Jeff Campbell begins his class at George Washington High School by grabbing a dictionary -- a big red Webster's. He looks up the word "respect," whose definition yields other words, like "consideration" and "regard." A couple of teens then head to the blackboard, and in a few minutes, the class has composed this verse: "Regard my squad worthy, know the name/High consideration, my mic is hard to tame."
The rap lyric may not be Shakespeare, but then again, how often do kids voluntarily attend an after-school class in order to dream up couplets in iambic pentameter? Which gets to the point of "Get 2 Da Point," a hip-hop curriculum that Campbell created to inspire kids "to utilize hip-hop as a tool for getting their ideas across."
Campbell, who is also a local businessman and rapper who goes by the name Apostle, sees hip-hop as a more relevant mode of expression for students today than mainstays such as theater or debate. "It's like hip-hop is in a renaissance in Denver and we're all starting back at square one," he says.
The four-class program teaches kids about the history of hip-hop -- the urban culture of music, dance, fashion and art that emerged from the Bronx in the early 1970s and has evolved into one of the world's most popular forms of music. To help him teach these classes, Campbell enlisted the aid of local dancers, DJs and graffiti artists.
But Campbell envisions something much bigger. He wants to move his class into the studio, so that teens interested in careers in the hip-hop business can learn the basics of video, audio and radio production as well as promotion. He also wants them to become active in the Colorado Hip-Hop Coalition, an organization he founded to try to create a cohesive hip-hop scene in Denver and Colorado, and to put that scene on the map. It's this infusion of young talent that the coalition's organizers hope will eventually help make it a strong voice in Denver's music scene.
"It's well needed," says Van Prueitt, a co-founder of the coalition. "These kids are coming together over one common theme."
The coalition put together the classes at GW with the help of Spanish teacher Amy Klassen, a friend of local DJ David Stansfill. At first Klassen didn't know if it would work. "It was so sketchy and so new, I didn't think it would come together as well as it did," she explains. But the program exceeded her expectations. "I think the interest was there. We didn't have to build a market for the product. The kids already listen to this stuff."
Campbell dreamed up "Get 2 Da Point" last year, while he was serving as a mentor for middle-school students involved in a poetry program. He enjoyed watching them connect with famous black poets such as Gil Scott-Heron and Maya Angelou and decided to try something even more contemporary. With the help of a former professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he drew up a curriculum and wrote a grant proposal; he's since received a $4,000 grant from the Chinook Fund. At the end of April, he will move "Get 2 Da Point" to Morey Middle School for four weeks, then to Cole Middle School at the end of June.
In one of the classes at GW, students learned about pioneering DJs such as Kool Herc, who moved to the Bronx from Jamaica in 1973 and developed the use of "breaks" (or pauses) that helped define hip-hop. In another, local rapper Q. Burse led a spirited session of impromptu rapping, and the kids learned a bit about how to work turntables. One class was led by local graffiti artist -- or "writer" -- Joe Flores, who gave a crash course in graffiti history, from its beginnings in New York City in the mid-1960s to the work of early Denver pioneers like the Original X-Men. During the final class, two dancers from Dance West in Boulder broke down hip-hop dancing by showing old video footage and tracing its development in the 1970s and '80s, then drawing the kids into a circle and encouraging them to bust their best moves.
At the end of March, the graduates gave a performance. Although the turnout of about 85 was below expectations, especially since the school had been covered with fliers and posters beforehand, the speakers cranked, the spotlights raced around the stage, and the auditorium was filled with the kind of shrill, manic applause that can only be produced by high school students.
In the halls outside the auditorium, student performers worked over their routines, psyching themselves up. Inside, there were several dance numbers, some poetry readings and some rap; graffiti art was displayed on a banner above the stage. A stepping group, Brotha 2 Brotha, comprised of teens from schools around the city, also performed, as did Q. Burse. "I felt the classes," the MC said. "Everything went well. I think the kids felt what hip-hop was really about."
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Before she headed on stage to perform a funky dance number that she and some friends had been practicing for days, sophomore Kristin Wilson said she liked the classes, too. "I learned more about hip-hop than I knew before."
"Hip-hop is not all about the drugs and thugs," said student Christine Cole. "It was more about the community."
At the end of the show, Apostle appeared on stage with the other organizers, and to hearty applause, he reminded the audience that his upstart coalition is built on unity, opportunity and action.
The unity and opportunity were achieved in class, he said, then added, "What you saw tonight was the action."