Awakin Calls » Chad Harper » Transcript
Chad Harper: Hip Hop Saves Lives
Guest: Chad Harper
Moderator: Pavi Mehta
Host: Aryae Coopersmith
Welcome to Awakin calls. Every Saturday, we host a conversation with an individual whose inner journey inspires us and whose work is transforming our world in large and small ways. Awakin Calls are an all-volunteer run offering of Service Space, a global platform founded on the simple principle that that by changing ourselves, we change the world to create a more compassionate and service-oriented society. Thank you for joining us.
Aryae: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. My name is Aryae and I am really excited to be your host for our weekly global Awakin Call -- welcome, and thank you for joining us! Every story is the beginning of a conversation whether it's with ourselves or with others. Across time and culture, stories have been agents of personal transformation, in part because they have the power to change our hearts and our minds. The purpose of these weekly Awakin calls is to share stories from amazing changemakers from around the globe. Through guided conversations with them, our special guest speakers share their personal stories and inspire us through their actions, their experiences, and their insights. Our hope is that these conversations will plant seeds for a more compassionate and service-oriented society, while serving to foster our own inner transformation. Behind each of these calls is an entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers whose invisible work allows us to hold this beautiful space. We are thankful to them and all of our listeners for helping to co-create this space.
Today, we are grateful to have a remarkable guest speaker with us, Chad Harper, whose personal journey is not only inspiring but has had a tremendous impact on so many people. In a few minutes, our moderator, Pavi Mehta, will engage in a deep dialogue with Chad, and by the top of hour we'll roll into Q&A and circle of sharing -- where we invite all your reflections and questions. I've opened up the queue right now, so at any point, you can hit *6 on your phone and you'll be prompted when it's your turn to speak. You can also email us firstname.lastname@example.org. This week’s theme is: How Hip Hop Saves Lives about how engaging kids in an opportunity for them to express themselves really opens up worlds, opens up learnings and opens up the door to who they can be in the world. Creativity can be so much more than an avenue of self-expression. It can be a lifeline and a gateway that connects our lives to other lives in meaningful ways. What role has creativity played in your life and how do you continue to nurture it?
We have the great pleasure of having Pavi as our moderator today. Few words about Pavi, for those of you who may not be too familiar with her. She is a leader in the ServiceSpace community. Some of her leadership is very visible, such as her co-leadership of the DailyGood, which leverages the internet to promote positive and uplifting news around the world to more than 100,000 subscribers. But so much of her service is anonymous and behind the scenes, as a humble friend, sister and role-model through her endless generosity and kindness to everyone in the ServiceSpace community. Pavi is also a poet, writer and filmmaker. Her documentary film ‘Infinite Vision’ won the Best Documentary award at the New York Independent Film Festival at 2004. Her book of the same name was published in 2011. It tells the inspiring story of Aravind, the world’s largest provider of eye-care, an extra-ordinary compassionate business which was founded in India by her grand-uncle Dr. V. So Pavi, I’m going to turn the show over to you.
Pavi: Oh my goodness! Thank you, Aryae, for that incredibly generous and heart-felt introduction. Really touched and I’m also really touched to introduce our guest, and I want to go ahead and dive right into that so we can get this conversation on the road.
Chad Harper is an artist, an educator and the founder of Hip Hop Saves Lives, a non-profit that creates humanitarians out of youth and was designed to reinstate the original purpose of hip hop. Hip Hop Saves Lives works in New York City schools, at homeless teen shelters, incarcerated youth centers. It works with teens on probation and at schools in Haiti. It uses the profound power of music and performance to bring children and adults together around some of the most pressing challenges of our times, as well as around the stories and lives of remarkable changemakers who are addressing those challenges everyday. From North America to Europe and Africa to Asia, Hip Hop Saves Lives has taught workshops around the globe including in India, Liberia, Ghana, Brazil, Palestine, Jamaica, Switzerland, Bermuda and Hawaii. In 2014, Chad received the Music for Empowerment award at The Social Innovation and Global Ethics Forum, a fitting and well-deserved recognition. Since the very beginning, proceeds from the 100s of songs that Chad and his organisation helps create go towards initiatives such as clean water and supporting school lunches in Africa and Haiti. In a very real way, thanks to their dedicated work over the years, Hip Hop truly is saving lives. It’s an honour to have Chad with us today. Thank you, Chad for taking the time.
Chad: Thank you so much! I’m really humbled to be here. Thank you very much.
Pavi: Well, just to give our listeners and us little bit more of an understanding about your background and the origin story of Chad, let's begin by having you tell us a little bit about your childhood and your formative years. Where did you grow up, and who and what were the early influences in your life that shaped your trajectory?
Chad: So I was born in 1972. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, at an East-side suburb called Shaker Heights. And something really special about Shaker Heights is that it is the longest integrated city in American history. It was actually designed for low-income and high-income people to live in the same suburb.
So typically, like in the 60's, when the Civil Rights Movement was on, Black Americans would have more freedom to move into other neighbourhoods, but White Americans would then move out and that neighborhood would become a Black neighborhood. But Shaker Heights worked specifically with its residents to make sure that that didn’t happen, so it was just a beautiful place to grow up. You know the high school was literally, I think, maybe 55% Black and 45% White.
So we all grew up together and experienced each other’s differences of culture, and I think that, you know, that upbringing of, having that type of diversity...when most of my adult friends now were either from predominantly a white neighborhood or predominantly a black neighborhood, and didn't have a childhood experience of a big multi-racial city. So that was very special for me and I think that you know planted the seed of my just dying to learn other cultures, and travel and experience other people's cultures, and just being open and welcoming to it.
Pavi: That’s remarkable, I didn’t know that that was the longest, the oldest, designed to be integrated in that way. Did you have a sense at that time about how remarkable that was or did you take it for granted?
Chad: I think, you know, as a kid, I kind of took it for granted. I really didn't know that deep history until I was older and had left. And then found out about that and then really kind of reflected on my childhood. And reflected on having, you know, some friends who were on welfare, and some friends who were, you know, extremely rich, but we all kind of hung out together and grew up together and shared our experiences together. And I think that was really really you know it's remarkable, for that city to define itself in that way and give us that experience.
