When Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Soulati Shepherd founded the performance collective Alphabet Rockers, the longtime friends wanted to inspire children to make social change. Hip hop seemed the perfect medium.
"When you look at hip hop, it's an invitation to be exactly who you are," said McGaw. "There's also a lot of wordplay, so it's absolutely a root of fun conversation, expression, bravado, listening, all these things that teachers are trying to create."
But Shepherd said they quickly realized something was missing. "What was driving into us is that we had to do it with — versus for — kids," he said.
So they added three of them: Kali de Jesus, Tommy Shepherd III and Maya Fleming, all now teenagers. It worked. The Oakland, California-based collective went on to earn two Grammy Award nominations in the Best Children's Music Album category for their infectiously groovy and smart songs that appeal to kids and adults alike.
Now they've dropped a new album, "The Movement," which showcases upbeat tracks about restorative justice, Juneteenth, and how to create community by having each others' backs.
"Every time they release a new video or tune, we play it for our staff, because it's so uplifting," said Christy Estrovitz, youth services manager for the San Francisco Public Library, which has hosted the Rockers many times over the past decade. "They have intergenerational appeal."
On a recent Wednesday afternoon after school, the collective was in their Oakland studio, and the teenagers were throwing verses back and forth.
"I'm just loving the riffing," said 13-year-old Rockers' member Maya. She joined the group after her dance teacher suggested she check it out. Like all three teenagers, she sings on — and wrote songs for — the new album. "Just doing whatever comes to mind that goes with the song."
Her colleague Tommy III, 14, is the son of Shepherd and has been around the group his entire life; you can see him in early Rockers videos when he was a toddler. He said he joined the group in kindergarten because it felt right.
"It wasn't like I was like automatically in the group just because he was my dad," Tommy III said.
Kali, 13, joined the band in kindergarten, too; he and Tommy III are best friends. "Dang! I've known him longer than half my life!" Kali said.
The two boys enjoy shooting hoops and goofing off outside the studio during breaks. But they have a serious side; the songs they contributed to the new album take an unflinching look at systems of oppression.
"I want to inspire kids to be whatever they want to be in the world without having to think about, 'I don't wanna be like a lawyer because I feel like that's only for white people,' or something like that," said Tommy III of his song, "The Change Up."
"My song, 'Games,' is about the same thing," said Kali. "It targets everybody. It's really showing up the systems that the government is placing on people in everyday life for what they are."
The third youth member of the group, Maya, said she originally saw herself only as a dancer, but being part of the collective helped her to develop other artistic talents. Recently, she performed her song "Our Turn," about coping with the chaos of life under COVID-19, during the Rockers' recent set at a block party thrown by the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
"The message that they utilize is one that is resonant within the museum," said Leslie Walker, who oversees social justice and scholarly programs there. "How they define hip hop as freedom of culture, freedom of expression, and using it as a means for young people to speak about social issues and social justice."
The Rockers perform all over the country, but when they're home in the Bay Area, they keep busy with concerts and social justice-focused workshops for kids in libraries and schools.
The San Francisco Public Library's Estrovitz said the teenage members are especially inspiring to her young patrons.
"What's really cool [is] in the past few years, they've really seen their youth performers [become] ambassadors and role models," Estrovitz said. "So now I'm seeing younger children looking up, not just at Tommy and Kaitlin, but at the youth."
The collective is hoping "The Movement" will net them a third Grammy nomination this year in the Best Children's Music Album category — this time, maybe it will even be a win.
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