How A Hip Hop Artist Is Using His Work To Mentor Students

Mar 20, 2017

On Saturdays, local teens take over the state-of-the-art recording studios on Carnegie Mellon University’s campus to lay down tracks about their lives and the people in them.

The program, Arts Greenhouse, started as a community project at the Center for the Arts in Society.

Shad Ali took over as head instructor of the program last fall after serving as a mentor for seven years while he was a family intervention and prevention specialist with Community Empowerment Society. He said he’s using that social work experience to help mentor his students. On Saturdays, he and visiting professors teach music production, engineering and how to craft lyrics.

Ali spoke to 90.5 WESA's Sarah Schneider about working with teens and helping them create music . 

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

What do you tell the students about yourself and why hip hop is important to you? 

“I let them know that my inspiration comes from the things that I've lived and I've gone through. As much as I’m instructing them and letting them know the things that they could be doing better, I'm also living through what I'm saying. It's very much so a thing of ... I haven't mastered anything and I still have a long way to go. However, I'm all about helping you get to where you can be and be the best possible you that you can be as far as your artistry is concerned. We all have our peak and our potential.”

When it comes to hip hop, what kind of historical framework do you think students need to have on the cultural importance of the genre?

“It's absolutely important for kids to know that it's an art form for a voiceless group of people. And certain things that were being expressed in you know its upstart were those things that typically people wouldn't be able to say or things that you wouldn't hear.

So it's important to always have a certain message within your music. I prefer to stay on the positive side and I don't like to knock more negative messages because some of those things are really going on. It's important, you know, to have a certain range, but it's important to implant a message within your music because you never know who's listening who you might be able to pass some insight on to in that brief window of time that someone might hear your music.”

What do your students rap about the most? What inspires their lyrics? 

“It's typically those things that they go through. I would be remiss to think that young people don't have a lot of things going on in their lives. To downplay that in any way would be a disservice to them. So, you know, typically a lot of the exercises that we do during workshops usually flushes out a lot of that and you hear a lot of that. The way that they express themselves is very interesting and it's just really cool to see the way that a lot of ideas are fleshed out. You can tell that a lot of them are using that to essentially breathe and get those things off their chest.

It could be you might not be friends with someone that you might have been really tight with. Relationships like that in high school, while they seem like they might be those types of things that will last forever you might not remember these people in a couple of years. So it's kind of important to really put it in perspective.”

Does that kind of reflective writing put you in the position of counselor? 

“I just try to meet kids where they are. The last thing that I want to do as far as my position within the room or in their lives is to become too preachy. Just providing some insight in the areas I can and essentially just becoming a positive part of their lives if they so choose to have me be that. You know, I don't ever want to be forceful with my position.”

Arts Greenhouse is described as a space for promoting social integration. How do you teach that to the students?

“It’s important to use what you’re doing to try to make a change within the communities or the spaces that you find yourself. We are dedicated to social justice and working and doing different projects of that nature. We are in particular looking to work with Bureau of Police to have discussions and to share experiences and to hopefully improve relationships between police officers and young people.”