Pavi: That’s amazing and makes me want to look up more about it, and I think one of the other questions that comes up is were there any incidents in that stretch of your life that kind of helped you develop the compass and the radar for the goodness that you have? Were there any early inspirations?
Chad: My mother has always been a school teacher and she was always very giving and she always worked like in the inner city and there were always some really tough kids, they did not have enough clothes and she would always take our old clothes that we did not wear and give it to them. Always bring us to her classroom to see the difference of living in a city and the different challenges that these kids go through. My mother always was very loving and very giving and always stopping the car and calling a homeless person over to the car giving them a hat or giving them food. So I was just watching my mother and her love for the kids that she worked with and the people that would be on the street -- that planted a seed in me.
Pavi: Wow, that sounds very much like the apple didn't fall too far from the tree!
Chad: Yes (laughs)
Pavi: So was it that you kind of always knew as a kid that music was part of your destiny?
Chad: I got into music at the age of 14. Hip-hop was kind of exploding and I was really listening to like the early days of hip hop which was kind of just cool party music. And I remember writing my first rhyme and showing it to my friends and they were like you did not write that. (Laughs). That's too good, you know and I was like, really? Okay. So from my first rhyme, I got the confirmation that there was some channel there because my friends thought I took it from somewhere.
Pavi: Do you remember kind of like what really struck you about Hip Hop?
Chad: I think it was just the young kids in that way -- dancing and rapping and being -- the focus was on them and they were you know delivering this high level of entertainment. It was kind of like they had created their own lifestyle!
Pavi: I want to ask you more about that and the origins of Hip Hop and that idea within Hip Hop Saves Lives of really reinstating the original purpose of Hip Hop, but before that -- so your original dream was, I guess, more in the sports domain, wasn't it?
Chad: Right, right. I played basketball, football, baseball but my true love was football and that was like you know my focus and I just dreamed of going to the N.F.L and being a running back but I had knee surgery when I was fifteen, and it was a lot more serious than we had thought. There was a benign tumour under my kneecap and it had been there since I was five, and I always had trouble with my knee growing up and a lot of doctors had mis-diagnosed it and they finally realized that there was a benign tumour and it had to be removed. And when it was removed, it was a lot deeper than they thought, so the reconstruction wasn't good enough for me to continue to play competitive sports.
Pavi: How did you kind of reorient yourself after that?
Chad: Originally I kind of went into the weight room, I still worked out with my football team and got really into exercises, lifting weights and kind of rebuilding my body. That was kind of my way to deal with the fact that I couldn’t play that I still could train with the guys.
Pavi: And so when you went into college, how did you decide what path you wanted to follow?
Chad: I originally did not know. I think in the first year I was at the Valley Forge military college and I studied pharmacy which was pretty interesting. But then my reason for going to that school was that I had done some research and I originally wanted to go to Morehouse and follow in Martin Luther King's footsteps. So to get there, I found out that if you go to a military college for a year and if you do fairly well there, it's very easy to transfer to the school of your choice. So when I got to Morehouse, I originally studied industrial engineering which I really really enjoyed but it was just really strenuous. The workload was really really heavy and so I finally kind of switched to business and finished school.
Pavi: What was striking for me was that partly what guided your decision was wanting to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King. So there was that event just early on, being kind of not just inspired by it, but really wanting to shape your life after some of these heroes of service and compassion?
Chad: Yes, I knew a lot about Martin Luther King and Gandhi. I watched that amazing film about Gandhi that was released, I don't remember what year it came out and I think it was a three hours film, it was really long and I remember I was heavily impacted by that film. So it was Martin Luther King and Gandhi that really kind of guided me towards the desire to be in service, not really knowing how. But the spark was there.
Pavi: And it is really interesting to see how your path from dreams of playing football to going to Military College to trying out the industrial engineering to then switching the business and from there -- what was the jump to come to Hip Hop? How did that happen?
Chad: You know the music thing was always there.
Pavi: So you were writing songs through all of this?
Chad: Yes-yes. I was always writing, though I never recorded till I got to college, and in college, I just recorded two songs. But it was always like I wanted to be part of that culture that I love so much and really just to say that I did it and experienced it, and to listen to it. It wasn't really a clear idea of how to use it. I think after college I was in Atlanta, Georgia for two years and then just decided to move to New York and be closer to the culture.
Pavi: Oh wow and so you followed that dreams like many other into New York City; and so how did you even enter the Hip Hop scene there?
Chad: I found a music producer. I can't really remember how I found him but I found a music producer that had a studio at his home. I would go to his house and pick out beats and record music with him. I guess it was more just for fun and to just experience it. And over the years, I got pretty good and I had met a friend that listened to some of the music that I had made. He was a owner of a small boutique record label that had financial backing by Sony music and he offered me a record deal.
Pavi: That's a big break.
Chad: Yeah, but unfortunately like Sony was funding three of his artists and the second artist did really, really bad. So they pulled the funding on my project, which was bittersweet because the music that I had made at that time was more driven for the industry and had a kind of focus on what are the, kind of, I guess, images that the industry was releasing. And I really didn't realize how controlled the music industry really is and the images that they focus on putting out to young kids.
Pavi: That is interesting. So in the meantime, I guess it helped you kind of hone your skill.
Chad: Right, right. Yes, I mean it was a great accolade to be offered a record deal but then realizing that -- literally I would say within a month of it falling through, I met an organization called Charity Water.
Pavi: Yes, could you tell us more about that because that seemed like a pivotal point in your trajectory. How did they come on your scene?
Chad: I was actually a bartender at a French lounge in midtown and they rented the space to do events. They [Charity Water] did these elaborate cocktail parties, they got celebrities to come to raise money for clean water wells in Africa. I think, at the time, it was just in Africa but now they do it all over the World.
And I was just really moved by the images that they put on the walls and the stories that they told about these people and the lack of clean water around the world, I had no knowledge of that. It was overwhelming and I remember at the end of that event, I went over to them and said, "I really want to volunteer for you guys. I am really moved by your work." They said yes and I started doing events with them.
Pavi: When you say "you started doing events with them", were you doing music with them?
Chad: Oh no! I was just a helping hand to put up material, talk to people about their work, and help fundraise.
Pavi: And how did that eventually culminate in you doing a song for them?
Chad: I can't really remember what gave me the idea. I was just learning all these different stats that they were sharing with people. I decided to put all this information in a rhyme and make it flow and it was literally like, you know, people would go through their exhibits and take 20 mins to walk through and find all this information but I was able to do it all in a 3-minute song.
