What do you remember about what you were drawn to a kid? What were your influences?
Right on! Okay. Sure. Well, my parents are both musicians. They both went to Manhattan School of Music, my father for trombone and my mother for opera.
Wow. So what was it like to grow up in that house…I'm so curious now.
I grew up in upper Manhattan, the tip of Manhattan, in a little area called Inwood, which is the last stop on Manhattan-bound trains. So it's all the way at the tip of Manhattan. Nice neighborhood, and I guess my most salient memory from being little was my dad playing me to sleep with his trombone.
So I always had this constant music in my life. There was always jazz or classical music being played in the house, and I grew up with that, all the time. And I guess when I got to fourth grade, or third grade-- it was either third or fourth grade-- I told my father that I wanted to start playing an instrument, so he brought home a coronet, which is sort of like a trumpet, like a smaller trumpet. And he brought it home, and I remember he told me, "This is what Louis Armstrong started on. Louis Armstrong started on the coronet before he played the trumpet." And I began playing. I was into it, but I was in third or fourth grade, so it was not my life, by any means. I very much enjoyed just hanging with friends and doing little kid stuff. But I would play. And there was sort of this pressure, I guess, even from that point, to practice every day. And so my father would constantly remind me-- "hey, did you practice today? Go practice for twenty minutes." Things like that. So there was this pressure, be it spoken or unspoken, to practice.
I remember the end of third grade, my father took my trumpet away from me because I wasn't practicing enough, and told me that I could start playing again once I was ready. In fourth grade, I came in and told him I was ready. So from fourth grade until my second year of undergrad in college, until I was twenty, I played trumpet.
My whole life became trumpet. I was in elementary school, I was playing trumpet all the time, and taking trumpet lessons in New York City. And then when we got to…when I graduated elementary school…my father went back and got his teaching certification and started teaching band in Westchester-- which is where I went to school with Alex Cohen, which is how I know Kim. So that's that whole connection.
But anyway, I was going to school in Westchester, and I joined band for the first time-- because there was no band in my inner-city school. So there was a band program, and I was playing trumpet all the time…and my image, to all these people, was this kid who played trumpet. And when I got into middle school and high school, I was in the same building, and the same school as my father. My father was teaching, and I was attending the same school as him. And I was the band teacher's son, the kid who always played music, the kid who went to all the music festivals, I really became this person. My trumpet was really my label.
And I knew all along, but I didn't really embrace it until I was twenty, that I didn't love it as much as I loved the idea of playing trumpet because my parents were both musicians and wanted me to...I remember I auditioned for colleges my senior year, and I auditioned for a school called SUNY Fredonia, which was up by Buffalo. I did not get into the music performance program, but got into their music business program, on the "business" track. And because this was an easy option, and I was already in the school, I just decided to go there without really doing any other auditions. So I went there, and I found that because I was on business track (and not the music track) of the music business program, there was obviously more of a business-feel than a music-feel. I couldn't take music classes above remedial music classes, so I felt like an outsider to the music school.
But all my friends, naturally, were musicians, as they were in high school as well. So I was living in a world where all my friends were musicians…I felt that I still needed to play trumpet, needed to play in all these bands and pursue the trumpet, when in reality I couldn't really do that at this school. I was planning to re-audition for the music performance program, so I could get myself into a position to take more classes and be more immersed in that world. And I did not get in AGAIN. And at that point, I decided that it would make the most sense for me to move back to Westchester to live with my parents, and then to take trumpet lessons and really spend a year preparing myself for auditions in a much more professional way. My father was on board, except that he wanted me to continue to go to college to not lose credits.
So he enrolled me in a school called Lehman College, in the Bronx, which was my second undergrad college, and it was my second year of undergrad. I went to the music performance program there, which was not a great program at all. There was no audition required. But it was an easy way for me, again, to keep up with my credits and not lose ground. So I was taking music classes, I was in the jazz ensemble, and I was in the orchestra there. And during that time, I was taking classical trumpet lessons in New Jersey, jazz trumpet lessons in Lower Manhattan, piano lessons and voice lessons. I spent an entire year, twelve or thirteen hour days every day, trying to do all this. Trying to really prepare myself in an appropriate way for auditions to music performance programs in New York.
