Hip Hop Academy students advocate, articulate, and find creative expression through music

Hip Hop Academy, a group of talented and passionate individuals, not only work to advance their own craft and skills, but look for ways to empower the community with their art and by mentoring youth.
Every Monday and Wednesday afternoon, you’ll find students at Ottawa Hills High School engaging in all sorts of after-school activities—including a group that incorporates graffiti writing, deejaying, beatmaking, and breakdancing. All of the Above Creative’s (AOTA) Hip Hop Academy, located at the high school, offers a unique, arts-focused opportunity for students to engage with and learn about hip hop culture that’s rooted in positivity, connectedness, and knowledge.

AOTA Creative is the parent organization of the Hip Hop Academy, with chapters in Lansing and Grand Rapids. AOTA exists as a collective of artists and Hip Hop advocates that represent a range of disciplines within the culture. (Yes, Hip Hop is more than just the music). This group of talented and passionate individuals not only work to advance their own craft and skills, but look for ways to empower the community with their art and by mentoring youth. Thus, the Hip Hop Academy was born.

Matthew 'Monk Matthaeus' Duncan shared the history of HipHop to the assembled students.

Matthew ‘Monk Matthaeus’ Duncan, director of the Grand Rapids chapter, is instantly approachable. He is serene and sincere; the passion he has for AOTA’s work is evident. He is one of the many volunteers who offer their time to the Hip Hop Academy.

Shirley 'Chili' Heintzelman is also on hand. She’s a self-described ‘BGirl,’ an artist who has taught dance, urban arts, and more for over 16 years in West Michigan. Hip Hop culture is part of who Chili is, and her involvement with AOTA Creative and her skills at working with youth led her to volunteer for the Academy.

“The subculture really rounded me out as an individual, because there were so many parts of myself I saw within it. It just worked. As individuals, we are all multifaceted, a compilation of so many things and influences. Hip Hop is like that, and you can find a little bit of yourself within it, if you take the time to look," says Chili.

Students gather and share rhymes with each other.

The current group of between eight-15 students agrees. With just a year under their belt, the Hip Hop Academy brings together students who feel that Hip Hop culture resonates with them in a profound way. Some were interested in breakdancing (these students have impressive moves), while others are talented artists who were intrigued by the concept of working on graffiti-style art. Some of the students just really liked the music, or decided to come to a meeting with a friend. Regardless of initial interest, these students have found a home at The Academy. Just like debate, photography, or athletics, this student organization allows members a way to express themselves, discover their interests, and find new friends. Hip Hop culture is the focus, and the positive impact is broad.

“Each day is different, depending on the instructors who are able to attend.” shares Matthaeus, “We teach graffiti writing, deejaying, breaking (breakdancing), emceeing, beat making and production, and Hip Hop history and philosophy. Our approach is holistic and cultural. All these kids, whether or not they even realize it, how they interpret much of their world is through Hip Hop culture.”

Today, and most days, they start with a history lesson, and Monk has everyone’s undivided attention. From DJ Kool Herc’s Merry-Go-Round technique, defining the break and developing the foundations of what was to become Hip Hop; to exploring the Golden Era (mid to late ‘80s-’90s) with its range of innovative, influential, and diverse styles; it’s a lesson in not only music, but the history of our country as well. Interspersed within the lesson are examples of musical styles, Monk mixes songs on the turntable; James Brown, The Incredible Bongo Band, Afrika Bambaataa. And everyone moves, nodding their head or getting up to dance. The music, the movement - the response is real, sincere, and contagious.

Every student is welcomed to get on the mic and share their thoughts.

While the history lesson progresses and then transitions to smaller group work—writing rhymes, working on beats, and practicing graffiti lettering—we talk to Whitley Morse, Assistant Principal at Ottawa Hills. Since the formation of The Academy at Ottawa Hills, Morse has acted as advocate and supporter. The value of the group for her students is quite clear in her eyes.

