That’s a Rap (Video Premiere): Kids Learn to Read, Write and Rhyme at Local Summer Camp

For seven summers I have taught camp in hot, hot New Orleans. Mostly indoors, mine is a writing class disguised as a music class; students aged five to 12 improve their literacy via songwriting — mostly of the rap variety. We also wrote album reviews which were published in OffBeat and other local magazines that paid the kids for their work. Writing tends to be local students’ least favorite activity, but I’ve found music can often coax it out of them.

Usually just one month long, camp lasted, for better or worse, two months this summer. The teaching artists of Community Works gathered each day in a rec center in an area of the West Bank called Cut Off — not to be confused with the Lafourche Parish town of the same name. Across the street from our Cut Off Center, the doors all stood open on a spooky, abandoned strip mall and its parking lot that hosted daily all-day beer parties for the elderly. Not all of our kids — nine groups of roughly 20 students apiece — came from the surrounding neighborhood. Still, this was a vital place to host a summer camp.

Each student group was a different animal, both superficially and metaphorically: There were the Bears, the Crawfish, Deers, Frogs etc. The older kids who could really write — the Hornets and Iguanas — fought and argued their way through just one song each, all summer. The littler ones enthusiastically wrote much more; adorable, albeit elementary raps.

My four classes began the first day with the “Who We Are” rap, describing thier groups and the individuals within. The first moments of class, the kids and I together concocted a chorus for the students to loudly bark — because while not every kid is brave enough to eventually rap on the mic, even the shyest will shout the chorus:

We’re the Iguanas with snapbacks, swag, and tennis shoes /
We’re a rap crew, never singin’ the blues / We got tough skin, and it’s green like dough / We’re the Iguanas, and we’re in beast mode!

Around this chorus, the kids built individual raps detailing “the most important things about yourself”: My name is Emily, I get nervous when I perform / My favorite food is chicken wings, as long as they’re warm.

We recorded in ProTools but almost no studio trickery was utilized; my students learned to perform and record their songs as a group. Getting them to stop hitting each other — or at best, to stop dancing — and focus on recording for three-and-a-half minutes is always, by far, the biggest challenge. But teamwork is an important skill.

We used our second month of camp to film the following music videos. Most of the footage was shot during the kids’ lively recording sessions. [Note all the papers and pencils, and how much writing is being done!] Students sometimes ended up penning three drafts before they approached the mic. Spliced throughout are scenes from our fieldtrips to the aquarium and Storyland, and clips from our daily closing assemblies and many dance and rap contests. The Alligators and I won a pizza party for the elaborate talent show performance backdrop featured here:

“No Noodles (The Rules Song)” by the Alligators

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RleK_KoDSfQ[/youtube]

Each teacher led a homeroom class through breakfast, lunch, bathroom breaks and field trips. I was blessed with the five-and six-year-olds, the Alligators. Little kids are so much easier, than say, pre-teens. This video begins with one of my star Alligators, Arden, being interviewed during our ride on the Storyland train. She won a contest to be lead the vocalist on this song about the Cut Off Center’s rules. After writing the song with the Alligators, I bunched them all up in a group to sing it while I studied their lips closely. Arden did it best. She is especially adorable with her extra “s” on the last line: You gotta follow these rules, even if you think they stinks.

The title and chorus of the song “No Noodles” comes from what I can only assume is the Cut Off Center’s most important rule, the only rule posted on the front doors: “No noodles. No sunflower seeds.” The kids are addicted to dry, Mama brand ramen noodles, and even the neatest eaters rarely fail to get ramen particles everywhere. They also spit sunflower shell shards everywhere if given the chance. So, no, and no.

Shoutout to Dior, whose bows and crumbs end this clip. I hope when she’s older that she doesn’t hate me for posting this, but it’s just so cute. Dior is a fashion plate, like her sister Alicity of the Hornets, whom I’ll discuss shortly.

“Iguanas’ Theme” by the Iguanas

The Iguanas were the biggest boys and aspired to toughness. They were smart, had tons of promise and, as the kids say, “swag.” A lot of the tougher kids seemed to be the best dancers — and let’s just say the Iguanas boasted a lot of great dancers… My man Tyrian, who can be seen expertly robot dancing, was a gentler soul, and as his “No Nooldes” cameo suggests, also a good singer.

A favorite verse is hard to pick. I’m partial to Chris, who recently moved here from Alabama:

My name is C.J., I’m a country kid / Every time I walk by I smell some pigs /
If I go fishin in the mornin / don’t catch anything it’s so boring.

But then Colby’s couplet, My daddy lives on Canal Street / But I only visit him when we go out to eat, is also very poignant. Then there’s Anun, who caused some counselors problems but was extremely helpful in my class, aiding any clasmate stuck for rhymes. Anun came up with the summer’s most oft-repeated couplet: Back in the day, black was whack / But I’m black so I’m ‘bout to bring black back.

“Hornets’ Theme” by the Hornets

“Attitudinal” aptly described the Hornets. But then being the oldest girls at camp, they were also the best rappers, dancers and singers. Thankfully, this summer I had Alicity, the first solo rapper on this track about Hornet swag. Alicity took my class three years ago in third grade. [She’s also the crump dancing star midway through this hilarious video.] She was back this summer with her little sister Dior, rapping about Barack Obama. The repeated sample “Ooooh” is Alicity after I gave her some rapping advice.

I went the extra mile for the lady Hornets giving them more camera angles and the most professional opening and closing credits. I added baseball-stadium organ to their beats so they could knock it out of the park. Peep Sade’s rap at the very end (yes, she was named after the singer), and the younger boys out in the hallway listening and dancing to the girls.

“Alligators’ Theme + Swimming Song” by Alligators et al.

I worked with the Alligators enough to make two videos. The following includes their theme song, plus a video for the older kids’ uncompleted song about swimming. Every Thursday the whole camp attended swimming lessons — at which point the many lifeguards took over, and I took it easy in the pool. All of the kids, no matter how young, took turns jumping in 8 ft. of water and attempting to swim to the ladder, every week, week after week. By the end, most of them could do it! The progress was fun to watch. Here we test out the concept of rapping while in the water.

“Deers Theme” by the Deers

I only worked with the Deers a couple of times, but in those brief sessions, they were able to record as much as the big kids did in two months. Nine is a perfect age: no inhibitions, no cynicism, full of enthusiasm and confidence. Great lines abound from Kiera: I hate sushi, it is gross / So gross, grosser than the most — egh! (with tongue poking out) to Nya’s: I love my mama, I’m full of drama / When I pause, I write a comma.

  • Janramsey

    This is incredibly cute and a creative way to get kids involved in writing. Bravo, MPW!!

  • Michaelpatrickwelch

    Thanks boss!