My end goal was to go to the Aaron Copeland School of Music at Queens College in my third year. Lehman was never a long-term school for me; the idea was that it was a stepping-stone. In my first semester at Lehman, I took only music classes; sixteen credits of music. My second semester I took eighteen credits, three of which were in a class called Philosophy of Religion. And the rest was music. Back in high school, I'd always had this label of being the music teacher's son, and a music kid-- so academics were never something that I cared about at all. I was actually given extra time in high school, so I never believed in myself as an academic. I was on a 504 plan, which meant that I had special privileges to make sure that I succeeded academically.
I always viewed myself in a negative light academically, and in a very positive way musically. Music was a place where I was going to feel safe, to feel important, to feel like what I was doing was correct, and my parents were doing it, so it felt...fitting. But when I was in Lehman, I took this philosophy class, and actually, I got an A. It was the first time in my entire academic career that I had gotten an A in an academic class. And I loved it! I loved the idea of thinking logically about different viewpoints on what life is, and what religion is, and why we exist, and everything… it was very philosophical, but it was awesome. And I found that I really enjoyed it, and when I really enjoyed something, I was actually able to succeed and do well in it.
The professor approached me… we had just taken the midterm, and he said, "Hey, I wanted to let you know that you scored the highest for any kid in all three of my classes. And I think that you should try to pursue this."
And-- I was never the kid to do anything academically! So this in itself was really big for me. I didn't really know what to do with that. Because I was, like I said, in the middle of this thirteen-hour-a-day incredibly dedicated journey toward music, without even thinking about how there were other options at all. And so when he came to me, saying, "You can do this," I just said thank you, and that's awesome, and I'm really happy that you told me that, but I'm doing the music thing right now and I can't even think about that.
He agreed, and said, "yeah, you've gotta do what you've gotta do," and I was still ready to go to Queens College. So when I auditioned for the Aaron Copeland School of Music, and I got in for their music education program, I was ready to go-- but in the back of my mind was still this philosophy thing. I was talking to my mother about it. I guess of my two parents, my father was always the one that was really pushing me to do music. My mom was obviously supportive of that, but my mom is definitely a more open-minded person, and is more willing to let me take risks in general. And so when I was telling her about philosophy, she loved it. Whereas my dad was still all about the music.
So I got into this music education program. I went to the orientation, where we had to sit down with the college advisors to set up our schedules. And because of strict requirements in their music program, in order to start there as a music major, I would've needed to start over as a freshman.
Yeah. And so that was this moment where I had to… pause. It was finally a space where I remember thinking, "Okay. I finally came all this way, and I was doing all this, and…do I want to start over?" I was thinking about all the societal pressures of not graduating at the same time as all my friends… all of those thoughts were in my head. I remember I was sitting with my mother, and she said, "Maybe this is a chance for you to try something else."
Which was crazy! Which was so crazy. Because my whole life-- you remember when I said earlier that the pressure was both spoken and unspoken? I think a lot of the pressure to do this music thing was PERCEIVED pressure, and not my parents actually saying, "Hey, you need to do this." There were maybe a couple times where my Dad forced me to do something that I didn't want to do in the music world, but the majority of it, I think, I had sort of inherited. I had created this world in my head where there was no other way to exist, other than being a musician.
So this was a crazy realization. My mother said to me, "You can do this!" I remember we had a choice to go to the music people, or the regular counselors to plan out our first semester. Instead of going to the music department, I went to the regular general education department, and declared an undecided major, and took six miscellaneous credits, because I needed to fulfill my core credits anyway. Which meant that I was on track to graduate on time, but definitely not starting as a freshman. And in all those classes, there was one called Lifespan and Developmental Psychology.
