Hip Hop Strikes the Right Chord with Academics
by Dianne Anderson
For students who love music, the beat may prove a quicker study than what they’ve been missing in traditional classes or textbooks.
To the 120 students of CHORDS Enrichment Program, words and music are almost the same.
“A lot of kids don’t know how to write an essay, but if you tell them to write 16 bars, they can do that,” said Edwin Johnson, the founder of CHORDS youth program. “If you tell them to write their life story in rap or music or a song, they can do it immediately.”
Johnson has been involved with commercial music development for the past ten years, and has pulled multiple awards for his work with local kids. He continues to partner with programming at both San Bernardino city and county schools.
Music production, writing and music comprehension are a big part of his in-person programming. He said it’s mostly about getting kids and youth to channel their hip hop muse by opening up about their past.
Johnson, who grew up in an abusive family, said the creative process is the beginning of healing.
“For me, as a child things that I experienced growing up that I never talked about until I was able to, that gave me a different outlook. It gave me comfort,” he said.
All students participate virtually, and he said Google classroom has been easier for his students because they were already working with higher technology and software through his program.
They also learn how to record from the comfort of their own home.
“We’re teaching the kids a vocational skill that they would have never learned anywhere else. The pandemic caused us to be a little more creative and it gave us more access to students,” he said.
A lot of the teens in the program are learning to come out of their shell.
One shy girl didn’t feel she had what it takes to share her story with the virtual class, or the talent to compete, but her message on Black Lives Matter was powerful and surprising.
“I told her they couldn’t see her,” Johnson said. “She was talking about the struggle and the street. The way she recited was amazing, she is already talented.”
At Juvenile Hall, he hauls out the mobile studio where kids and teens learn teamwork, organizational skills, and the vocational aspect of recording and writing. Many kids are in for crimes, some are hard crimes.
“It’s poverty, it’s broken families, broken communities,” he said. “I use a tool called reflective writing, they’re reflecting on their past on things that caused them to be in the situation they’re in. A lot of it is coming from single parent homes or not having mentors.”
In his program, he holds daily virtual sessions with his regular school students, and host live virtual concerts. Former students are hired to teach newer students on production development, and they tutor to strengthen academics.
“We’re working on their English skills, metaphors and similes, all these things that are conducive to their education. We’re just teaching them how to do it through music,” he said.
Youth today and especially local youth need all the support they can get, not just from immediate family members, but also tutors or mentors, he said.
He always tells people to volunteer whenever possible.
“Get involved because we don’t know what they’re going through. It’s important to connect with the kids, not to judge them. They need our support, these kids are growing up wild especially in these urban communities.”
Recently, SBVC faculty film and media teacher Lucas Cuny recommended Johnson join their advisory board to bring industry standard professionals into the conversation as they build up a Commercial Music certification program.
“We both have a background working in After School and the arts. I know his voice is important for our community which is why I was glad that he agreed to support our programs at Valley, said Lucas Cuny, director of the Institute of Media Arts.
Margaret Worsley, a professor in the music department at Valley College is also excited to welcome Johnson to the board.
“Edwin will be integral in bringing his experience and knowledge of industry practices, as well as local community need into the conversation as we build this program. We are looking forward to sustaining a long-term relationship with Edwin for his guided wisdom as a content expert,” she said.