I remember my mother telling me that people who go to charity events, don't listen to Hip Hop! So make sure you print out all the lyrics on a piece of paper and hand it to them when they buy the CD. I did that under my mother's guidance and it was a great thing. People would hear the song and they were really touched and they would buy the CD and then I would give them the lyrics and they realised that everything in the song was everything in the exhibit and they could take all that information home with them.
The organisation loved it, their supporters loved it, and it became a huge hit. And the founder of Charity Water, originally, was a party promoter for celebrities in New York and turned his life around to use his contacts to raise money for water wells. So we were doing events at Sundance Film festival, town of Miami, celebrity-driven nightclubs and people were just like asking to click my picture with them and sign the CD and I was like, "Wow! This is incredible." At that moment I was like, "This is what I want to do with my music."
Pavi: That is amazing. Kind of like your calling came calling for you.
Pavi: And this is about like 2006-2007? Is that the timeframe?
Chad: No, it was more like 2003 or 4.
Pavi: Okay and that seems to have become kind of a hallmark of what Hip Hop Saves Lives does. It finds either a theme of a challenge or a changemaker, someone who is doing really inspiring work, and you build a song around that. So from there, from seeing how that worked with Charity Water, where did you go from there? Was it initially very immediately clear to you that this is the format you want to follow?
Chad: It really was because I realised that I could make a song and it could have a really positive impact and also it had a built-in audience. I knew that if I wrote a song about an amazing humanitarian, and sent it their organisation, it would mean something to them. It wasn't like I had to make music and try to get people interested in the music. So it was fulfilling as a songwriter, as an artist to know that there is a built-in audience for every song that I create and then knowing that it is going to benefit these people, and their organisation, and their efforts... for me it was just a win-win.
Pavi: So I just want to understand the process. The process you use is that you make these videos and then you just send it to these organisations or to these individuals?
Pavi: And they have no connection with you necessarily before this?
Chad: No. No. It is kind of like a surprise gift or an email that they get.
Pavi: Well, I definitely want to come back to that. Just to get some stories around what the ripples from that have been. Some of the people you have been in touch with in that way, just some of these stories. I can imagine. So, just continue the trajectory for us. You did the Charity Water thing and from there did you just start to look for organisations? Is that how it blossomed?
Chad: My brother-in-law actually had a nonprofit called, Capital Education Support, and they were doing a program called "Break the chain". It was about, kids who have a parent in jail are 5-6 times more likely to end up in jail themselves. They were doing this campaign called "Break the chain", and I wrote and produced a song for them. Actually shot a music video for that song and that was my first music video and he was having an event in Washington DC where he lives. I went down there and we debuted the song and music video at his charity event.
That was the second song I wrote. From there, I am trying to remember, I had just started to look for organisations online and that's where the campaign of...So actually after doing that song, I realised, this could be a great movement and an organisation and the name "Hip Hop Saves Lives" was born and I started to build a team and a movement around it. I really wanted to highlight other Hip Hop artists that made positive, intelligent music and kind of like branch out and not do it myself. At that point that was the goal -- work with other artists and collaborate with.
Pavi: Can we take a moment here, to just have you share with our listeners, a little bit about the origins of Hip Hop?
Chad: Yes. So this is a story that I didn't know and it appears to me that still the majority of the world doesn't know and even people involved in Hip Hop don't know.
So Hip Hop came from a gang peace treaty. On December 8th, 1971, 42 gangs in the South Bronx signed a peace treaty. And to maintain that treaty they said that we should meet in the park every Friday night and all the gang leaders and their participants should come and we should party together. And if we meet weekly then if there are any issues, we could work it out but we don't want to go back to the fighting and the killing that they were involved in.
At these parties, DJs would come out and play music. And actually the original gang that started that peace treaty, their name was The Ghetto Brothers and they were a live band. They said at these parties we are just going to jam, we are going to play rock, we are going to play salsa, we are going to play soul, we are going to play funk, just to make everybody happy. That was the birth of these parties at the park.
Shortly after that, DJ equipment became very popular and DJs started to control the parties, musically. The gang culture was still kind of in their mindset so they hadn't really dropped the attitude. So the story says that they started to battle through dance. At these parties people would dance but they were still part of a gang and it became a competition between gangs of who can dance the best. And that's when the break dancers and that culture really came about.
The majority of those break-dancing moves, it’s funny, the most famous dancer of the time was James Brown. So people were imitating James Brown, but also Kung Fu movies were really really big in New York and these dancers were taking the moves from Kung Fu and putting it in their dance routines. In break dancing, you see a lot of kicks and a lot of leg movement because they were really imitating these Kung Fu kicks.
As these parties grew, there was this guy named Kool Herc. He is really called the father of hip hop, because at that time these were just parties in the park, but the culture of break dancing and rapping and DJ-ing really hadn't come out. So Kool Herc extended the breakbeat. Breakbeat is like a part of a song where all the other instruments drop and James Brown was famous for highlighting the breakbeat and having only the drummers play and he would dance. So they called that the breakbeat.
So he brought two of the same records and played just the breakbeat just over and over and over again and at that point, the parties went crazy, the word spread all over New York that this guy name Kool Herc had extended the breakbeat, so all the best dancers in New York city would come to his party in South Bronx and just battle. It was like, who is the best dancer, and it became this battle of dancing and that's how the gang culture finally got pushed out because it was more about dancing and taking pride in your skills, so the attitude wasn't really necessary.
Pavi: That’s such a brilliant -- I mean the original peace treaty -- to come up with that. That idea, there’s so much brilliance in that idea that, you know, we come together face to face. If we basically come together in the spirit of celebration, in the spirit of party and on a regular basis, that will get sorted. What a way of flipping the paradigm.
Chad: Right, exactly.
Pavi: And what I'm curious about is like, with this, it seems so intuitive once you hear about it -- of course Hip Hop in schools makes sense. But you know at the beginning it must have seemed a little bit like does just Hip Hop even belong in schools? How did you bridge that? How did the kids come into the equation, how did the schools come on board?