That class, coupled with what I had learned from philosophy-- this ability to think logically about situations I was in, and consider other viewpoints and other worlds-- coupled now with this knowledge of how people feel and think, based on how they've developed and the environments that they'd lived in-- I really started to get a lot of insight into why I was going after music.
So, when I say I think I was doing it more for my parents than for me, and I was immersed in a certain world, and had these perceptions-- this is all because of the journey I've taken through psychology that has given me this insight on how I grew up.
It was a really empowering thing for me. Because all of a sudden, it felt like my coursework was therapeutic in itself, and it was allowing me to grow. I had never really felt that way in music. I had always felt like I was…trying to get somewhere, rather than actually getting somewhere.
It sounds like what was happening was, the coursework that you were doing was actually exactly the thing that you needed in terms of guidance for your own life.
Yeah, it was life-oriented. I felt like it was actually important, which I don't think I had ever felt before.
But…doesn't that also seem like it's what an education should be about? What it should be for?
Right! I agree completely!
But…that's a radical notion, right? No one would ever actually say that.
That education is about emotional development rather than test scores. (laughs)
Exactly! And that it's about your own development; it's also something about your own path. Something about the guidance that you're looking for. That its form provides a certain kind of guidance for you to understand who you are, and what you want to do and be in the world.
Wouldn't it be amazing if that's what college was actually about-- the reason that we went to college?
Yeah. If we went to college to actually figure out our place in the world rather than take courses and get out and then figure it out? It's silly.
That's why it's so amazing that you had that experience! Okay, so keep going.
I was in my junior year at Queens College, and at the end of that year I declared a Psychology major. I was doing well in all my classes-- I was really turning it around.
How was your dad feeling about all this?
My father was very resistant at first. My mother was on board. My father…he and I did not speak for a couple weeks.
I think it was genuinely coming from a place of love. It's so funny. I'm very much like my father; but the significant events that were happening in my life actually caused a change in my worldview, and allowed me to be a lot more open-minded. Whereas my father, I think, is stuck in a very narrow mindset. I don't think he ever had success academically, so I think it's hard for him to envision his son succeeding in a way that's not music, because that's how he succeeded.
When I was doing music, he was very supportive of it, because he was able to do it. He's doing very well for himself, and he always says he's doing better than he ever thought he would in life: he's got a teaching job, he has two children, he has a happy marriage, he has a house… he's set, and he's enjoying life, and he's happy. He thought I was going to fall on my face and fail. He looked at it very negatively, instead of as a chance to grow. Whereas my mother looked at it as a chance to do something that I never thought I could do before.
He clearly wanted you to be happy and enjoy your life...and thought that that was the formula for being happy because that's what worked for him…I totally get that.
Exactly. It was coming from a place of love. He was just scared, and didn't know how else to act, so he was angry.
That must have been difficult.
It was difficult. But I was so compelled that I didn't care. Or I did care, but not enough to let it stop my journey. (laughs)
In junior year I declared the psychology major, and I was doing well in all of my classes. Then senior year I moved into an apartment near Queens College and was on track to graduate somehow. I had taken summer classes and filled up my schedule with eighteen credits a semester so that I was actually going to be able to graduate on time. I still didn't really know what I wanted to do yet, but I was taking psychology classes, learning a lot about myself, and trying a bunch of new things.
We had to take global literature as required classes. So Global Lit 1 was this very boring class, and then I had to take Global Lit 2, and I remember I was thinking, "Alright, whatever, let's just get this over with." And it turned out to be the best class ever.
It was with a teacher who was Buddhist. She was giving us a lot of readings that were very philosophical. But also a lot of it was poetry. We’d have to critique these materials; do analytical interpretations…and then we would have intense discussions about them in class. Everything we were reading was based on Buddhist principles-- the idea of staying present, and staying true to yourself, and not being attached to too many things, trusting yourself…staying on course in the present, and not thinking about the future or the past. There was a lot of amazing stuff in that class.
