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The First Wave Scholarship program offers aspiring artists a full ride scholarship to UW while connecting them with faculty who can help hone their craft.

If you've ever wanted to know what its like to be a part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's famous First Wave Scholarship program, you only have to wait until September. 

"Hip-Hop U: The First Wave Scholar," produced by Wisconsin Public Television, follows three scholarship participants while exploring the First Wave community, its emphasis on activism and the difficulty of attending UW-Madison as a person of color.

The First Wave program offers aspiring artists a full ride scholarship while connecting them with faculty who can help hone their craft. The program has predominantly drawn poets, hip-hop and spoken word artists in its 11-year history and has generated notable alumni such as writer and poet Danez Smith and Michael Penn II, a writer and rapper known as CRASHprez.

Trevor Keller and Ryan Ward of WPT's Wisconsin Life produced the documentary over the course of a year and 30 hours of interviews. Keller said the documentary will showcase both the academic and artistic lives of First Wave students.

The documentary also highlights the sense of community fostered by First Wave which helps artists, who are predominantly people of color, adjust to attending a majority white institution. Keller said this was a theme he and Ward encountered frequently when conducting interviews. 

“Being students of color, their experiences here were difficult and sometimes the racial climate here is challenging, so we address that in the documentary,” Keller said.

Keller said having former First Wave scholar Johnny Chang as a production assistant helped his team identify interview candidates and facilitate access, ultimately resulting in 15 interviews. Chang, now a UW-Madison graduate, musician and producer, said he enjoyed producing the documentary and is currently preparing supplementary pieces to be published at later date. 

Chang said that while the documentary does a good job exploring First Wave, its scope leaves out a lot of significant history.

To remedy this, Chang has spent the last few months researching First Wave history to create a timeline to be published on the documentary's website. The timeline will feature interviews with First Wave founder Willie Ney and highlight the classes he taught exploring hip-hop as a means to understand and engage with social issues even before the creation of First Wave. 

For Chang, researching the history surrounding First Wave has helped give context to his own upbringing. When Chang lived in California, he was part of Youth Speaks, a program focused on youth empowerment and hip-hop arts. 

"[Youth Speaks] is built on the idea of this youth spoken word movement across the country but it was also about how are we creating positive change in our community," Chang said. "These youth organizations raised us back home as artist-activists, so when we got to campus First Wave was there for us."

A year-long break in enrolling new cohorts in the program prompted by a UW-Madison program review posed some problems when filming the documentary. Keller said the gap in new participants meant that much of the programming during the 2017-18 school year was smaller than in previous years, including the popular Line Breaks Festival. 

On top of this, some First Wave scholars didn't wish to take part in the documentary, but Keller said he remains confident his production offers a representative look at the art and community that defines the program. Keller said those who did choose to speak with his crew were very accommodating, despite balancing full course loads and First Wave commitments. 

On top of all this, Keller said he's grateful to First Wave for allowing his team access to archival footage of past performances which aren't available to the general public.

If people walk away from the documentary learning only one thing, Chang said he hopes it will be an appreciation of the power of community created when so many talented and engaged artists come together.

"Although this was an experiment from the start this is a transformational program and I hope people realize what community can bring," Chang said. "We need each other, especially when we're fighting the powers that be."

The documentary will air Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. on WPT and will be available for screening one week before that.

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