WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — The last day of regular classes before graduation is usually "senior skip day" at Julian High School, but not for the students in Daphne Whitington's English class.
Late last week, they flooded into her classroom at the school at 10330 S. Elizabeth St. to watch the outcome of their final project: hip-hop music videos about the challenges of persevering through violence.
This is the second year that Whitington has ended her senior English class with a seven-week collaborative music video project. Nearly 200 students, divided into groups of about 10, were charged with writing music and lyrics, shooting videos and publicizing them once they were done. Of 18 total groups, almost all of them made videos focusing on gang violence or police brutality.
"I've used hip-hop as a teaching tool a lot in classes, and I've found that it can really be a hook for them to look at larger issues," Whitington said. "In regular English classes kids can tend to be really apathetic, but with this project we saw so many of them jump out of their shells and discover some hidden talents."
Whitington also incorporated the non-profit Mikva Challenge's Democracy in Action curriculum, which requires students to study and address some ongoing issue that affects their community. For Julian's seniors, violence was too pressing a problem to ignore.
"This class that's graduating hasn't passed a single year without losing a classmate to gun violence. ... These were guys who were really friendly and well-liked, but just ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time," Whitington said. "It can really make them feel powerless ... and it's empowering to be able to make these videos, to show that their voices matter."
The students lent their voices to hundreds of onlookers May 19, when they showed off their project at Mikva's Action Civics Showcase.
The exposure was important to senior Jeremy Tang, who rapped a verse in his group's video, titled "Cuz I'm only 18." Tang raps about the pain and humiliation of police harassment, which said he experiences "at least twice a month." Being 6-foot-2 and a left guard for the Julian football team, Tang said his size makes him a prime target.
"My brothers and I are all around the same size, and a lot of times we'll be walking home from practice or something and police will stop us and throw us around, cuff us and say, 'Where's the weed?' stuff like that," Tang said. "We've already gotta watch our backs with all the gun and gang violence, and the police around here are just like an extra thing we have to be scared of."
In the end, Tang said, being able to rap about police brutality was about more than just catharsis.
"It's just great to get your experience out there, 'cuz this is something going on all over the country, and it helps people see where we're coming from," Tang said. "And when I made this, a lot of people in the class came forward and said they'd been thrown, too — like they could relate. It was good to see I wasn't alone."
In his group's video, called "Rise Above," senior Malik Thomas, of Roseland, used his verse to tackle another scourge infesting the streets of Roseland and Washington Heights, where most students who attend the school live: gun violence. The video shows Thomas walking through the neighborhood, musing about a neighborhood suffering at the intersection of poverty and crime.
"For me, living on the South Side, every day I wake up thinking I'm going to have to watch my back, knowing there are people out there who might try to mess with me," Thomas said. "It's messed up ... innocent kids are getting killed, all because kids aren't in school and no one's working, so they go to the block."
After he graduates this on June 9, Thomas said, he'll be working in construction and drawing up college applications. But through it all, he'll never stop turning to rap as an escape valve.
"Hip-hop is really just all about telling stories, saying whatever you want to say," Thomas said. "You open your mind and put it over a beat, and you're free."
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