One of the books was called The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho. It was written all in haiku about a Buddhist monk who was traveling…
What? I have to read this book!
You totally have to read this book! It's incredible. He's a Japanese Buddhist monk who travels around Asia. He was emotionally torn, but he loved traveling. The idea of the book was that writing haikus, for him, was a way to cleanse himself of all of the tough emotions he was going through so he could focus in on the present.
It was Buddhist in its nature, but it was about writing to focus, to feel better, and to do what you need to do. And…my journey, although, yes, in hindsight it was amazing…during it, it was incredibly stressful. I was going through a ton of emotions about dropping the trumpet…I was still very close to the music world, but I was not playing trumpet. Every now and then I would go back and try to play trumpet again, but I didn't wind up staying with it. It was a weird time in my life where I was trying to find myself, and I was learning a lot, but I was still very much emotionally torn about who I was and what I was supposed to be doing.
This book triggered something in me to write my feelings down in poems, because I thought it would be a cool way to talk about myself. I started doing that for fun, and then it kept going, and going, and going. The roommate I was living with senior year was a huge, old-school hip-hop fan. He was always bumping old-school hip-hop, and he was a walking encyclopedia for hip-hop. We used to talk about it all the time.
When I was doing jazz, I was very involved in the jazz world. My father has a lot of connections, and I was always surrounded by people, so I knew a ton about jazz history. Now getting hip-hop history was tying those together, and seeing how hip-hop became this awesome form of music was very exciting.
I started writing amateur hip-hop, using that technique to explore myself emotionally. I was writing and writing…and then I bought a microphone, and a computer program and I started doing amateur recordings of my hip-hop. I was very passionate about it. I was trying to promote myself as an artist…and I was still doing my coursework.
I was in my senior year, and I was confused about where I was supposed to go and what I was supposed to do. I started researching grad programs in psychology, because I felt like that would be the most appropriate thing to do. I found a bunch of programs in school counseling. And I thought, wow, how cool would it be to be able to be a presence within a school for students that were in the same shoes that I was in, where I was following my parents and not staying true to myself, but didn't really have anybody to go to during that time to help me grow as a person-- I just had places to go to get tutoring. (laughs)
What if there was that presence in a school? How cool would that be? It looked like a cool option for me. So I applied for a bunch of different graduate programs, on a whim. I wrote my personal statement about a lot of what we just talked about. I wound up getting accepted into Columbia University Teachers College for a degree in psychological counseling with a focus on school counseling.
Oh my god!
Which was wild, because I applied on a whim and I got in!
May 2011 is when I started my career at the Teachers College. I graduated high school in 2007 and started college in the 2007-2008 academic year. I graduated in 2011, and then started graduate school.
You're in this program right now?
What's it like? What's the journey right now?
Is it okay if I keep going linear? It's better to frame where I am now from the context of where I started at the school.
Cool. So, I went through admitted student’s weekend, when I was trying to decide whether I wanted to go to this program. They had given us these tote bags full of articles, and other stuff-- one of which was the Teachers College magazine. I opened up the magazine, and there was a picture of this guy…who is now my mentor and professor… his name was Christopher Emdin. He was doing research; his line of work was integrating hip-hop into science classrooms. I mean, when we talk about everything happening for a reason, and synchronicity… I sat down and opened a random page in this thing, and he was right there.
Wait, I'm sorry. Hip-hop in science classes? Isn't it crazy amazing that he was even at the school that you were at?
Exactly! He was at Columbia, and he was researching how hip-hop works in the classroom. He had published a book called Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation.
It was about changing science curriculums to be embedded in hip-hop culture, therefore making it more relevant for youth. It blew my mind. I went home and emailed him right away…and he wrote back, "Welcome to Teachers College, and when you start in the fall, come see me during my office hours."
That summer, I took a break and just worked on music. I worked on hip hop, and started recording my first album. When I got to Teachers College, I had been thinking about how I could use hip-hop in my counseling, because I was seeing, wow, hip hop CAN be used in academia…I wonder if I can do it? But I still felt weird about it. I was wondering if Columbia was going to value hip-hop enough and say okay...