Chad: You know, that was actually an accident. I think in about 2011, I started a campaign. I had met a lot of local artists because I was producing events for really positive hip hop artists. And I started this campaign of doing a song a day at a music studio, and I would invite all my friends to come to the studio and we would study a different humanitarian each day, study their story and produce and write a song, within like four or five hours and finish it. And we were doing that for like two and a half months.
And that was just to really get the word out on what Hip Hop Saves Lives was about, how we -- I really wanted a catalog of music, you know, to share with people. And one of my friends was a schoolteacher and he was like, “Man, this is an amazing after-school program. Like, you know? Kids want to rap and sing and dance and make music. And you're putting, you know positivity, and they're learning about different issues all around the world through this.” So he shared it with his principal and his principal called me and he was like, you know, “Give me a curriculum and I will hire you to teach the kids.” And I was like OK and I had to like figure out what a curriculum looked like. I had no idea!
Honestly, I had no experience teaching kids at all and it was just like...I remember...I think it was January 10th, 2012 was the first workshop. Me and my business partner Johwell, you know, we just went in and I was like, “Listen we're getting paid to teach Hip Hop!” You know, it's like this dream job and I never imagined that, that would happen. And so first of all, they hired us for just four weeks. And it was Monday through Thursday. And I remember that, that last Thursday, I’m standing up in the classroom and I was saying to the kids, “Hey, you know, today is our last day. And the principal says that you know this was a great program but it was kind of like a last minute decision. And he doesn't have, like, the funds to continue.”
And this young lady...I think we were with six, seven and eight graders. And this one sixth grader stood up at the back of the room and she starts like walking really aggressively towards me. I’m thinking maybe she has to use the bathroom, let me just, you know, get out of the way. And she comes really close to my face, with tears jumping out of her eyes, and she says, “You cannot walk in and out of our lives like that!” And she stormed out the classroom.
And I was like, OK, Wow! At that moment, I realized that this wasn’t just an after-school program. You know, kids are really impacted by that. I have kids all the time tell us like, “Oh My!” because their career started with Hip Hop Saves Lives, and you know giving these kids the opportunity to rap and sing and dance and videotape it, and share it on social media. For them, it was just, you know, it really opened up their world, you know?
So I told the principal and I said, “We’ll volunteer one day a week, you know. And so you can find more funds to continue the program.” So we came there every Friday because, you know, just those four weeks, another school had found out about us and hired us, so we had another contract to go to, Monday to Thursday. So we continued every Friday with that school. And I live in Brooklyn and that was like in the North Bronx, so it's like an hour and a half subway ride just to get there. I told the kids I have to travel an hour and a half each way, so if I come and you guys are there and ready...We had like four really, really dedicated kids that always waited, always were there. I would say maybe three months, we came every Friday, every quarter with those kids, and then the principal was like, “OK, I see that you guys aren't going anywhere. The kids don’t want you to leave.” So after that we kind of had a full-year contract at the school for like 4 years.
Pavi: Wow! Yeah that's just amazing in the sense of there's so much profoundness here. Just after-school programs, like having something that’s so engaging; that could be like the most dangerous time for kids, right? After school, when they're just out on the streets, and if you can't engage them in wholesome ways that genuinely excite them, you kind of don’t know like what direction...I guess I'm saying that like there's just so much more than just -- it's not just about the music, I guess, right?
Chad: Right, right. A lot of these neighbourhoods where we worked with these schools, they have some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and youth gangs and it was just a really safe space. And we got to know a lot of these parents, because a lot of parents were like, “School’s out and you’re coming straight home, you know?” So we got to talk to a lot of parents, and earning their trust because their child was no longer coming home straight after school. They were staying for two hours. So it was an adjustment for some kids. For some kids, every single day, we had to get on the phone and say, “Your child is in my classroom.” Some parents really wanted that every day confirmation.
Pavi: And so what was the process? Like with these, you know, as you were working with these kids. How did you decide on the themes? How would you go from that first workshop to actually coming out with a song at the end of a certain number of weeks?
Chad: You know, we actually... There was a few websites and DailyGood was one of the few websites that we had found just through Google. I googled like ‘everyday heroes’ and there were a few websites and DailyGood was like one of our regular websites, where we would tell kids, we had computers in the room, to go on this website and read the different stories and you guys decide who you want to write about. So that's how I really got familiar with ServiceSpace.
Pavi: That’s so cool. So you put it in the kids' hands, to browse and explore and then come up with something.
Chad: Right, yeah.
Pavi: What were some of the themes that they chose? The everyday heroes that they chose.
Chad: One great story is there was a lady in Indonesia. I think she was originally from Hawaii but she moved to Indonesia, in a kind of remote area and women would have to travel several hours to the hospital. There was no clinic at all in their area, so she opened two different clinics in these rural areas for women to give birth. And I think she ended up being a CNN everyday hero of the year.
And the kids really just loved that story and they wrote a song and we did a music video and we sent it to her. And we got this incredible email of gratitude from her saying like, you know, we've delivered ten babies today, and they're all bouncing and listening to your song. The nurses are watching the music video. And she asked for our address and how many kids were in our class. And we said it kind of varies but we have, you know, about twenty kids that we work with in total So she sent twenty T Shirts from Indonesia all the way to the Bronx in New York to give to our kids.
Pavi: Wow, and I can just imagine for the kids to have that experience of touching lives halfway across the world.
Chad: Right, yeah.
Pavi: That's amazing. And I want to rewind like a little bit to this -- you kind of glossed over it, like doing a song a day thing, for two and a half months. That sounds incredible and it also sounds exhausting and scary, I think. To have to come up with, you know, a good piece of music and to get up and do it again and again and again and again. What was that like for you?
Chad: You know, it was winter time in New York City. It was very cold; and a lot of snow. And so there was some days that the weather was so bad that I would get to the studio, and all the artists were like, “I’m not coming today.” There was about twice when I did a song myself We had at least twenty five different artists coming through in that two and a half months. We had music producers that would donate beats to us, and we would just go to the studio and pick like a beat that was already made and sometimes add stuff to it. But it was more about studying the everyday hero and learning their story. And thinking of beat that felt like -- "Ok this humanitarian does this; what type of rhythm would represent what they do?”
So kind of choosing a beat that would have a type of feel that kind of represented the work they did. And then just crafting the lyrics. And some people love to do the core score, and other artists love to write the lyrics or verses. There was always about four or five people in the studio - sometimes six or seven. But we would all kind of break it up. And you know collaborating with these artists really was one of the most amazing experiences.
