BEHIND THE MOVEMENT
HIP-HOP FOR HEALING:
THE ALPHABET ROCKERS
by Autumn Breon, Songs for Good Advisor
As the nation continues to quarantine, many families have spent more time with their children than ever before. Adults have been forced to creatively adapt and explore methods of educating and engaging their children at home. Although music has been acknowledged as a lingua franca among cultures and backgrounds, music is too often ignored as a language to be shared among generations. The Alphabet Rockers are a fresh reminder of the power that music has to empower young people as empathic changemakers.
In this installment of interviews that examine the anatomy of freedom songs, the Alphabet Rockers shared their inspiration, their roots, and how they define a song for good. Founded by Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Shepherd, the Alphabet Rockers are an intergenerational music group that creates brave spaces to shape a more equitable world through hip hop. The Grammy-nominated group has headlined at the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, and (since the onset of COVID-19) in the homes of hundreds of thousands of young people through their computer screens.
When you listen to the Alphabet Rockers’ music, you’ll hear hip-hop rhythms collide with lyrics that explore themes like queer liberation and the interruption of racism. Their energized concerts and rich storytelling are not only entertaining and educating young people, but also setting a new standard for how adults interact with young people. Gone are the days of “kids’ music” with vapid lyrics and a lack of imagination. The Alphabet Rockers are here to score the youth-led revolution that is here to stay. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
AB: Welcome! Who are the Alphabet Rockers?
AR: The Alphabet Rockers is not just a band. We are a movement, a hip hop collective. Our mission is to make music that makes change. We’ve been doing this since 2007 and we just continue to refine how we show up in the world so that we can make more authentic spaces for young people to be confident in who they are and to celebrate new parts of themselves that they're learning about. We face racism, heterosexism, sexism, transphobia, all of these structures of white supremacy and colonialism. We face them head on. We confidently talk through these systems with children. We use music and specifically hip hop.
AB: Why did you choose music as the medium for this type of message in the movement?
AR: Well, I think that we chose music as our medium because we're both musicians. We chose hip-hop music because it feeds a freedom culture. Hip-hop gives you confidence because the braggadocio is involved. So we started to connect how we use hip-hop as an aesthetic, not just as music. We were living it as an aesthetic. We realized those aesthetics could be a good tool for our youth. We love young folks so much that we meet them where they are.
We were writing music for years that was trying to create an equity framework for adults to see children. We realized that there was not an elevated conversation to be paired with that. We wanted to do more of the work that reflected the conversations that Tommy and I were having backstage and bring it onstage. I remember, we started asking, “How do you change the world?” We asked children from kindergarten through fifth grade, “How do you want to change the world?” The answer we got from kids was “We're recycling.” So we're like, “Is this it? This is all that your adults in your life have been asking you about or talking to you about?”
We knew that we had a lot of work to do. So that's where the last two albums came from. And we're not done. Rise Shine #Woke, our first Grammy-nominated album, is really trying to create a framework to talk about racial justice. The following album The Love talks about gender justice and was also Grammy-nominated. Our liberation theories are already in our children's minds and bodies, but they're not given the right language to add to it.
AB: I sense the urgency in the work that you both are doing. Why is it so important right now?
AR: I think this work is really important right now because we have to do something to reverse the biases that are ingrained in our culture. If young people can understand who they are as complex beings, then they can handle these obstacles. There’s so much to say about the gift of being a musician. To record a song is actually a huge endeavor. It can be, especially when you're making pop hip hop music. There are so many different sounds or sound quality. You always have to level up. You can't do what you did yesterday. So, you know, there's that responsibility of your craft. Now, I'm not even talking about lyrics. So if we're going to go out and make a song, we are not going to just make something that is for nothing. Our songs are songs for change. Our songs meet you where you are. You might cry when you hear our songs and we'll be there next to you. And that's okay. You might be healing from this music. We will be with you. You might not even be ready to witness, but you will and we're going to hold you in that space. That's the kind of music we want to make. That's what we're committed to. And we're not going to waste our talent or time recording something that doesn't level us up as humans.
That would be a waste of the gift of knowledge. What am I going to do with the fact that Black folks have trusted me with with their truth, that queer folks have trusted me with their truth, like if I sit on that and write songs about balloons and rainbows that don't actually talk about what's really going on, then that's on me. And that's been a waste of everyone's trust. I hold all of the anger that is love. Anger is love, because it's like I love myself too much for this to go on. And I love you too much for this to go on.
AB: You understand the science of music, but you also bottle that up and perform alchemy to use music for social change. Why do you think that songs have the power to change how people think and act?
AR: There are so many levels of the power of music. What is the energy of that music? What is it that music can do that to you? It can tell you when things are going faster. It makes you want to smile. And then you put lyrics on it and those people are speaking your life, right? They are speaking to your experience and whether it's your direct experience or not, it's in you. And so I think it's very important that when people make music they are responsible for that, you know?
Music is also a responsibility, it’s not just a healer. Music can take the form of so many tools once you add lyrics and all these other things to it. Music can speak to your own life and it can also inform you of a life that you don't know anything about.
AB: Songs for Good believes that it is time for a new soundtrack for democracy. What does Songs for Good mean to you?
AR: What is democracy? When we walked through when I walked through the African American Museum in DC for the first time we were on tour doing shows at the Kennedy Center. And we then later performed there when I walked out of the basement and I walked into American democracies beginnings right. And it says like we the people, it's all up on the wall. And I realized that American democracy was claimed by these founding white fathers, right? fathers, white men. And all of these concepts of freedom and liberation are absolutely nowhere in the European, like, space. So I'm thinking, Oh, I see. So Americans’ foundation of democracy is actually Black brilliance. So when I think about Songs for Good and a soundtrack for democracy, I think about who gets the chance to write a song that gets heard. So what Songs for Good in its heart will be is a new system to hear music. So who's got a story to tell?
Songs for good is also about songs that are thought-provoking. I think about songs like “This is America” which didn't get played on the radio. We all know why. It's hard to watch the video and once you watch the video, it's hard to hear the song. A song talking about so much bad in such a way that it is a song for good. A song from good is something that really provokes your thought and makes you cringe in a way that shocks you into a thought process that will make you think about democracy.