I didn’t know if the "graduate student in psychological counseling" could coexist with "the hip-hop artist." I had these ideas, but they were just ideas. I got to the school, and met in office hours with this professor….I told him everything. I remember he responded, "You're going to be the one to do this. This is totally doable-- you can bring hip-hop and counseling together."
To be supported and validated by a professor at Teachers College was completely mind-blowing. Because I had never felt that way. I really felt like I had something special, something innovative-- something that allowed me to pursue music AND pursue academia at the same time. It was a dream come true, and it was insane. So I dove into that.
Ian, I've got to tell you honestly…I am sitting here with my mouth open. I cannot believe the trajectory that you've been on. It feels like absolute proof to me that when you follow that thing that is totally authentic to you, your own inspiration, your own creative self…the world completely changes.
Yeah. I can't believe it either… it's really weird. (laughs) I know. You're right.
It's SO great. This story is so inspiring. And I know you're not done telling the whole story. It's so particular, so exactly, originally, uniquely you, in a way that probably nobody could have predicted.
It's amazing! And what an incredibly courageous thing for you to do this. To stay with it, to stay on it, to find your way. It's really amazing.
I was in my first semester in Teachers College, and I was putting together my first album. And I was trying incredibly hard in school. At the end of my first semester, I was taking a class called Theories of Counseling in which our final paper was to create an eclectic mix of counseling theories, to sort of create our own theory. But we had to cite empirical evidence from existing theories; we couldn't just make something totally new. It needed to be based in researched studies. I took this opportunity to start to build…to start to try to hash out my ideas for what hip-hop therapy was.
I wrote a piece called, "Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Therapy for Urban Youth." I combined a bunch of existing therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy, humanistic therapy, music therapy and bibliotherapy. So that's like poetry therapy, music therapy, and some standard cognitive behavioral therapy, which addresses…. cognitive behavioral therapy is pretty much governed by the idea that whatever we think, or whatever we tell ourselves, influences how we act. So if we change the sentences that we tell ourselves, we can change our behaviors. And then humanistic therapy stems from this idea of the real and ideal self, and self-actualization…and if we can exist in a space where we're acting in a way… in which the self who we idolize is…sort of… the self who we ARE, then we're in a space where we can grow.
But that's influenced by the environment you live in, and it becomes harder to be true to yourself when your environment is telling you that you can't be. And so I was taking all these ideas, and I built a theory, called Hip Hop and Spoken Word Therapy with Urban Youth. And my professor at Columbia, afterwards…she had told the whole class, "There have been students who have written really good papers, and have gotten the chance to submit them for publication." And I was like, oh, that's cool, but like, that's not going to happen for me. And then I wrote this paper. And when I got my grade, I did really well. And she told me, "Why don't you try to submit this?"
And so together with her, we researched appropriate journals, and it turned out there's a journal called The Journal of Poetry Therapy. And so I submitted my paper to The Journal of Poetry Therapy, and after like three months of waiting, I found out that my paper got accepted.
So, I was in my first semester in Teachers College, and putting together my first album. I was trying incredibly hard in school and at the end of my first semester, I was taking a class called Theories of Counseling in which our final paper was to create an eclectic mix of counseling theories, to sort of create our own theory. But we had to cite empirical evidence from existing theories; we couldn't just make something totally new. It needed to be based in researched studies. I took this opportunity to start to try to hash out my ideas for what hip-hop therapy was.
I wrote a piece called, "Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Therapy for Urban Youth." I combined a bunch of existing therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy, humanistic therapy, music therapy and bibliotherapy. That's like poetry therapy, music therapy, and some standard cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is pretty much governed by the idea that whatever we think, or whatever we tell ourselves, influences how we act. If we change the sentences that we tell ourselves, we can change our behaviors. Humanistic therapy stems from this idea of the real and ideal self…if we can exist in a space where we're acting in a way in which the self who we idolize is the self who we ARE, then we're in a space where we can grow.