Like just to have a group of artists show up to the studio. Everyday, Monday to Friday; to write and record. And it was just that practise of being creative every single day. And then also learning about these amazing - you now - humanitarians who were so inspiring; we, kind of, like all became a family. So you know those two and a half months felt like a New York artists family -- you know we are still in touch. Fifteen years later. Follow each other - support each other. And it has created like a deep rooted family between us.
Pavi: There is so much here, Chad, and I was thinking about how, you know you are, just the kind of ability to kind of galvanise these other artists, and do this kind of collaboration and return them in some sense -- return yourself collectively to kind of -- the heart of the potential that music has. That we can sometimes lose sight of. And in a world that is so entertainment driven. And commercialised. And how incredibly animating it must have been for everyone involved. And animating, as well as just that challenge - like to put your creativity in service of the greater good.
Do you feel like "Hip Hop Saves Lives" has really been a vehicle that - like how did all the other artists respond? Do they kind of think of it as - " oh this isn't real music - or is there a real sense of "This is what music is actually about."
Chad: Yeah - you know most of the artists, kind of, I met organically. And it was through word of mouth. I had started producing some events in New York City. And kind of highlighting inspiring hip hop artists and I would meet them and their friends would come. And it was an organic kind of snowball. All the artists that I was working with, were already socially-conscious-minded, spiritual people that really loved the idea of "Hip Hop Saves Lives". Writing songs about humanitarian. A lot of them just loved the fact that we were going to the studio every day. It was a great way to hang out, socialise and be creative. So we kind of really got this reputation of giving artists an opportunity to better their skills. And we started producing events for these artists.
And a lot of those artists like Brown Rice Family, and Negusword, you know, we all collaborated on the events in the city. And the word just really, really spread. I would say the first four months of the program with the kids, we got phone calls from community centres. And detention centres. And libraries and everything. It was really overwhelming. And we did not have enough staff at the time. So lot of those artists that we were working with - we asked them to help us teach these workshops. Because the demand was much higher than what we could provide for.
Pavi: That’s amazing. Is that something - the song a day campaign - was that a one-time thing or something that has happened multiple times?
Chad: That was actually a one-time thing, because once the principal got us into the schools and it was like - we are now doing this with kids and we can now get paid for it. That became - a lot of us stopped, I stopped bartending and my business partner was also bartending. He quit his job and we just hit it full time. And we got a lot of other artists into teaching kids.
And even to this day, we have a contract with Carnegie Hall, that a lot of our artists have been teaching there for years. To work with them was just an incredible honour. They’re an organisation that has been doing charity work for over a 100 years, in music. So to partner with them has just been phenomenal. And I am so thankful. Because I started travelling the last couple of years and for a lot of my music family in New York, they’ve been with Carnegie Hall.
It is pretty incredible to work with incarcerated kids. And it is really sad at the same time to really understand, like the stories, you get to know the kids. And learn their stories. For me, for a while, it got too heavy. You know - I took it too personal. So I personally stepped away from those workshops but a lot of the artists I am still friends with, still work there.
Pavi: I can imagine. That brings me to one of the other topic that I wanted to touch on before we open it out. And that is the recent documentary that you just released last week, "Freddie Pedro". Which is the story of a homeless youth that you serendipitously stumbled upon in Nicaragua. And I can imagine that that too - must have been an incredibly inspiring story, but also a heart breaking one. It was something that wasn't easy at everytime - to kind of walk that journey with Freddie.
And so if you could share a little bit about how that came about. And what Freddie’s story is. I think that would be a beautiful segue into the next section of our call.
Chad: I just released the documentary on Facebook on my "Hip Hop Saves Lives" Facebook page ; it is called "Freddie Pedro" -- it is a short documentary, about 22 minutes. And it actually - I guess, kind of, happened by accident. But I guess the universe put that in front of me and wanting me to adjust that. So i am grateful to be the person telling the story.
But I went to Nicaragua just to document hip hop, was just a vacation trip, wanted to meet some hip hop artists and kinda understand what hip hop was like in Nicaragua. I had asked some locals in this town that I was in, where I could find hip hop culture. They said that there's a park where skaters practice, maybe you can find some hip hop culture there. So I rented a bicycle; as I'm riding there, it rains really really heavy for like thirty minutes. I just kind of stopped, stranded. It stopped raining and I said you can't break-dance or skate on wet ground. But I said I was already en route, let me just go and see. I get there and there's one kid in the park and he's breakdancing in the puddles and I was like, “Wow, this is like serious dedication'.
So I started videotaping him from afar. I walked up and I asked him if I could videotape him and he looked up and he said yes. And he had this weird really glazy look in his eye. And I was like, “Wow, what kind of drug is this kid on?” And then I saw a bottle of glue that was next to him. That really broke my heart and I was like I wonder what this kid is going through. And I asked him, I said - why are you sniffing glue? He said because I'm homeless and hungry and when I sniff glue, it kills the hunger pangs.
So I was immediately just compelled to say -- Well, if you're hungry, let's go eat, but please put away the glue. And I took him to eat at this rooftop restaurant that overlooked the park. So after the sun came out and some other kids came to the park, he asked if some of his other friends could come up and eat, these were also homeless kids as well. And I was like, “Wow, like why is this park like a center for homeless youth?” He was like - this is just where a lot of us sleep at night.
So I told him - well I'm in town for a couple days. I could come hang out with you guys and take you guys to eat. So I told them I would come the next day. And I was traveling with a friend and we decided that we wanted to go to the next town, to go to a beach. Long story short, Freddie & two of his friends were asking -- could they come to the next town with us, to go to the beach. I was just like, I didn't know what to say. I asked them to introduce us to a few locals that were in the community, that were adults that could kind of say like it's OK to take these kids. It was just thirty minutes away but we were going to stay there overnight.
So long story short, the Freddie Pedro documentary is about how me and this friend who I was traveling with, kind of adopted these three kids for a weekend. Got a private room on the beach, fed them breakfast and lunch every day. I couldn't just part from these kids, and it was just that story of seeing them so happy and so joyous. So not have to worry about where they're going to sleep and about food. It was just a really touching experience.
