Most days inside a middle school are intense. But the end of May brings a heady mix of end-of-year events and the promise of summer that can drive any preteen to the edge of sanity.
And so it was at Cherokee Middle School on Madison’s west side on a recent Wednesday afternoon. Just before the bell rang for 12:15 classes, a scuffle of some kind broke out in the hallway. Screeching sneakers on the tile floor and high, raised voices echoed down the hall.
Luke Hrovat-Staedter, a first-year music teacher prepping for his 7th grade girls’ hip-hop performance class, stepped into the hall to assess the situation. He returned a few minutes later with a few of the girls in the class. Generally agitated, the girls bounced on their toes then fidgeted in their chairs, trying several times to launch into debates and discussions of the hallway altercation.
Hrovat-Staedter directed the girls to the task at hand: practicing a rap they had written for the class. Soon, they were calm, snapping their fingers and rapping, “not gonna stop ’til I get to the top / just do you and work on that.”
Rap as a salve for middle school drama. And an avenue for expression.
“I want my music and my voice to be heard,” said Tashanti Henderson, a student in the class.
The hip-hop performance class, which is offered to 7th and 8th grade boys and girls, is new for Cherokee Middle School. It just started at the end of the January. Hrovat-Staedter was inspired by a hip-hop class created by his former music teacher at Madison West High School, Anthony Cao.
Hrovat-Staedter modified Cao’s curriculum to suit middle schoolers and wrote a grant to finance hiring professional musicians to help teach the class.
Local hip-hop artist Rob Dz stepped up to help.
“Hip-hop in its truest form — it’s really incredible the way that people latch onto it,” Dz said. “And that’s really what I try to give (the students), that earnest and honest interpretation of (hip-hop).”
Henderson said Dz’s guidance helped her and the other girls write an honest rap that represents their true feelings. Their song, “Respect,” is about how men treat women.
“If you really think about it, women are getting underestimated and disrespected, so we thought we should do a song about respect for women,” she said. “He just taught us you have to break out of your shell and step out of that comfort zone and really say what you mean.”
Dz said students learn how to “be honest with themselves” in the class.
The boys wrote a rap called “We Matter.” It begins with, “I matter, you matter, we matter, they matter / Stayin’ together we won’t shatter / Black, white, brown, red, orange, yellow, blue / We all matter, I’m not discluding you.”
Dz said the rap was in response to the recent shooting of 18-year-old African-American Tony Robinson by a Madison police officer.
“You (could) see the lightbulbs coming on in their brains,” he said. “This is something that most of them hadn’t been challenged on before, to even think about stuff like that.”
The students said writing a rap about something so personal for them, and so emotional, was difficult.
“To me, it was kinda hard because it’s obviously a hard topic to think about, us being African-American boys growing up and thinking one day it might be us, the one getting killed or whatever,” said Khari Sanford, a student in the class. “We all helped each other and got through.”
“It was our childhood, just growing up in Madison, and black kids dying by white police officers,” said Alonte Kingcade, a classmate. “We just put it into our own words.”
The students recorded their tracks at the Madison Public Library in May and will film music videos for each song, finishing up when school dismisses in June.
Hrovat-Staedter is pleased with how the class has gone.
“One of the things is that, with some of these students, they don’t have as much success in their other classes, and they weren’t having as much success in (traditional) choir, because it’s not what they like to do. It didn’t spark anything in their brains,” he said. “This class was giving them something.”
“It has kind of turned out exactly how I hoped it would,” he said. “I wanted to the students to know what rap can do and how powerful hip-hop can be.” ￼
￼Hip-hop in its truest form — it’s really incredible the way that people latch onto it. And that’s really what I try to give (the students), that earnest and honest interpretation of (hip-hop).” Rob Dz, local hip-hop artist