Developing Your Voice Using Hip-hop to Teach Confidence and Nurture Creativity

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“It’s alright. My first songs were about fighting people and stealing their girlfriends, too,” emcee and recording artist James Gardin said, laughing as he worked with a student during a weekly meeting at the REACH Studio Art Center. 

Gardin is a teaching artist at the All of the Above Hip Hop Academy (AOTA), a nonprofit organization made up of artists, educators and advocates who mentor, support artistic expression and serve communities as a hip-hop cultural resource for the purpose of youth development. 

Along with the artist Rayshawn (AKA Y’z Council), Gardin teaches classes on beat-making to local high school students. He has experience from his own musical career and other teaching roles that help him to see his role differently than a typical educator position. 

“The way I look at it, we’re more collaborators and executive producers than teachers. So, more than anything, we’re just here to facilitate and bring your vision to life, and make it a polished product you can be proud of,” Gardin said. 

Ozay Moore, executive director and founder of AOTA, grew up in a very arts-focused environment. “I kind of grew up as a theater brat,” Moore said. “My dad was a dance choreographer for the Paramount Theatre in Seattle… I was around music: old Motown, soul, funk and jazz records.” 

The musical influence led to Moore’s early entrepreneurial ventures. “In third grade, I got a karaoke box and started recording tapes. I’d buy cassette singles and blank tapes and just hit record, and rap for the whole three minutes of the track, and started selling them at school.” 

Moore decided to pursue music as a career instead of attending college. He signed with a label at age 18 with a group and started touring. He became a hype man and toured with a variety of people and groups, eventually signing on his own with a label out of Japan. After he and his wife, Bekah, had their first child, things changed. They decided to stay in Lansing, but Moore had his doubts. He was worried that Lansing didn’t have the type of environment he was looking for. He remembers thinking that if he had any chance to make a decent living out of his artistry and skills, he needed a city with a stronger industry. 

“It wasn’t that it didn’t exist; it was like you had to know the secret knock or who to hang out with to figure out if things were happening,” Moore recalled. “Everything else was here that I needed. So, it was just like OK, let’s get creative. Let’s create this. So, that’s how All of the Above came together.”

Moore knew he wanted the organization to provide both mentorship for young people and sustainability for teaching artists who wanted to be engaged in an academic setting with hip-hop culture. That way, AOTA could lead to the creation and stimulation of the scene and culture in Lansing in an authentic, academic way. AOTA became registered as a nonprofit organization a few years after its establishment.

Gardin remembers studying what Moore and other performers in the Lansing area would do while on stage and trying to understand the “why” behind everything. He found mentorship, which evolved into friendship and led to his involvement with AOTA. 

“I think, going into it, I thought we’d just be teaching these students how to make music. But it does end up being a sort of mentorship situation, where we end up being a sort of sounding board for them, or someone they can talk to with less judgement,” Gardin said. “For them, I think music is them sharing parts of themselves that they might not even want to share with everyone, and we’re giving them space to share without judgement.”

Moore agrees that AOTA has a significant impact on its students. 

“It’s bigger than teaching them how to write lyrics,” Moore said. “They start developing confidence and their voice, and now they go to a job interview, and they feel confident going into the interview because they’re confident speaking in front of people, sharing their thoughts and ideas and who they are in front of an audience. That’s empowering.”

The influence of All of the Above and the guidance it provides has a ripple effect, according to Moore. 

“Lansing [should want to] retain its talent, retain its bright-eyed and bushy-tailed creatives,” Moore said, commenting on the “leave Lansing” mentality many people have had in the past. “You start painting a picture, you start seeing the possibility of them getting involved in, or creating in, or doing something sweet in the city they live in. That’s a whole different narrative than someone who grows up here and says that success is leaving the city. There’s possibility here, there’s industry here, and you can be a part of creating that. It’s a blank canvas.”

In the beat-making class, Gardin and Rayshawn reinforced the value of creativity. With a high-five to a young artist, Rayshawn said, “You’ll be walking in school with confidence you never knew you had.”

Interested in learning more about AOTA? Check it out at alloftheabovehiphop.org.