That was actually two years ago, and I just finished editing it. And I think part of the reason was, that I was so touched by these kids that... I tried to edit it a few times and it was just so heartbreaking. You know these kids are homeless and on the street, I had learned about their family life and the reasons why they were homeless. I finally finished the documentary and it's out now. I'm marketing it to Nicaragua and the response is really, really incredible. They're so grateful for that story being told. It's been a wonderful experience. I've actually gone back twice to visit the kids, but they're still in the street. I plan to go back next month as well.
Pavi: And so you're able to keep in touch with Freddie?
Chad: I had bought the three kids smartphones originally to keep in touch with me, and they lasted a few months. Now a lot of adults in that community I've friended on Facebook, and they'll message me & say, “Hey you know I'm a Barber in the community and I cut Freddie's hair for free.” So people just send me messages, pictures and videos, just to let me know how Freddie is doing and the other guys.
Pavi: That's amazing! So there's this web of connections now that’s kind of helping hold him.
Chad: Right yeah. And, the main point of the documentary is I wanted the people of the community to view the kids in a different way and understand. Yeah they're at the park & sniff glue, you know they might steal sometimes, because they're hungry but these kids have really bad family life, or there's a reason. And I felt like if somebody showed them in a different way of just happy kids that want to play, that the community might strengthen around them a bit and it has.
Pavi: It's powerful. In the work that you're doing with the kids, whether it is in New York or across the world, are there any stories of kids that you feel like really, where this was kind of their lifeline that turned their lives around?
Chad: Yeah, sure, there's a lot of kids in New York that we've worked with for 4-5 years and seen them develop into incredible artists, incredible singers and rapper, music producers, and really have taken the art seriously, that they had this opportunity at their school for years, to better their skills and just know that they have a community that supports them, and wants them to get better and has tools to help them get better. For a lot of kids, self esteem has really blossomed from our daily workshops, after school. We've seen kids grow and graduate, going to college.
And you know they come back and they come visit us. And they say, you guys have no idea what this meant to me and I'm still making music, and I'm still singing and dancing. Kids have been involved in amazing things and had opportunities to travel and perform, just because they had this music studio after school every day. Another thing is a lot of these kids hadn't shared their desire to be creative with their parents or their parents found out through our program and the songs and music videos that they did. So a lot of their parents have become friends with us, and share stories with us and always thank us - saying that you know I never knew my kid was this talented, and thank you so much for providing that opportunity.
Pavi: I think that just subliminally too, all the messages that the kids are receiving in that time, these stories of positive change, they're rooted in values of generosity, compassion, integrity, to just even have their eyes opened to all of these different positive possibilities, I can just imagine you know what effect that has on their own sense of what's possible in the world.
Well, we are at the ten o'clock mark, Aryae. So let me bounce the ball over to you to continue this conversation.
Aryae: Wonderful conversation, thank you both. Want to remind everyone again, we invite you to share your questions, your comments, your reflections. If you are on the phone, you can dial *6 and you will be in the queue to ask a question, or if you're streaming online or would just like to contact us by e-mail it is: email@example.com
So Chad, we had talked a little bit earlier about the video of the middle school and I just had the sense visually looking at the kids in that there was something that shifted in these kids as they were getting involved in the hip hop about the way they were relating to school and learning. And I'm curious about that, if you can tell us, what is it that you discovered about their schools that had sort of closed them off, and what is it that opens them up and how does that change the way school happens?
Chad: I can definitely say that the relationship between teachers and students definitely changed. You know a lot of the kids that would come to our after school that were interested in hip hop might not have been the best students, or might have behavior issues. And for the teachers to see them rapping, singing and dancing in music videos, a lot of the teachers originally would come to us & be like - Wow, like I never knew this kid was so talented. They are so amazing because they're rapping about intelligent positive things. It made it so easy to share and a lot of teachers would come to us and say like, "Uh, Thank you for showing the student in a different way. And I look at this child differently now, and I have something to talk to this child about because I know that they're very talented and very excited about this."
And it changed relationships with a lot of the teachers that maybe had issues with kids, but also kind of gave them leverage, because if they had issues during the day, the teacher would say, "You know that if you get in trouble, if you go to office, you can't stay after school." So it kind of forced them to focus more during the day and the principal Jabal at that school really said that the focus that the kids had to have, to go to the after-school program, really changed their relationship with focusing on math and science and reading, and things of that nature. And he said that it definitely had a direct effect on kids getting better grades kids behaving better because they wanted the opportunity, you know, to rap, to make these music videos.
Aryae: Wow, very interesting! So I'm really picturing that the teachers have the opportunity, while before they might just have seen a kid that was shut down or acting out or whatever, now they have a chance to see the kid in a new way?
Chad: Right. It kind of rippled, you know, throughout the entire school. And teachers would come up to us and say, "I used to sing as well!" Or some teachers would say, "I write rhymes too!" and they would ask us because they would be on the floor with the kids, because a lot of times, me and my business partner, Johwell would would rap and sing all the songs with the kids. So we started to get teachers involved and you know, now you had teachers and students rapping and dancing in the songs together, and it just, it really transformed the relationship between, you know, student and teacher.
Aryae: Did you get any feedback about as a result of these changed relationships, about any changes that teachers chose to make in their approach to their classrooms and their lesson plans or how they organized their time in the classroom?
Chad: I'm trying to think. I can't really remember any direct changed thinking with teachers, but I know with the principal. Yeah. I think the way he led his teachers was definitely in a different light. To be more entertaining, to engage kids in different ways.
Aryae: That would be really interesting, I think, to to see overtime, if teachers kind of changed their approach to the classroom.
Chad: Right. Yeah,
Aryae: You know, I believe, tell me if I got this right. I believe there was something in one of those videos that suggested that the kind of vision or change process that you're envisioning for these schools is different from how a lot of mainstream efforts to improve education see their task. Did I hear that right?
Chad: Yeah, I mean, you know, obviously, you know kids learn when they are more engaged. They learn more when they're engaged in...I'm actually working at a project at a school now and it's called 'If school's up to me, what would it be' and I'm working with a lot of fifth graders. And their main response is like they want to play. They are 10 or 11 years old and they want to learn through educational games, you know, and it's kind of weird, that a lot of teachers don't utilize that as much in their classroom. Knowing that, you know kids will be more engaged and remember, and be better students through arts and entertainment, you know?
