The Natural Bridge location of the St. Louis County Library is a little less quiet than usual. Instead of the occasional rustling of paging through books or the light tapping of computer keyboards, one meeting room at the library is electrified with children’s exclamations of elation. A celebrity is in their midsts.
About two dozen children, ages 11-14, met St. Louis rapper Chingy on Thursday. The hip-hop recording artist helped kids at Hip-Hop Architecture Camp — a week-long program that combines music and urban planning. The project focused on imagining a new North Hanley Transit Center.
There have been talks over the years about how to improve the MetroLink stop there, as well as other centers across the city and county. Students visited the transit center to gather information that informed both their designs and rap songs about how the area could better serve the community.
The themes in the children’s raps were multifaceted: some talked about homelessness; others rapped about pervasive violence. Still, many of the lyrics spoke about a hope that would bring about change and prosperity. One girl spoke about making her own design plans for the White House.
Each camper performed his or her rap for Chingy and a group of judges who later picked their favorite rhymes to be featured in the group’s culminating project: a music video.
Chingy is most well known for his 2003 hit “Right Thurr,” which highlighted the distinct St. Louis way of saying the “er” sound. He said he wanted to visit the camp to encourage the kids to achieve their dreams.
“Being a kid coming from the north side of St. Louis, you see a lot of things: gangbanging, guns, drugs. It’s a lot of things. So evidently, if you hear those kids talking about that in their music, evidently they witnessed it, or went through it or was a part of it,” he said. “So, it’s not nothing to be taken lightly. And that’s kind of why I’m here, to show them I come from that same background. But, you know, when you got goals, you can go other places.”
Eleven-year-old Rhyana Jackson rapped about concerns over violence, education and housing. She said she chose those topics because she wants to see better opportunities in her community.
“When you go to some areas in the world, you see that there are abandoned houses and you see that there are torn up communities, and you want to fix that,” Jackson said.
The judges selected Jackson’s rap to be featured with a handful of other kids in the music video.
The library invited members of the St. Louis County Department of Planning to participate in the day’s activities. When asked if he had seen any novel ideas from the campers, department director Justin Carney said he noticed reoccuring themes among the projects.
“Every single one of the designs has something to do with homelessness,” Carney said. “Either a homeless shelter, or individual homes that serve people who don’t have housing.”
He also noticed that many plans incorporated community gardens.
“They understand that they need access to fresh fruit and vegetables. And how do you get that to your community? They’ve put that in their developments,” he said.
Over the last year, camp founder and architect Michael Ford traveled across the country, introducing kids to design programs that can help them think of their communities in a new way. It was his first time bringing the camp to the St. Louis region.
He told St. Louis Public Radio in May the camp aims to inspire youth to find development solutions to many of the problems explored in hip-hop music, including disenfranchisement, segregation and income inequality.
“These young people are going to solve, or figure out, potential solutions to some of the problems that have been created by our profession,” he said at the time.
Ford focuses his camps on local development issues. He told St. Louis Public Radio on Thursday that he enjoyed spending time with the energetic group of local young people to design a new community transit hub.
“We got a chance to go to Hanley Station to develop ideas for what would make the station better not just for the youth who are designing it, but challenging them to think about other people who might not have a seat at the table,” he said. “So, how do we get them to think like designers and architects that we would want designing our communities?”