On a recent Thursday morning, 27 kids, mostly teenagers, sat at tables and used their imaginations to sketch out ideas for new buildings that would do some good in their communities. Models they’d made from household items and craft supplies, all painted gold, sat on the tables. Some of the kids made small versions of the buildings they’d envisioned. Others crafted abstract sculptural pieces.
A looped beat played in the background, fueling their inspiration both for this project and for the day’s big event, coming later: a rap battle.
This gathering at the Natural Bridge branch of St. Louis County Library in Normandy was one of 11 week-long events run around the country this summer by Hip Hop Architecture Camp, an organization based in Madison, Wisconsin.
The goal is to foster the creative spark that lies at the heart of both hip-hop and architecture, and explore ways that one discipline can influence the other.
One of those students was Saskia Dentman, 13, who created a model of a five-story building she envisioned as a homeless shelter; it was complete with environmentally friendly elements such as a rooftop garden and glass ceilings to promote natural light. Stephen Watkins, 15, made an abstract sculpture that could be scaled up into a monument. It had a slanted top, with holes in the back.
Watkins explained the item’s origin story: It represented a man who was about to graduate from school but was shot in the back.
“He had gang ties in his past life, and it caught up to him,” he said. “But he was trying to make his life better. This is a representation of how people from places in poverty try to change their lives but stuff catches up to them.”
Hip Hop Architecture Camp leans into the idea that any form of art is affected by the place where it is created. Hip-hop artists rap about their cities and neighborhoods. If those places are improved by more thoughtful urban design, the idea goes, the positivity could be reflected back again through the music.
“We see the correlation between hip-hop, social engineering, the environments that the youth are growing up in, the subject matter [of the music they listen to]. So, what better way to start to change things than to merge these different disciplines and show how they’re connected?” said locally based music producer Alonzo "Zo" Lee. “The environments they see are affecting their life, and so is the message they hear in songs and in videos.”
Lee is one-half of the production team the Trak Starz, which produced hit albums and tracks for artists including Ludacris, Usher, Chingy and Britney Spears. More recently, Lee has led workshops on music-business basics and led songwriting workshops at Ferguson elementary schools. (Lee and producing partner Shamar Daugherty pleaded guilty in 2010 to federal charges of failing to file tax returns.)
“I think it’s good to use hip-hop as a way to pull the youth in because they’re very interesting anyway. When that’s used as a tool to engage them, we can teach them other aspects of city planning, city development, what it means to be positive versus negative, and how things adversely affect our communities and how to make change,” he added.
Lee was there to lead a Q&A session about working in the music business and to help judge a rather friendly rap battle, in which the campers took turns delivering a short rap in front of the group.
Everyone gathered in a circle and rooted each other on. Campers who were a little bashful the first time around got a second chance to deliver their work with more gusto. There was a lot of encouragement to go around. To help each performer catch hold of the beat, the group began each round by rapping in unison to a catchy hook that worked as an introduction to each piece: “I’m a witness, hear it in my rhymes / This is how we combine rap and design.”
A few winners were eventually selected to participate in a music video of their work that will be put together later in the year.
Kristen Sorth, St. Louis County Library’s director, said that some campers were drawn to the camp by the architecture angle and others by the hip-hop part.
“By the end of the week, there’s definitely an interest in both,” she said. “It’s a very fun and interesting way to introduce architecture through the lens of hip-hop.”
The blend seemed to be working. Jenaye Ross, 14, said she’s always been interested in building things, and now she’s thinking of songwriting as a structure that gets built up. Her rap was about community building. One of the verses reflected that perspective.
“We gonna make better opportunities
People like you and me, commit to the community
We gotta have the love, the peace
Crush the beef between me and my enemies.”
Saskia Dentman, who made the model for an environmentally friendly homeless shelter, said her time at Hip Hop Architecture Camp was already making an impact.
“I think, after this I want to be an architect now,” she said. “Designing is fun.”
Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
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