Aryae: Yeah. Yeah, very interesting. Well, it looks like we have someone in the queue right now. So let's let's turn it over to the next questioner. Okay?
Caller: Hi, this is Wendy from Half Moon Bay, and I guess there's a little tech confusion here. Um, so first of all, um, this is a wonderful call and I so much appreciate this introduction to a world I really don't know very much about so this was very powerful for me. And um, I also love how uh, you have been assuming the best in everyone, that people really want to serve. And that also I very much appreciate that you're giving these students, young people opportunities through joyous action, to learn through joyous actions, not through kind of a grind kind of thing, which I think a lot of kids experience and then they lose interest. But this is really, you know, hip hop music. It's really so much joy for them. And that's a wonderful thing.
So my question is you had mentioned sometimes that you've had to withdraw, there are such difficult situations that you experience and that you're around, and I'm wondering how do you deal with the heartbreak that you see in such a difficult situation? The children that you were talking about in Nicaragua who were homeless and didn't have enough to eat. What gives you strength? And how do you, how are you able then to go back and to continue to serve?
Chad: Thank you for that question. Um, it's been something that's been very heavy in the last couple years. Just to touch on some work, my experience in East Africa. I was in Kenya for a big part of the year last year and there was these kids that were on the street every day as I would walk to the mall because it was very hot, it was on the coast and the mall was the only place that had like really good air conditioning!
So I would head there every day and see these kids asking for food on the streets. I just would stop and talk to them and there's some like local street restaurants where people come out to cook and sell food for locals. And I would always take them and have them sit down, and sit down with them and and even eat with them. You know, I didn't like the idea of giving them a cookie, just giving them a handout. I would always say come let's sit down. Let's eat together and I became like, you know part of their family. I mean they kind of really depended on me, you know, to eat every day and I was like, you know, what am I gonna do?
You know? I got to know them and I got to know their families and you know, I decided to pay for their school fees, and you know pay for school lunch, and school breakfast because I knew that, you know, I didn't want to stay where I was at long-term. I wanted to figure out how I could affect their lives long term.
It was really tough, you know, to see these kids on the street every day. I was able to reach out to my network and get funds and pay for the kids in school and I haven't been back to Kenya since December, but we are still continuing to pay for the kids' school fees. And I'm committed until they graduate and go to college.
But you know that experience of seeing seven or eight year old kids on the streets who have to come out and beg for food and doesn't have a change of clothes -- it's been very, very heavy on my spirit. The kids in Nicaragua have been heavy on my spirit and especially the kids, incarcerated kids in New York was very, very draining for me.
And I am thankful that I was able to like pass the time to a lot of my friends here in New York, to continue working with those kids, because for me, you know going into an incarcerated facility and hearing these kids' stories, for me, I just emotionally couldn't deal with it. I think I worked with Carnegie Hall in that project for about a year, and another organization for the incarcerated kids for a year and so, you know, I'm just thankful that I was able to pass the time to my friends to continue working with those children. And uh, I think if it wasn't for meditation and the community of amazing people that I know through this work, and seeing them continue, and amazing artists like Nimo who continue to travel and busing kids all across the world. I think it's really just watching my other friends continue the work that gives me the strength to keep working.
Caller: Well, that's wonderful. And I'm just so impressed by the community, that you're all looking out for each other, and when one person just, you know, has to just withdraw a little bit or it gets too much, the other, somebody else will take over. And that's beautiful. I just have one other follow-up question which is so when you go to these kids, you know, you see them on the street so you could be in another country or it could be in Brooklyn, how do you get over maybe any initial suspicion they might have like, who's this guy? You know, what's he want? And how do you reach them to say, "Hey, you know, we can do something beautiful together. I'm a good guy, let's be together." What's your secret for that?
Chad: You know, funny, that's never really been an issue. You know, the kids in Kenya -- they are in a very touristy area and they're really kind of used to addressing tourists to help them out. I mean some locals do as well, but they're kind of like, in a very touristy area, so they're kind of used to talking to strangers and asking for food. And Freddie Pedro in Nicaragua, I mean, we kind of immediately clicked. And you know, I was actually really surprised that those three kids went to the next town with us and got them a hotel room and they were totally comfortable. I guess I just feel that you know to be in their situation, it's so tough. They must have a really good sense of who to trust.
Caller: The antenna?
Chad: Right. Yeah.
Caller: Well, thank you so much. This has been so inspiring.
Aryae: Thank you, Wendy. You know as I was listening, Chad, about how hard it was for you to sort of encounter these kids day after day, I was going to ask, how do you keep from burnout? And I think you answered that. It was about meditation and community.
Chad: Absolutely. I definitely did suffer some burnout with working in New York City. And that was one of the reasons I left, you know, to go travel in Africa. I was really burnt out, the incarcerated youth, it was really heavy and it caused a little, definitely burnout and some depression, you know.
Aryae: It would be, It would be, it seems like an area for someone to take a look at it, for anyone who wants to work with incarcerated youth or kids in those situations of how to support people in doing that, so that there can be people who stay on the ground. Oh, man!
Hey listen, there's another question that came in from Varsha Mathrani and this as an email and I'll just read it. It says: Hey Chad! Varsha here. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your life story and those of the kids you've worked with. I really enjoyed listening. Two questions. I know you went to Iceland recently and wondered what key learnings did you find about their low dropout rates? And if there's anything to bring back and integrate here in New York City?
And then there's another question which you may have answered already, but the second question is could you share any personal practices you have? Oh, “Can you share any personal practices you have that keep you so open and compassionate. I can imagine lots of people ignoring some of the situations that you've come across.”
Chad: It goes back to, I guess, the impact that the Gandhi film had on me when I was a teenager and the quote 'Be the change you wish to see in the world' and I actually have that quote tattooed on my arm. And it's just been a Guiding Light, you know throughout my entire life -- of never being silent in the space of someone's suffering, you know? Yeah, it's always been my Guiding Light -- just that quote.
Aryae: So, another student of Gandhi, among many in this community. Um, that's a great answer. So what about Iceland, you know, do you have any response on that? Did you learn anything about best practices there or is it just a different situation, a different culture?
Chad: To briefly talk about why I was there, a friend of mine on Facebook had posted articles and it talked about 20 years ago, Iceland had one of the highest alcohol and drug abuse rates among teens in all of Europe.
