Credit via NYT (Ian Levy)
That was TKTKTKTKTK two-way. Now, the rappers Kanye West and Kid Cudi have undergone psychiatric treatment this month, sparking conversations that explore the taboo around mental health in minority communities. A charter school in the Bronx is taking steps to shatter the stigma by using hip-hop in its classrooms. Kristin Corry went back to school.
A small room in the basement of New Vision Charter High School is a hidden gem. The school focuses on math and science but its Hip-Hop Lyricism course is a favorite among the students. Glass separates the common room from a studio, riddled with beanbags and recording equipment. The second-hand items belong to Ian Levy, school counselor and teacher of the course.
I had like $600 worth of equipment that I bought to put in my college dorm… So I brought that here and kids flocked to it immediately.
Levy has been integrating hip-hop lyrics in schools for six years around East and Central Islip and Harlem before he got to New Visions. The Hip-Hop Lyricism course was introduced as an extracurricular activity, serviced mainly during lunch periods and after-school sessions.
The class’ final project is a mixtape.. Their first production was Hoodies Up, a 20-track compilation inspired by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Eric Garner was their first production. To Levy the process of creating a mixtape is similar to group therapy.
Hip-hop kind of lends itself to that because if you create a mixtape that is centered around a theme, an overarching theme, then the theme of your group…in this case was police brutality.
If one of the main goals of therapy is transferring what is learned in a session to the outside world, Levy says having something tangible to share serves that purpose for the kids.
Which is what’s really cool about this work, it adapts to whatever it is the students are experiencing.
That’s true for fifteen-year-old Elijah Harris.
When you write and you get everything off your mind, it makes you feel like a whole bunch of stress is relieved and we’ll probably put that into a song and it’ll be something we can continuously listen to just in case that problem reoccurs.
Elijah, who goes by EliFlash has plans on pursuing music when he graduates in 2019. For him, Levy’s class is a better alternative to therapy.
I felt like it was going to be me just talking to a stranger. I don’t want a stranger knowing all my problems. But when I got here, it was like the space was so comfortable. We could let each other know anything. I couldn’t do it before but this class really helped.
Fifteen-year-old Chelsea Boayke says opening up is hard, but Levy’s class is the outlet she needs. She’s a huge fan of Kanye West and fears that the stigma surrounding hip-hop is preventing him from the clarity she receives at school.
It makes me sad because he’s so talented and so many people are looking at him like, “Oh, he’s crazy,” just because he’s expressing his feelings–which he’s human so he’s allowed to do.
Today is recording day. A group of boys fill the studio and lay down their tracks. Just before the bell rings, Levy plays Chelsea and Elijah’s collaboration.
This year’s themes are unity, power, racism, authority and freedom. On the track Elijah details the struggles of peer pressure that once challenged his mother’s authority. He and his classmates will keep perfecting their sound until the release of the next mixtape at the end of this year.
Kristin Corry for Uptown Radio.
Kristin Corry is a full-time M.S. student at Columbia Journalism School. You can read her work at Complex, VIBE, and Rap+Republic