But that's influenced by the environment you live in, and it becomes harder to be true to yourself when your environment is telling you that you can't be. And so I was taking all these ideas, and I built a theory called “Hip Hop and Spoken Word Therapy with Urban Youth.” My professor had told the class, "There have been students who have written really good papers, and have gotten the chance to submit them for publication." And I thought oh, that's cool, but that's not going to happen for me. But I wrote this paper and I did really well. And she said, "Why don't you try to submit this?"
We researched appropriate journals, and it turned out there's a journal called The Journal of Poetry Therapy. I submitted my paper and after three months of waiting, I found out that my paper got accepted.
That was huge! It just came out, in hard copy, I'm holding it in my hand. I received it in the mail two weeks ago. I have a published piece called, “Hip Hop and Spoken Word Therapy with Urban Youth.” And I am in my program, which has been incredibly enlightening, because the idea of my program in general is that in order to help other people, you have to first be able to help yourself. At its root, what was most appealing about it from the get-go, was the idea that you needed to come here ready to figure out more about yourself. And I thought, "Hell, yeah." That's what I had been trying to do, and this was a chance to do continue to do that, so I'm down…There was a lot of emotional development in the program, so it was awesome.
This year, I started working in a school called the Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts…not working as a job, but working as an internship, as part of the program… where I'm working in their guidance department in this high school in Harlem. I have been fortunate enough to start running these hip-hop workshops. I teach the art of lyricism, and I teach how to become a rapper, and different rapping techniques. But the idea is that you can make it so that all of the raps that are being written are directed inward. So, that's exactly what I did. I was doing self-exploration with the music that I was writing, and felt that, since students were already rapping, I could just give them a classroom where they could do that, and they could direct it inward, instead of just flaunting about… things, like the majority of hip-hop music seems to be.
This became how I thought counseling should happen. I felt that it could happen naturally. Because I feel like the journey of an artist, the creative journey of an artist in general, IS therapeutic, because you figure out a lot about yourself-- if you do it in a way that is genuine.
I completely agree with you. And I would even go so far as to say that it's an evolutionary process. The creative process actually helps you evolve as a person.
Exactly. That's how I feel. The greatest thing about it is…. my professor did amazing work, but one of the things I've seen happen is that by bringing hip-hop into the science classroom, trying to rap about, like, Newton's laws of motion…you lose some of the authenticity of hip-hop. Because hip-hop is not about rapping about science. It's about rapping about who you are, how you feel, and the things that you've gone through. That's what it came out of.
What I've found is that, in the process that I go through with students, they don't have to do anything other than just write hip-hop music. They can go into it saying, "I'm going to become a better artist," when in reality, they're becoming a better person. Or, not a "better" person, but a more self-aware person…I’ve had them write about struggles that they face living where they live, and with their families-- a lot of great things. I'm still hashing out the exact curriculum-- some things have worked, some things haven't, but generally speaking I've been able to stay after school and record with kids, and do a lot. The downside to this entire experience is that working in schools is incredibly taxing, because of the administrative aspects of what a school counselor…is, really.
At its root the school counselor, which is what I love, is supposed to be the liaison between teachers and students, and create a safe environment that feels comfortable for students so that they can develop. And, as I said before, the idea of self-actualization all depends on the environment. So students need to feel that their environment is conducive to risk-taking; a state where they're allowed to try new things and allowed to grow. The thing is, with New York City schools, because they're in such bad shape, there's such pressure, especially on the role of the school counselor, to just make sure that students have all the courses they need to graduate, and if they don't, they're transferred to alternative schools…it's about making sure that they grow academically rather than emotionally.