Chad: These two college professors decided to start after-school programming and they literally told the kids we will teach you whatever you want to learn. We will not come up with our own ideas of what you guys will have to do after school. It's totally up to you. They opened community centers. They got after school programs at schools and the interest from these kids was so high, that now 20 years later, Iceland has one of the lowest rates and I think like alcohol use among 15 and 16 year olds dropped from 45 percent to 5 percent.
Chad: It had a really huge, huge impact and it was just...And I think also I learned that giving these kids the freedom for them to decide what they want to learn gave the city and the schools leverage to put curfews on the kids. So they went to the kids and said, you know, whatever you want to learn we'll teach you and now that you're engaged, now that you're enjoying it, we want to set some other rules in place to keep you guys from hanging out in the streets, after hours. And the kids agreed to it because they were happy and they were learning all kind of arts and crafts and acrobats, you know, it was just making that exchange with the youth. So that was that amazing thing that I learnt. I got a contact for one of the professor's but we haven't had a chance to speak yet. So I'm really hoping to start a community center in Brooklyn, kind of based on a lot of things that they had put in place in Iceland.
Aryae: That's amazing, giving the kids a say in what it is that they want to learn. That's pretty radical.
Chad: Right? It had huge results and it's still, you know, it's still maintained in Iceland and the government got involved in supporting these community centers and after-school programs, but now it's kind of a countrywide thing.
Aryae: I love the idea of trying that out in New York, if you're in a position to make that happen,
Chad: Yes, we're working on it. I had a meeting this week with a very powerful lady that works in education and getting her support and just kind of building a team around this idea. And I shared the article with her about Iceland and she was very moved and so we have some things in place and you know, we're giving thanks in advance that we can make it happen.
Aryae: Thank you. Well, we're getting close to the half-hour. We have one more comment that came in. This is from Bradley here in the Bay Area who is and has been a teacher for a long time and his comment is: The vision of that young girl delivering such a powerful message is so profound. Thank you! Thank you also for your work on Empty Hands.
Chad: Thank you Bradley. I believe you're talking about the young lady that told me that you know, you cannot walk in and out of our lives like that.
Aryae: Yeah. Yeah, I think so too. So, um, we're getting close to the bottom of of the half hour. And oh, let's see. Here's another question. Okay, so this is from Mish in Brooklyn. She says: Such a wonderful and very interesting listen. Thank you Chad for changing lives in this way. She says being a native New Yorker, I was especially wowed by your share about gangs uniting in the park with those dance parties in the Bronx; never knew about that! Wondering if you've received support from established artists in the music industry? In gratitude Mish, in Brooklyn.
Chad: Thank you, Mish and about the gang peace treaty stories, if she wants to learn more, there's a documentary called Rubble Kings and it tells the entire story of the gang peace treaty and I always try to share that with my kids so they can, you know, not just hear the story from me and be like, Aw, it's just some old guy talking about peace and that's how hip hop started. I always shared, you know the documentary with, well, at least, with my older kids because you know, it really tells a graphic tale of of what New York City gang life was like in the 70s. So please check out Rubble Kings. I forgot what her other comment was?
Aryae: Um, let's see. Yeah, have you received support from established artists music industry?
Chad: Oh, yes, we've worked with a lot of kind of old-school artist from the 80s and early 90s. We reached out to guys like Brand Nubian. I don't know if she knows these artists, but Brand Nubian, that has been an amazing artist working with us. About five or six different, Old School artists, but the main one -- we actually contacted Kool Herc, who's the father of hip hop. He was the DJ that extended the brake.
So we actually bring him into our schools and have him tell, you know, the true story of how he, you know, extended that breakbeat and how the culture kind of birthed from that. So we work very closely with Kool Herc
Aryae: Got it. Okay. Thank you and now as we bring our conversation toward a close, Chad, I'm going to ask you the question we ask our guests at the end of these conversations, which is how can we in the larger ServiceSpace community support you and your work?
Chad: Oh wow. Thank you for that question! You know, right now hip hop Saves Lives is working on launching a new website and through this website, we are kind of creating a space for hip hop artist around the globe that use hip hop for inspiring, you know, to inspire their communities and uplift their communities. So we're creating this global network on Hip Hop Saves Lives.tv. So we're launching that website really soon and we feel that, you know, just through my travels of going to so many countries around the world and teaching workshops and working with artists, this is a great way to bring them all together through this website and they know each other and they build, you know, a stronger network to continue their work.
So, we would love for people to share, the website has a few kinks that we're still working out, but Hip Hop Saves Lives.tv. will be launching very soon.
Aryae: Okay. Well we can include that in our thank you note to participants -- Hip Hop Saves Lives.tv. And that's great. Yeah, I think I was looking at that and it'll be you know, great to see what your next iteration of that is. Before we bring it to a close, Pavi, I want to ask you if you have any final thought or question that you'd like to share.
Pavi: No more questions, but just a, I think just as a reflection, Chad, it's really remarkable to sort of get this deeper glimpse into the work that you've been doing over the past many, many years. And we've seen in ServiceSpace, we've seen different videos across the years of you collaborating with Nimo, the video that you did for Ishwar Patel that initially forged a connection with ServiceSpace, the video you've done on some of the KindSpring Heroes that have been featured and it's just amazing to get this glimpse behind the music. You know, the stories behind the music. And to see that dedication that's really been in you since your childhood to shape your lives after the inspiration that you've come across, whether it's Gandhi or Martin Luther King or the woman in Indonesia, or you know, any number of the kids that you meet in your travels.
That kind of spirit that, you know, walks towards its greatest potential. I think you've done that with your life and you inspire that in the kids that you work with and I think all of us, the musicians that you collaborate with, and all of us who get a chance to experience your work, I think, you know, it helps kind of keep that flame alive within all of us.
So thank you on behalf of the extended community that your music has reached, deep, deep gratitude and more power to the work that you're doing in the world.
Chad: Thank you. Thank you so much, and thank you for having me and I'm really humbled to be on this call. So thank you everyone for listening. And thank you, Pavi
Aryae: So let's take, as we do, let's take a final moment, all of us to connect in the space with a moment of silence. Afterwards, I will take us off mute and all of us will have a chance to offer Chad our live thanks. A moment of silence.
Everyone: Thank you, Chad. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much.
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