A group of students buzz about after school inside a classroom at Lakeland Elementary/Middle in south Baltimore.
Some chat at their desks, others sit along the perimeter of the room focused intently on sheets of handwritten lyrics. A few more step up to a microphone that’s positioned as a focal point in the room.
One by one, each student takes his or her mark in front of the mic, shaking off the butterflies to perfect the rhymes they’ve been tasked to perform as part of a song written together called, “Be Prepared.”
Confidence emerges with each take, and both teachers and classmates offer reassuring applause as they move one step close—in unison—to a finished track.
These students are part of iRhyme, an afterschool program that uses hip hop to teach reading literacy. The program was developed by Baltimore musician and educator Deverick Murray as a way to give the city’s young people a creative outlet and a head start on the music industry’s inner workings.
Every Tuesday, about 21 students come to the classroom for 90 minute to 2 hour sessions. Students research and study current events, taking notes during lessons and translating group discussions into ripe material for their music. Based on strengths and interests, students get a chance to sharpen their writing, performance and vocal skills alongside professional artist instructors.
iRhyme’s goal—much like the song being recorded that afternoon—is to be prepared. While literacy is the primary focus, students get the added bonus of learning how to navigate the music industry at an early age.
“These are artist development opportunities they’re getting in middle school,” Murray said.
Students get a chance to record and hear their songs broadcast on the school’s intercom. They each receive five CD copies to sell and make a profit, and even filmed a music video for a song called “Guns Weak.” Guest lecturers and field trips to local colleges offer additional motivation and early professional growth.
“We also try to teach our students the idea of unity,” said program COO Kaela Pittman. “They come from different places and have so many different things going on in their lives. When they come to iRhyme, we want them to be a unit. We’re writing music and that’s an intimate relationship.”
The program is gaining popularity among the school's community, and will expand to five sites this summer. A growth that program organizers look forward to.
“I would like for iRhyme to become the place where young people come to sharpen their skills so that they don’t get taken advantage of in the music industry,” Murray said. “Five years from now, as long as iRhyme is in schools and giving students an opportunity to perform, to speak, to talk, that would be bountiful. That would be huge.”
Watch the video above for more.