The lights in the auditorium at Worthing High School in the historic Sunnyside area of south Houston dimmed and the room was quiet. A teacher excitedly spoke of metaphors and similes while she pointed and paced under the highlighted sentence of a paragraph projected onto a large screen. Normally a high school auditorium with a lecturer in the middle of July would have students screaming about the boredom of summer school, but there were two major differences between this lecture and one reserved for students needing to make up credits: the DJ spinning his turntables just off stage and the rows of student’s heads, highlighted in glowing blue light, bobbing back and forth in silence.
The instructor stopped her pacing in the center of the stage and spoke into the mike, her voice broadcast to everyone wearing earpieces.
“Can anyone point out the metaphor?”
A young girl raised her hand while quickly pulling her glowing headsets off her ears.
“It’s the part where she says yellow diamonds, Pikachu. She’s comparing the color of her diamonds to the color of Pikachu without using like or as,” she answered as the class applauded and put back on their earphones.
Megan Thee Stallion’s “Running Up Freestyle” trailed off in everyone’s headphones as the teacher motioned the DJ to play another track and a new lyric flashed across the screen. She didn’t have a chance to ask the next question as students quickly read the screen and hands urgently shot in the air.
The whole scene was brought to Worthing by Reading With A Rapper, an educational organization, focused on increasing literacy by teaching students what they need to know with what they want to hear. The group is the brainchild of Jarren Small and Douglas Johnson who came up with the idea while working in schools.
“We have a nonprofit and have been working in schools for six years,” explains Small. “We were seeing that literacy was a huge issue. I saw the Migos reading Dr. Seuss books and thought about how we could make this a tangible thing. I called Doug and said let’s teach kids how to read and write using rap lyrics. Then we just had to figure out how to do it.”
Johnson interjects, “We sat down with two English teachers and really crafted out what you see today.”
What parents and students saw Friday afternoon was a combination of education and entertainment as the group used headphones popularized by silent parties to play rap lyrics that were to be dissected by the audience. Reading With A Rapper provides an added bonus by bringing lyricists to the schools to speak with the students about their work. They have featured a few from our list of “Houston Artists to Keep An Eye On” and Friday was no exception with the group bringing Alief’s Maxo Kream to the stage.
Maxo Kream, whose new album Brandon Banks debuted Friday, spoke on why it was so important that he work with the literacy group.
“This has been on my to-do list for when I come back to Houston. I’ve seen them working. I saw the one with Meek Mill and I just knew this was something to do to connect with the youth. They see us on TV every day. They see us on YouTube every day. It’s better when we can come out here and see them face to face and give them that inspiration. It’s important because they are the future.”
Some schools and parents might be concerned about the nature of the music involved, and while all the songs played to the students were edited, Small explained the benefits of working with the program for the school as well as the artist.
“It can sometimes be an uphill battle when working with schools because of course they’re worried about content but we’re trying to show that these lyrics are literature. These rappers are giving out pages and pages of books for free. Pages that students actually want to read. In terms of the benefits for the rapper, this platform gives artists a chance to tell their story and really control their narrative.”
Alief’s own Young Deji was a former guest speaker for Reading With A Rapper and came out to support the group as well as Maxo.
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“Alief is going to ride together so wherever [Maxo] is at I’m at…wherever I’m at he’s at,” stated the rapper known for creating the popular Woah dance craze. “And I love Reading With A Rapper…the first time I was in front of something big like this was Reading With A Rapper.”
Reading with A Rapper has big plans for the future focusing on student growth as well as the growth of the program. Those that haven’t been able to attend former shows should keep a close eye on what the group does in the future.
“We are about to be in a school district,” explains Johnson about the group's plans. “This was just a condensed session, but we are much more than the 45-minute pop up. This is an eight-week after school program where kids get to dissect albums while we focus on ELA metrics as well as things like mental health. We’re giving kids the opportunity to express themselves in a safe space when some might not normally get that chance.”