“This group of students has formed a squad, a clique, whatever you want to call it. You’ll see these young men hang out together at lunch or in the hallway now. The same way you expect your athletes to check in with each other, they do that as well. When kids begin holding each other accountable, it holds more power than any teacher or principal in this building; it’s really positive. It’s amazing to watch them grow,” says Morse.

Students learn about the art of graffiti.

Monk Matthaeus hopes the program will grow as well. Currently the space at Ottawa Hills—complete with a recording studio, turntables, supplies and more—was achieved with volunteer labor, donated equipment and donated funds from AOTA Creative members’ own pockets. With an official 501c3 status achieved on October 23 of this year, he sets his sights high for the future.

“I hope we can generate the funding to do monthly events for youth to showcase their skills. It would give them the opportunity to come together and meet other youth with common interests and connect them with individuals in the community who want to help them develop their art [and] teach them life skills," he says. "Another huge part of what I see in our future is promoting and expanding our services as a hip hop cultural resource to mentor youth, support artistic expression and to build leaders.”

And leaders are definitely being built here. Conversations range from lighthearted to serious, and the students are active participants in these discussions. “It’s really interesting to hear the perspectives of young people...It’s eye opening, it takes you to a place where you think, ‘man, I should really think from their perspective more.” says Monk.

The biggest takeaway from AOTA’s Hip Hop Academy and the impact the volunteers have on these students? It gives them an opportunity to find and define their voice, all rooted in the commonalities of the Hip Hop culture. Rapid Growth took the time to talk with each student to ask what Hip Hop means to them.

“It’s old school.”
“It’s a mixture of anything, any words and any beats.”
“It’s expressing the way I feel.”
“It’s finding a connection to someone who feels the same way you do. It provides a connection to a person you might not even really know. It’s expansion—expanding your world.”
“It’s a spiritual thing, it brings people together in a positive way. If you need to get something off your chest, if you are heated, you can dance it out or whatever. It’s a feeling.”
“It’s a lifestyle. Yeah, I read that in a book, but honestly it’s really like that.”
“It’s a mixture of people coming together and trying something new and learning with each other. It’s a family, growing together, trying whatever they can.”
“It’s a collection of beats and music, rhymes, feelings, and mood. It’s anything you believe it. Your religion, your lifestyle—you can express it through that persona, and the music.”

AOTA is an opportunity for many of the students to think about their lives, organize their thoughts, and write it down to share over beats.

For the founders, volunteers, and students of the Hip Hop Academy, Hip Hop is common truth. It’s shared experiences that transcends gender, race, age, socioeconomic status, and geographic location. It’s a place to seek something bigger than individual experience. Hip Hop teaches you to listen, to see, to embrace the differences in each other by finding the similarities. It is a collective and a community, but values personal perspective. It doesn’t care about appearance or neighborhood. Hip Hop only asks for honesty—humorous or mournful, colorfully expressive, or muted tones. Hip Hop keeps it real.

Programs like the Hip Hop Academy provide the knowledge needed for youth who see themselves as part of the culture to advocate, articulate, find creative expression, and embrace and develop their talents, all with a positive mindset. As these students continue with their art form, AOTA Creative’s crew is there to help them take those next steps. They are MCs and Djs, Breakers and Graffiti Writers, Beat Makers, Historians and Activists. And, most importantly, they are mentors and role models for the youth they work with.

Interested in working with AOTA Creative Hip Hop Academy?
Adult volunteers, area artists, and educators who are passionate about youth mentoring through Hip Hop can contact Monk Matthaeus directly at [email protected].

Have items to donate? Requested items include:
  • Vinyl records (any style/genre of music)
  • Turntables
  • Laptops
  • Notebooks
  • Sketchbooks
  • Markers and pencils
  • Rustoleum spray paint (any color)
Donations can be dropped off to the program or staff will pick them up. Please email [email protected] if you have any items to send their way!

If you are a school interested in programming at your location, please contact: [email protected] for next steps.

Rapid Growth asked AOTA Creative’s Hip Hop Academy leaders and participants to share some definitive songs across eras that embody Hip Hop and/or speak to the individuals. We’re happy to share this playlist for you to enjoy (some mildly NSFW).

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