Hip-Hop, Chess, Language Arts and Math—Restoring Black Culture through Supplemental Learning
Literacy and math proficiency are challenges that a wide swath of students cannot overcome, despite hours a day of schooling and homework. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes passionate individuals in the community to continue the work that guardians and teachers cannot always accomplish alone.
Enter Richard Raw and AliShah Watson, the husband and wife duo who serve as Program Director and Executive Director, respectively, of Culture Restoration Project. Raw—known by some as Richard A. Watson, Jr., but by many as a rapper, lyricist, poet, activist, producer and musician—is an award-winning performer who has leveraged his success into passion for his community. AliShah is a graduate of the University of Delaware with degrees in both Cultural Studies and Africana Studies, with eight years of cultural education and program development.
Culture Restoration Project Inc.'s mission is to offer interactive supplemental educational programs that utilize hip-hop, chess and other unique teaching methods that inspire youth to excel in school and beyond. In other words, get kids excited about reading and writing using an interactive medium they already love—music and rapped lyrics. Enhance mathematics learning through an inexpensive and easy-to-engage in competition—chess. And restore children’s sense of community through culture—the arts.
CRP utilizes a community- and classroom-based approach to cultivate the minds of future leaders--the idea is to inspire children (often impacting the most those between 11 and 13 years of age, but including any student in K-12) to excel in school and beyond. The Right Noodle Left Noodle Chess Program has been engaged as CRP’s supplemental mathematics programming, but CRP’s signature work lies in “Beyond Those Bars,” using hip-hop to convey English Language Arts literacy.
Born from the idea that the intentional use of culture can advance the educational capacity and overall critical thinking ability of young learners, CRP began its work with curated events and initiatives focused on Black history, art and diversity.
AliShah said, “We started with classes for adults, sharing information and knowledge about history and culture. We turned our focus to children, and the kind of education they lack in school within the traditional education system. Our work is supplemental and outside the school day.”
Raw said, “The foundation of the restoring of our people is culture. Culture can restore our community.”
AliShah added, “Culture includes moral principles and values. Kids learn those in a variety of different ways.”
Raw explained that Beyond Those Bars encourages students to write lyrics based on social issues and that CRP holds writing workshops within the program. In the past, CRP has held workshops without the full Beyond program and have often brought in additional artists to help a group acquire additional writing tools and skills.
Raw elaborated about Beyond the Bars’ literacy work, saying, “We have fun learning. And I know sometimes when kids hear the word ‘learn’ they think ‘rigid.’ Here they have a lot of autonomy and fun. When they complete their project they are going to be happy.”
They learn about recording, and equipment, as well as metaphor and literary device.
Raw said, “When they are done, they’re gonna have a lot of fun but then they realize they were learning so many things...when it was so fun.”
AliShah said, “We don’t pick the topics. We stick to whatever is happening in their social lives. What are they seeing on social media? What are they thinking about? It’s all about them. Let’s work with that. Let’s create a video concept on that.”
All this programming is led by someone who has been successful in the industry, and the network he and his organization have built.
Raw added, “They do their own video treatments and create their music with the beatmaker. We just guide. We give them the agency.”
Any adult who thinks they know hip-hop and who knows school age children would wonder about profane language.
Raw said, “Because we focus on literacy, we get them to use alternative words. We challenge them. We give them agency. We do hold freestyle sessions—where you express yourself in the best way you know how. I don’t wanna say we don't allow it but we…”
AliShah interjected, “There is no profanity in the final product. But in the classroom, if you want to express your feelings, we understand. We don’t control it too much because they won't express themselves.”
Raw summarized, “We get them to understand that you use a different voice in different settings.”
Shah noted, “With a lot of students we deal with, what we think is common knowledge is not common knowledge to them.”
A great example of how this program works was evidenced by some students who were highlighted in the News Journal for a 2016 hip-hop video they created.
At that time, Donte Green, 13, Jamaal Sanders, 11, Tayvion Rosser, 13, Tyair Spencer, 13, and Donnie Taylor, 13, got together and created the music video "Beyond Those Bars: No More Violence In My City."
The News Journal article said, “While the students were a little unsure at the start, Raw said they worked hard to make a great product. ‘The point of the program is not to create art,’ [Raw] said. ‘It is really to talk about confidence, communication, character.’"
CRP said that of this original group: Tayvion is a full-time drummer and is teaching lessons. Donte is now pursuing dreams as an artist with albums and shows, and in recording studios. Other kids are playing instruments and headed to college and another is succeeding as a football player.
Raw said, “We continue to follow them through and check in from time to time. Some of our alumni are doing amazing work. We got them in our program and feel that they benefited from our tutelage.”
He added, “When we capture a student through our music program, now we get an opportunity to engage that student at home. Often they come back into different programs we have. We get to see the improvement and do things better or change direction if we didn’t do it as well as we thought.”
AliShah projected the direction CRP may be able to go in the future, saying, “There are a lot of gaps in what’s offered in our community and one thing that we found is that different services that are provided in the city are not connected. We’ve done something in one place or one school but the schools don’t talk to each other. That leaves a gap in supplemental education.”
She added, “If something works in one school, you’d think it would be in other schools too. If they did connect, we might be able to do our job more effectively and be more of a holistic wrap-around service. Different areas of a student’s life as opposed to just one area.”
AliShah said that funding is a grand challenge, noting, “We work with children whose families are not able to pay for traditional programming. So we work hard to get funding.”
Supporters include the Chichester duPont Foundation, which funded them in 2017.
AliShah said, “They are still funding us. In terms of the philanthropic world, we don’t get a lot of support, which is more to do with the fact that they are not familiar with our approach. They don’t know a lot about hip-hop and the language of our children. We are not as known as Girls Inc or Boys and Girls Club or YMCA, so a lot of times, as a grassroots organization, we are expected to work under a partner to get our work done. Funding often goes to the larger organization and we are paid out later.”
Some of the agencies and organizations CRP has worked with include Christina Cultural Arts Center, Bancroft Elementary School, Walnut St. YMCA, William “Hicks” Anderson Community Center, Evan G. Shortlidge Academy, Interfaith Community Housing of Delaware, Ferris School, New Castle County Detention Center, Clarence Fraim Boys & Girls Club, Central YMCA, Delaware Art Museum, Children & Families First Delaware, Network Connect, and the University of Delaware Partnership for Arts and Culture. The chess program is still at Claymont Elementary.
While literacy and mathematics are the current focus, early on, CRP did coat drives, and a recent benefit at The Queen included a request for donations of rollerskates.
When asked what people can do to help, Raw said, “Donate online from our website. If you can’t, spread word of what we are doing. Get in contact. Coming up against the challenges of COVID, students need laptops.”
AliShah added, “I hope that this catches on. If people would commit themselves to reaching out to a student or multiple students on a daily basis, since we are doing a lot of virtual learning, that would help. People can link up almost like a mentorship and make sure a student is going to school or participating in virtual classes or in supplemental programming. People can get them signed up and check up on them every day. We need help to keep kids involved and make sure they're keeping their cameras on.”
Recent months have seen the release of a new music video, plus the completion of “Black Survival in 2020” A Teen’s Perspective, which was a six-week workshop that maxed out its capacity.
Raw sums up where CRP is today, “We have a big task ahead of us and committed ourselves years ago. There are challenges and obstacles and we remain vigilant, doing things to save our community. For us we need to be engaged regardless of policy and what money comes through and do the best with what we’ve got.”
Filed Under: IN the News