At a time when COVID-19 is isolating, these young artists turn rhymes and verses into instruments of peace to bring communities together

Tribune Content Agency

CHICAGO — At a time when COVID-19 is isolating, young artists of Emcee Skool are using their skills to bring communities together. Emcee Skool is a grassroots community organization created by hip-hop artist Teh’Ray Hale (aka “Phenom”) in 2018 to train the next generation of artists to become community leaders and peace ambassadors.

On March 9, the eight 20-somethings that comprise the fourth group of school members (who call themselves Indig0) honored The Notorious B.I.G. on the anniversary of his death by performing at the Firehouse Community Art Center on the West Side. Attendees were treated to a free meal and a show of original rhymes and verses from the artists: “The Ambi/1/4 nce” (Robert Cummings, 24), “Toni Manifest” (Toni Murray, 20), “Successthelight” (Ronald Price III, 26), “Melanin 7” (Shaquille McDaniel, 25), “Jada” (Jada Lott, 21), “Huey Shakur” (Michael Toykam, 21), “NDPNDNT” (Daniel Weisberg, 25) and “Emjaiye Royale” (Majestic Jordan, 24).

It was Indig0’s first show, and the artists riffed off one another and served as one another’s hype person. The environment was one of family; the scene was one of unity, entertainment and togetherness, pre-COVID-19. At the end of the four-hour show, Hale, 43, founder and CEO of Emcee Skool, offered motivational words and affirmations to attendees while they held hands in a circle. From students who are street performers, licensed barbers and doulas in training, Emcee Skool is producing change agents.

Per Hale, the Skool officially opened in 2018 to inspire, motivate, rejuvenate and guide “teaching artists” to become community organizers and use their art as an instrument of peace. Hale leads six months of training that includes a curriculum on restorative justice and violence prevention strategies to help strengthen the artists’ purpose while they develop creatively.

The cohort meets for about four hours each week, and its members also have one-on-one sessions with Hale. The goal for the 25 Emcee Skool alumni: to become a sustainable and impactful asset to their community via the arts. Hale likens it to starting a small church and sending that group into the world to build other churches.

According to Toni Murray, the members of Indig0 consider themselves “gifted souls on a clear mission to challenge and shift reality, their mission clearly laid out to shake up the modern world and pave the way for future generations to create greater peace and harmony for all.”

That was before quarantine began, before so much of the world came together over George Floyd’s death and before the summer protests. Now, the four cohorts are working across the city doing peace circles, panels and open mic events. It’s about inclusivity, taking their art to the streets as a toolbox for self-empowerment, Hale said. (Just look, for instance, at the Juneteenth celebration.)

During the protests, Emcee Skool members were out cleaning up Black and brown neighborhoods. After the looting, they were helping clean up those communities, as well. Emcee Skool now holds open mic events at the Firehouse from 7-11 p.m. Wednesdays with social distancing measures in place. And there’s a virtual performance on Hale’s “Phenom & Friends” Facebook page at 9 p.m. every Friday. The fourth (and last) cohort was set to graduate in September, but due to COVID-19, that has moved to February.

“We’re trying to do the most that we can. We see power in coming together,” said Gaby Rose, a member of Emcee Skool’s third cohort and its operations manager. “This is what we’re made to do. I think there is sort of a new anxiety attached to it, but I think we’re really good at battling anything that comes our way, especially as a group, because we are able to work through each other and not just work with each other.”

Rose said the cohorts created a group in June called “The Uppaclassmen.” They release music together and move without direction from Hale, according to Rose. The group conducted a peace circle Aug. 21 that paid tribute to a member’s late relative with a combination of one-act plays and music focusing on a lack of justice after police brutality.

“People really need space to decompress and express themselves amidst all the craziness going on,” Rose said. “We are able to do that.”

“They are the green leaf that springs up in the forest after it’s been purged,” Hale said. “We’ve been built for this — we’re the generator for when the lights go out. We’re the backup generator for social justice and community service.”

“An emcee is master of ceremonies, and Phenom is teaching us that the ceremony is not just the rap, it’s not just a show. It’s your business, it’s your life, it’s balancing your spirit with your personal stuff and being the master of ceremonies of your whole life,” Cummings said.

Hale calls it holistic rap. He remembers that when he was in his 20s, someone opened doors for him, and he’s paying that back through his efforts. He will be working with these 25 creatives for years to come, to cultivate them from an associate’s degree level to a Ph.D. level, he said.

The curriculum extends past performance. The members learn about the history of hip-hop, the changes in the genre through the years. The alumni also work on their internal selves, their empathetic side, Phenom said.

“Things are not happening, people are bored, and they’re confronted with who they’ve been running from, which is themselves. So how are you and your art going to help decompress them from that. How do you reach them?” Hale said of his students.

It’s teach one to teach somebody else, Price said.

“If you move by yourself, it’s hard. You still can do it, but it’s just going to take longer,” Price said. “But as a group, we can get a lot done in the community and make a difference. It all adds up. Phenom has dedicated his life to being a Chicago youth mentor and helping develop artists such as ourselves.”


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