July 27, 2009
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About this project


(Right to left) Jalil Shabazz, QocTavia Shabazz, Desdamona, Patrick Pegg, Sandy Agustin, Aunrika Shabazz and Antonio Gonzalez in a classroom at the Neighborhood House in St. Paul, Minn. (MPR photo/Preston Wright)


Teens use hip-hop rhymes to explore hard times

by Molly Bloom, Minnesota Public Radio


By telling the stories of their first recession, four teens hope to inspire others.

Photo: #QocTavia Shabazz, also known as Nyasha, is 13 and attends Cleveland Junior High School in St. Paul. (MPR Photo/Preston Wright)
Photo: #Aunrika Shabazz, 14, will be starting her freshman year at Johnson High School in the fall. (MPR Photo/Preston Wright)
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Six months ago, talk of the recession would have barely registered with 13-year-old QocTavia Shabazz of St. Paul. "When I think of the economy I relate that to politics, government," she says. "I think, 'That's not my problem. Why do I have to deal with it?' But it is my problem."

Her perspective changed after Twin Cities artists worked with QocTavia and three other teens to connect what's happening in the economy to what's happening in their personal lives, and then to express those experiences through song and video.

QocTavia, her sister Aunrika, Jalil Shabazz (no relation) and Tony Gonzalez met weekly with spoken word artist Desdamona and multi-media producer Patrick Pegg. Their work was funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and supported by Minnesota Public Radio's Public Insight Journalism initiative, Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts, and Neighborhood House, a multi-cultural center in Saint Paul.

The goal was to give kids a creative outlet for expressing the toll of the recession in their lives, to engage artists in the storytelling process, and to use the teens' stories as a catalyst for a deeper conversation about how recessions shape our lives.

Neighborhood House Artistic Director Sandy Agustin saw the project as a way to get the kids to make some sense of their experience.

Last year, Tony and his family moved to Bloomington after their home in St. Paul was foreclosed on, and they're preparing to move again. He doesn't know where he'll be going to school next year. He says, "I'm young but at the same time I feel so old because I've been through a lot. I've witnessed a lot."

Jalil's mother lost her job, and their family receives welfare checks, all of which he says they need to pay the bills. "It went from $100 being left over to nothing being left over. If I want something I have to work for it, regardless of what it is."

QocTavia and Aunrika moved from St. Paul to Eagan with their parents and three other siblings. Their parents are both finishing their college degrees on top of working, so time and resources are scarce. It's become increasingly difficult for their family to find the gas money and time to get the girls to the activities that are important to them.

Even though the teens are dealing with the realities of the recession, they are reluctant to dwell on their situations. Agustin says, "They're living it everyday and they're aspiring to live something different in the future."

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The kids eagerly offer up their dreams for the future. Aunrika wants to go to college and major in whatever she finds most difficult; she likes a challenge. QocTavia wants to be a lawyer. Tony's working on starting a record label. And Jalil wants to be a rapper. Or a football player. Or a psychologist. Or an inventor.

It's trickier to get them to talk about what they're dealing with right now. Desdamona and Pegg helped the kids find their voice. "They had a way to write about it, a way to sing about it…It's sort of like a third person when it's a vehicle of artistic expression," says Agustin.

The teens conducted interviews with their peers at school and at the Neighborhood House to see how the current economy is affecting them. The interviews provided fodder and inspiration for their works.

With their song, Aunrika and QocTavia want to spread a positive message.

"Everyone's focused on themselves because they're in it for survival. It's human instinct," Aunrika says. "If something goes wrong, make sure you're OK…[then] make it a priority to go help someone else."

Jalil and Tony deal more directly with their own challenges in their song. They feel their personal stories can help their community by getting the conversation started, and it helps them cope. Tony says, "Rapping is a good way to let my emotions out, the good and the bad. It helps me maintain the mind frame I need to survive."

The teens weren't the only ones transformed by the project. Desdamona was inspired by watching the kids make connections and allowing themselves to ask questions.

"My material has gotten a lot more positive since I've started working with the kids," Pegg says. "Seeing how they can take positive things out of their situations has been reflected in the lyrics I've been writing recently."

Aunrika, QocTavia, Jalil and Tony have high hopes for they work they produced and the impact it can have. Jalil says, "We're going to reach that one person, all it takes is that one person…What we're looking for is change." Tony adds, "Not the change you get from banks, but the change you get from other people."

Project credits


Photographer: Caroline Yang
Web producer: Preston Wright
Project producer: Molly Bloom
Executive producer: Linda Fantin

My First Recession is a collaboration involving American Public Media’s Public Insight Journalism initiative, which cultivates diverse voices that deepen and enrich news coverage; Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts, the nation’s leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts in America; and Neighborhood House, a multi-cultural center in Saint Paul. The project was made possible through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.