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These merging nonprofits use hip-hop culture to educate youth

Dobbins High School music lab. March 29, 2016 Category: FeaturedMediumMethod
Hip-hop culture has always had its fair share of controversy.

Between explicit themes of misogyny, drugs and violence in the music, it can be difficult for some audiences to break through hip-hop’s lyrical surface to see the culture for what it really is: a platform for creative expression and a voice for the oft-muted.

That’s the platform Blackboard Labs (BBL) provides Philadelphia youth. Founded by hip-hop head Jim Wells (who likens his nonprofit to a “mock record label”), BBL uses hip-hop production, composition and history as an educational medium and creative outlet for high school students.

But behind every great artist is a great promoter, manager and lawyer.

Jr. Music Executive (JME), a local nonprofit founded by Aisha Winfield almost a decade ago, has been simultaneously teaching students the business side of the recording industry. Through JME, kids are introduced to the multitude of career paths that can be followed in the music biz outside of making the music.

The two nonprofits are merging under a fiscal sponsor. They'll offer the same individual programs, but with more breadth and capacity.

The organizations are each one side of the same coin, and their complementary programming has been the source of frequent collaboration since Wells and Winfield were first introduced back in 2012. So complementary, actually, that the relationship between the two organizations eventually galvanized into a shared program called Music Lab.

Now, the two are finally merging under fiscal sponsor Resources for Human Development. They’ll offer the same individual programs, as well as Music Lab, but with more breadth and capacity.

“We’re actively recruiting more teaching artists now to make something we can replicate when Alisha and I aren’t in the room,” Wells said. “The full list of artists who have worked with our kids is getting a little scary.”

As in scary big. The roster of local artists who have worked with the program include DJ DilemmaBahamadia, Chris Vance and Rich Quick. Plus, artists like RJD2 and hip-hop legend Schoolly D have donated instrumentals to be remixed by the students.

“A lot of our kids will get super proactive and they become friends with these artists on social media,” Wells said. “The artists we’ve reached out to, the local Philly artists are way on board with what we’re doing.”

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In that regard, Winfield said, the students not only get mentorship and guidance from the staff, but from the artists they look up to. And discussions about happenings within the industry are not few nor far-between.

“They’re keeping an eye on the bigger picture things,” Winfield said. “They usually have a better pulse about what’s happening than industry executives.”

As for hip-hop history? Wells said he avoids coming off as lecture-y by weaving historical context into his lessons.

“I try to make it happen organically,” he said. “Invariably, someone’s going to find a reverse crash [cymbal sample] at some point and ask, ‘Who would use that?’ And I go, ‘Oh, well here’s [Beastie Boys’] ‘Paul Revere.’

"They're learning actual life skills and professional skills — and also just finding ways to use art."
Jim Wells

Winfield and Wells said their programming isn’t strictly regimented — the kids themselves lead the way and work on what they want to work on. It’s a safe space for them to express themselves productively and learn along the way.

“They’re learning actual life skills and professional skills — and also just finding ways to use art,” Wells said. And that’s important for a generation of kids quickly losing arts and culture education. “It’s almost like the experiences that need to be processed are going up, and the skill sets to be able to process them are going down.”

As for the merger, Wells, Winfield and RHD are finalizing the process, and both the founders seem pleased. There are “tons of organizations” doing similar work in the city, Wells said, and all of them are competing for the same small pool of funding. That’s why the two will be looking for high-quality collaborators.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people in the nonprofit world are in this because they’re about the services,” he said. “Time we’re all spending applying for grants is time we’re not spending with the kids.”

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