"Where's Montbello at?"
The imploring call echoes around the auditorium of Montbello High School. For the past half hour, the stage here has hosted a special performance by Idris Goodwin, a nationally recognized playwright and rapper, and students from his "Hip-hop Aesthetics" class at Colorado College, where Goodwin is a visiting professor. First Goodwin showcased his skills, belting out his rhymes — "I come from the word. And, word, I am a man of many" — with the same passion and swagger that landed him on HBO's Def Poetry, among other venues. Then one by one, Goodwin's students took the stage, turning the foibles of liberal-arts life into street poetry. A guy in a collared shirt rapped about shortening his name, Mohammad, "To M-O-E, simply to be part of the U-S-A." Trevor, aka "T-Bone," declared, "Putting P on the map, that's Portland, 503 where we at!" while another student beatboxed alongside him. A woman named Denali rhymed about growing up in the Bay Area and crooned, "It's so pretty.... North of the Golden Gate, part of the Golden State...Ooh, my heart aches for home."
But where's Montbello at? This isn't just a presentation; it's supposed to be a conversation, a hip-hop exchange. The Montbello students in the auditorium have been taking their own hip-hop class, presided over by one of the most preeminent rap scholars around: University of Colorado English professor Adam Bradley, co-editor of The Anthology of Rap and co-author of rap star Common's memoir, among other accomplishments. Bradley recently launched "Hip-hop in the Classroom," an ambitious initiative to bring hip-hop scholarship to middle-school and high-school classrooms. His first venture is working with these Montbello juniors, instructing them on the aesthetics, imagery, syntax and tone of 2Pac and Jay-Z as part of their Advanced Placement English class. And now it's time to show Goodwin and his pupils what they're made of — or, as Bradley hollers, "Where's Montbello at?"
Silence. It looks like no one from Montbello is going to represent, no one is going to show these college kids what they're made of — one more knock against a school that's seen a lifetime of hard knocks.
In late 2010, the Denver school board looked at Montbello's bleak academic performance and approved a drastic turnaround plan for the school. Several new high-school programs would take root on the Montbello High School campus in far northeast Denver, while Montbello itself would be phased out entirely. Bradley's hip-hop pupils will be in the last class of Montbello students to graduate. After June 2014, the school that was Montbello will be no more, as silent as the hush that's settled over the auditorium.
But suddenly there's movement in the auditorium and the squeak of a seat being relinquished. A young man steps up to the microphone: "My name is Jalon Martin, and I'm a junior at Montbello." The sixteen-year-old is a bulldog of a kid, and looks like he belongs more on the Montbello Warriors football field — where he plays tight end and linebacker — than up here on stage. But what comes out of his mouth next is the furthest thing from gridiron muttering:
I understand who I am, but do you?
Society has labeled me as a criminal
But in reality I'm just like you
Can you see past the skin color, can you see past the clothes?
The ignorant stereotypes and the stories they have told?
Unwanted because I am bold.
On and on he goes, spelling out in vivid rhymes a young life filled with challenges and promise, frustrating limits and upended stereotypes. The other students are silent, stunned. When he's done, Jalon steps back from the mike and puts his hands in the air. The auditorium erupts in cheers.
This is where Montbello's at right now. And if Jalon Martin has anything to say about it, the school won't go down without first making some noise.
My mother told me that there was only one me and no other
No father in my life so my father is my mother
But who is there to blame
Because we play a part in this stereotypical game
Jalon Martin "is a sixteen-year-old Kevin Hart," says Marquille Jones, his best friend, referring to the goofy, irreverent standup comic and actor. Jalon's the guy who walks the school halls with a smile and swagger, the three-sport (football, basketball, baseball) athlete who was named Montbello's Homecoming Lord as a freshman. He's the kid who, on his first day at Montbello, thought nothing of trying to vault the railing on one of the school's indoor ramps just to show off. So what if he botched the jump and landed prone on the floor? Jalon just laughed it off, got up and resumed his strut.