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Hip hop programs to provide summer education for local youth

Yolanda “YoYo” Whitaker (right) gives student instruction. STEVE FURAY PHOTO

Yolanda “YoYo” Whitaker (right) gives student instruction. STEVE FURAY PHOTO

By Steve Furay
Special to the Michigan Citizen

HIGHLAND PARK, Mich. — Often overlooked as a teaching tool, several education programs for youth throughout Detroit have been incorporating hip hop culture as an opportunity to learn new skills. This summer, hip hop is teaching young boys and girls in a unique and engaging learning alternative.

The programs not only focus on teaching students hip hop arts, including dance, lyric writing, music production and visual arts, but also how to use hip hop as self-expression for the betterment of the community.

“I’ve realized there was no place for kids who love music to come and really learn the art of hip hop dance and writing,” says renowned hip hop artist Yolanda “YoYo” Whitaker, who gained international fame as a celebrated female rap artist in the 1990s and runs a hip hop education program, YoYo’s School of Hip Hop.

“There was really no place besides the colleges and the professors who were bringing artists such as myself in to teach lyrics to a class, so I said why be the middle man? Let me do my own thing,” she said.

YoYo’s School of Hip Hop is a four-week course for youth ages 7-17, taking place for the second year in Highland Park at the Henry Ford Academy. Developing self-confidence, discipline and teamwork are some of the primary goals of the program, with courses for vocal training, theater, beat production, rap lyric writing and hip hop dance. The school is also an opportunity for parents and children to bond through hip hop culture.

“The parents stay relevant because they are my generation; they grew up with me and hip hop, but we love the same music as our kids right now,” says YoYo.

At 5e Gallery, located inside the Cass Corridor Commons in Detroit, a summer program has been designed to teach youth about music production and digital media creation. Owners Sicari Ware and Piper Carter designed the program through their involvement with the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition and Detroit Future Youth.

Denis Rochac is one of the program’s educators, and he has found that hip hop is a way for people of all ages to transform their feelings into expression and ultimately action, in a tradition that is often rebellious and truthful, backed by powerful beats.

“(Hip hop’s) roots are within my experience, so I get the references; it’s a language,” says Rochac. “It speaks truth, and it’s so complex.”

Rochac sees the incorporation of technology in 5e Gallery’s program as a way for the youth to become engaged in learning new creation skills. “I think youth are ready to interact,” he says. “There’s a different level in technology that we can come to where the audience and the performer become almost one, and become part of what’s going on. It’s not a performance; it’s an experience.”

Edward White, 17, has been involved in previous programs with 5e Gallery and has been making hip hop beats for over five years. “5e is a good program; it kept me out of trouble,” he said. “It gave me a chance to display my talents. It’s a cool spot to hang out.”

The program offers him a chance to make music and meet other young artists, and helps him understand that hip hop is a culture designed to help improve people’s quality of life. “Before, I thought it was all beats,” said White. “Being here helped me realize what hip hop really is and how to be a hip hop producer.”

Ethan Onweller, 13, is another music student in this program who is involved to learn to make hip hop beats. The summer program has helped him understand that the element of knowledge in hip hop is just as vital as the music and rhymes, allowing him to make better choices in his music selection.

“I’m understanding music more; there’s a deeper meaning than just the lyrics,” says Onweller. “The lyrics mean something. It’s not just a song, like ‘oh that’s a cool song;’ it actually means something to somebody.”

Media literacy is a key element to the Urban Arts summer program at the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, a program focused on at-risk youth from the city’s southwest community. Lex Zavala, a program coordinator with a background in social and environmental justice, was key in helping bring hip hop to the program.

“I said let’s incorporate hip hop,” says Zavala. “So I had my friends come (to) it, and they painted on the walls and started with a little boom box, then built it up to a studio.”

The day program for youth uses the DHDC building space on Trumbull Avenue downtown, which includes a recording studio and video editing room. Students are encouraged to write their own music and record videos to develop self-expression.

“We do a big piece of media literacy to understand what you see and why you’re seeing it,” says Zavala. “The target market behind it, even color theory, as far as why colors are put into certain commercials.”

With so many opportunities available for youth to engage in hip hop this summer, the young leaders and educators are positioned to help the culture grow positively in the city for years to come.

“The music is like music therapy. They can talk about the things they go through day to day in their music,” says Zavala. “Anything they really envision, we let them do.”

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