Students in Richmond’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School had a special guest yesterday. Grammy award-winning artist and rapper Speech, with the hip hop group Arrested Development, paid a visit.
“Clap your hands everybody! Like this, ya’ll, and you don’t stop. This is how we used to talk back in the day. That’s hip hop. I know ya’ll are like... that’s corny,” Speech said.
Speech shared some lyrics – and the personal story – that inspired him to write the group’s hit song: Tennessee. His favorite grandma lived there, and he’d visit her every summer. But, the same week she died – Speech also lost his only brother. The last time he saw him was at his grandmother’s memorial service in Tennessee.
“Art can be a way that we can express our feelings, a way we can get feelings out,” Speech said. “Because all of us have been through things that’ve been unbearable to explain.”
Speech said writing the song was a way for him to help deal with that loss. And he encouraged Richmond students to use it as an outlet, too.
Xavier Parham is a 7th grade math teacher at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School. “I thought it was very beneficial for the kids, just exposing them to different outlets and just giving them the opportunity to express themselves,” Parham said.
Speech is a mentor with the Turnaround Arts program that’s in three Richmond schools. The district is the first in Virginia to implement the program.
Winston Cox with Turnaround Arts says the program is in 81 schools across the country. The program began under the Obama administration, and works in schools that states designate as “priority” schools - meaning they contribute to the achievement gap.
“We really are all about bringing more joy and engagement to learning in schools,” Cox said. “We feel like we’re in an era where some of that has faded because of an over obsession, over fixation on standardized teaching and learning.”
2015 research from a pilot program in a D.C. school showed increases in student achievement and decreases in student discipline.
“You can just see with a visit like this young people understanding that [Speech is] somebody who has really devoted themselves to a craft...they inherently understand the value of that,” Cox said. “They see what excellence looks like and it’s contagious. Totally contagious.”