Rap Tuition: Spitting bars, and wisdom, with Lemzi and Burnt Mill Academy

Taken from a feature in Music Mark on 11 June.

Whether it’s disinformation or straight-up prejudice, Hip Hop has maintained its air of dangerous mystique since it started infiltrating mainstream airwaves in the 1980s. What makes it look like an excellent PR coup is that the apparently subversive genre has steadily managed to establish itself as one of the most popular forms of music, breaking worldwide record sales. According to the Nielsen Music 2017 report, R&B and Hip Hop are now responsible for 25.1% of all music consumption in the U.S and have overtaken Rock.  It is the most listened to genre on Spotify and whilst UK Grime isn’t strictly Hip Hop, Stormzy’s Number 1 album Gang Signs & Prayer made it into the Top Ten of the UK’s official album chart of 2017.

It’s a long way from the “Rap is for gangsters” rhetoric, although it’s safe to assume this remains the view point for some. Rap, Breakdance and Graffiti, which came to define a whole generation of young and predominantly black creatives involved in the Hip Hop scene, were art forms led by artists ghettoized from inception. Now it appears to be Rap’s greatest irony – that from society’s rejection, its banishment to the underground, to the peripheral, it has returned as the winner. And as the saviour.

I’m not sure the historical redemptive quality of Hip Hop is what Karl and Tre of Year 9 are thinking of in their Rap Class the Tuesday morning I make the trip up to Burnt Mill Academy in Essex, but for those behind the scenes, who have worked hard to transform the once remote concept of weekly peripatetic Rap Tuition into a living, spitting two hour reality, it is now clearer than ever that Hip Hop, like all music, can radically change lives.

Charly Richardson, Head of Essex Music Service and Cristin Casey, Director of Performing Arts for the Burnt Mill Academy Trust, both sit with me silently at the back of the class as we watch tutor, rapper and artist Alex, also known as Lemzi, elicit from Karl and Tre the narrative tools used in Lost Ones by J Cole to express the different arguments in the song. I later learn that both students have gone from awkward and aloof to confident, articulate and creative young men. They’ve collaborated on their own song “Honcho” which, according to Tre, is about “never giving up and always enjoying your life”.

Something’s working, but the journey is different for everyone. “The impact of these rap workshops vary”, Alex tells me as we sit round for a chat following the class. “Some kids just like to come in and discuss certain things, they don’t even rap themselves, they just find it interesting to listen and watch those who are good at it. For others, like Tre and Karl, it’s boosted their confidence a lot in terms of stage presence and engaging with each other and people they don’t know. It was hard for them to talk to me, to a stranger, at first”.

Alex, who has been delivering Rap workshops with Waltham Forest Hub before being signed up by Essex started with two students at Burnt Mill in January and following the success of the first classes, and the Head’s keen eye for “positive, tangible outcomes”, there are now at least 12 pupils at the school enjoying weekly Rap tuition. The school hope to have Alex for a whole day next year.

“It’s not all about outcomes,” Cristin stresses, and as an expert trumpeter herself, the sake of music for music’s sake is a clear drive in her work.  “But, the outcomes [of Rap Tuition] in the eyes of the senior leadership team have always been very, very good. They see the exam results on paper, in pupil performance and confidence as they perform in assemblies and open evenings. And you should just ask the English teachers. From being mute in class, these kids are now writing pages and pages of stuff!” For Alex, the merits are simple. “Rap is enjoyment first of all. It’s the first music I would go to listen to, it’s the music that I connect with the most and I assume that’s how all the kids that come to this class feel. It tells them something about themselves that other art forms probably don’t. Some people find expression through classical music, others through dance, but with the kids that come here and for me, that self-expression comes predominantly through Hip Hop music. Rap is just a form of being poetic.” Feature by Stephanie Kennedy in Music Mark