a program like this and wanted to address it. “These kids in the South Bronx don’t have a lot of exposure to extracurricular activities,” he explains. “They’re kids from rough areas, a lot of them have rough home situations and it helps to provide them with an outlet, it helps them to understand and get into the mindset where they can feel closer to their role models, the people they look up to in the hip-hop game.” Hired Gun, another MC and mentor, adds, “Inner city children are not motivated in the same way as children in more affluent areas, they’re not given their own voice. This directly addresses those very serious issues. During grades six through eight, kids are just starting to play around with identity and Urban Art Beat allows them the opportunity to explore that in a very interesting way, instilling confidence and allowing them to express themselves.” It’s instilling confidence that Knoepfel sees as the key to future success for her students. “Once you have a strong self-esteem, you can basically do anything, so it’s a starting ground for success.” Proof of this can actually be seen in one of Urban Art Beat’s former mentors, NyelLee.

NyelLee, who now works on getting grants for Urban Art Beat and is helping to try to make it a non-profit organization, came from a similar program and he says it changed his life immensely. “There were community classes at Temple University where you could pay fifteen bucks and take college classes. One was a non-college class, it was a hip-hop class taught by Ohene Kawann Shockley where MCs would come in and talk and at the end we’d basically freestyle. That had a really huge impact on my life. From then on, me blending hip-Hop with academia has gotten me everywhere I need to go.” “Everywhere” has included a full scholarship to NYU. While college scholarships are the pinnacle of goals, Cecil Brooks, father of seventh grade Urban Art Beat student Cecil Brooks Jr., notes that the emotional changes he’s seen his son go through are just as big a reward. “It has helped him focus in a lot of different ways,” he explains, “it’s a plus for these children who are shy or want to keep to themselves; it makes them want to be in front of people.” He also adds that the teachers’ and mentors’ impact on the younger Brooks has been very noticeable, saying, “they all work to make the kids better people from what I can see in terms of their school work and overall living. They expose them to something other than classroom work.” Eighth grader Steven Ayala seconds this, noting, “It helped me get out of trouble. I got in trouble for graffiti and vandalism and, when Urban Art Beat came, that stopped and I was only doing Urban Art Beat 24/7 so I could do what I gotta do.” He adds, “Before, when I was around a lot of people, I used to have this urge to do something real bad for no reason, but since Urban Art Beat I’ve chilled out my temper. I still got a temper, but Urban Art Beat helped me cool it down.”

iLLspoKinN, another MC and mentor with the program, has a theory as to why many of the kids who used to be trouble makers have reformed: they get sent home with writing assignments, and unlike schoolwork, these are assignments the kids actually want to do. “We want to get them writing and thinking outside the box and thinking for themselves,” he explains, “we’re trying to teach them that you can pick your own path and still rock it out.” Students not only learn about the craft of forming a rhyme, but also a little bit more about the world around them. Brooks Jr. notes, “It’s taught me a lot about America and what makes it, not just rap. We learn how to make songs and learn the history of who it influences and who influenced it.”

Hearing sentiments like that of Brooks Jr. reminds iLLspoKinN of how crucial his job as a mentor is. “I’ve noticed a real big growth with all of the kids who have done it,” he beams, “it gives me goose bumps.” It’s also affecting some of the kids who have gone from being students to also mentoring. Anthony Samuels, a high school junior, says he gets an amazing feeling when he helps out a younger student. “It’s a good feeling that I’m helping a kid make a step forward in what they want to do. I was helping a girl the other week, she didn’t know what to do and by the time she left she had words on paper, she had a song. It felt good to help somebody.” Samuels mentors on Tuesdays and gets mentored on Fridays, the two afternoons Urban Art Beat is in session.

Mentoring, and teaching rap, is something the MCs involved in Urban Art Beat have found can be quite the challenge, but one worth undertaking. According to Tah Phrum Duh Bush, “You take for granted rhyming for years. You take for granted the amount of work put in developing a flow, learning how to count bars, learning how to structure songs, until you sit down and teach somebody how to do it. There’s an art to this and I think the best way to appreciate it is to teach someone else how to do it.” Bisc1 seconds this, adding, “As an MC, or any kind of artist, I think passing along skills and working with younger people is almost a must. It’s a hidden rule in one way or another, whether you mentor the little star in your neighborhood, draw kids outlines to copy, teach them how to spit, it’s a legacy thing, it’s tradition and it’s necessary. In a world with so much plastic, superficial content marketed directly to the young people, someone has to supply that balance.” That balance is on display, loud and clear, twice a week in Ms. Knoepfel’s classroom at South Bronx Prep.

For more info on Urban Art Beat, check out urbanartbeat.org.

Story originally ran on beyondrace.com


posted by Adam Bernard @ 8:07 AM  
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