By Michael Morton
“I didn't think it would take us this far,” said Crystal Nwosu, a seventh-grader who performed a solo song.
To date, the CD has raised more than $2,000 for school extracurriculars, been played on a popular New York radio station and been extolled by hip-hop impresarios Curtis Blow and Russell Simmons as a model for engaging students and a positive force that should be copied in schools nationwide.
“This thing is going to become big,” said Shango Blake, the school's principal who is in his first full year and who came up with the idea to produce the CD, entitled “Time to Shine at IS 109.” When he took over the school in May, he said IS 109 was plagued by students fighting, pulling fire alarms and roaming the halls without passes.
Blake decided a strictly enforced dress code was necessary to impart order and discipline, and he was explaining the measure at a school assembly when in a spontaneous moment he said a CD would be made to promote the change. The students erupted in excitement.
“I said I need to think about how I'm really going to do this,” Blake said. He asked students to apply for the project and told them that they had to keep their grades up. And he brought on board a social studies teacher, Anthony Johnson, who recorded the songs and then produced them back at his home studio.
The CD did not cost anything to produce, and the finished product featured rap, R&B and gospel songs sung by the students, several teachers – and Blake.
“A lot of people look up to him now that they know he can rap,” eighth-grader Paige Nelson said. “We finally got a principal that knows where we're coming from, that doesn't think what we're listening to is garbage.”
The students who worked on the CD said their principal had brought the school under control. “This year Mr. Blake is taking action, so the kids are filing up,” Nwosu said.
Blake, a 32-year-old administrator, acknowledged that he would probably become known as “the rapping principal.” He said he has listened to rap his whole life and that when he was growing up in Laurelton, rhyming and break dancing were seen as alternatives to violence. But he said rap is now associated with violence.
“It's the same image being played again and again and again,” Blake said of music videos that feature rappers singing about violence and showing off their wealth. “Our children are being sent a message of what success is.”
Blake said he wants his school's CD to be socially progressive and to show the music industry and the hip-hop world that a positive message can sell.
So far, 300 copies of the $7 CD have been sold at school functions, with the funds used for sports teams, a drama club, a step troupe and a gospel choir, among other extracurricular activities.
One of the CD's rap tracks has been played by DJ Red Alert on Power 105.1, a hip-hop station in Manhattan. And the disc has also drawn the attention of Blow, the mentor to Run DMC, who came to a school assembly and was impressed by the rap-style call and response Blake employed to engage the students.
Blow said hip-hop today is infused with materialism and violence, something he would like to change.
“To have these kids come in with something that's on the other side of the coin is rare and much-needed,” he said. Blow wants other schools to initiate similar projects and said he is speaking with his friend Russell Simmons, a hip-hop producer and a graduate of IS 109, to throw his marketing and publicity power behind the idea.
Blake realizes that not all principals can rap, but he said they can find their own vehicle to connect with students. He said his success can be partly attributed to his outlook: “I don't play the safe game.”
Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at email@example.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.