From what I've seen, they don't care about emotional development. My role, and my degree, puts me in a position to really help kids grow, and use these therapeutic skills that I've attained to help students become more in touch with themselves. But I can't pull kids out of class, because if I pull them out of a class, then maybe they can't do as well academically as they should. So what winds up happening is that I don't see nearly as many kids as I'd like to. And I get to run the hip-hop workshop, which is amazing, but that only happens during lunchtime twice a week-- and it's hard to get them to come during lunch, because they need to eat.
So it's this whole roundabout process. I started buying pizza for them…but…I can't spend twenty six dollars to buy two pies every time, because I don't have that kind of money. But if they go get school lunch, then we lose half the period. So there are all these other concerns that are separate from the work.
I'm due to graduate in May with a degree in school counseling, not mental health counseling because my internship is in the schools…and I'm finding now that because of the administrative things, I'm not being as true to myself as I feel I really should be. There's a lot of the job that I don't want to do; that I don't feel compelled to do. The only times that I'm actually enjoying myself when I'm in these schools is when I'm teaching the hip-hop workshop.
The only difference is that I'm being creative, and that I'm helping the students be creative. So for me, that's incredibly powerful. I'm running another workshop in the Bronx twice a week after school, on my own time. So I'm traveling a lot.
I found out that I can do a dual certification-- I can stay for the summer and fall, and get my dual certification as a mental health counselor. And by doing that, I'll be able to broaden the spaces in which I can work-- I'll be able to go to homeless shelters or clinics or get outsourced by an organization. There are a lot of inner-city organizations that use hip-hop, and have these arts-based programs for students. I can go into those spaces and teach these workshops, and focus on emotional development, and still work with those students. But I can't do that solely with the school counseling degree.
…I see a lot of teachers who are artists who never did what they originally set out to do, and then fell back onto teaching. And a lot of them seem very cynical, and seem to have these negative mindsets. They're not growing emotionally, so how can they help students grow emotionally? And in my opinion, that's one of the biggest flaws of the educational system, that the majority of the teachers are there because it's a job that's going support them, rather than actually loving it and wanting to be there.
That feeling permeates the school itself, and the students pick that up... And the thing that's coming up for me is that you're bumping up against this old paradigm of education that’s going to change because it has to change. It just can't keep on being the way things are prioritized. And it's always really uncomfortable when you're one of those people on the leading edge of that…
Absolutely. Am I supposed to change it from the inside or the outside? Or both? My professor tells me that I have to change it from the inside, whereas I don't feel like I can change it from the inside. I feel like I would lose the creative energy I have if I get stuck in the day-to-day of being in school for the next five years. I feel like I'll lose it and become cynical. So that's why the dual thing is so appealing...
I agree with you. You clearly know how to follow your heart. You know how to follow that part of you that is your creative self-- because you've BEEN doing it. So if the feeling that's coming up for you around trying to change this from the inside is…a deadening feeling? Don't do it. It's like keeping the Olympic torch lit, no matter what.
…Even if I don't see results right away. My parents…they want me to do something now. They're telling me, "you need to make money…" and I know that I do, and I'll find a way to do that, but…I'm not going to settle, to make money, to make them happy, because I'll put myself in a situation where that torch will no longer be lit. That's the most important thing to me.
Right. At all costs, you've got to keep that thing lit, because you've got a ways to go with it.
This is just the beginning. Exactly. And I feel like it'll slip away if I put myself in that position.
It's hard when all these other voices in the world are saying all these different things. Somewhere in you, even if you don't consciously know in the moment which way to go next, some part of you knows how to access what you need to do. And so…just listen to that. Go with that. Because clearly, you've got something that you're bringing here that is so important, and so great. It really is a new paradigm. It's amazing.
Well. Thank you. I appreciate it. Where I am now…is how serious the hip-hop is to me in general. Separate from the counseling and everything else. I've gotten the chance throughout these last couple of years to perform a couple of times. I have an album out. I actually spent this weekend writing papers for school, and doing a photo shoot and a video shoot for my latest project. I'm spending time trying to balance those worlds. I'm trying to dedicate an equal amount of energy to the work I'm trying to do with the students, and then the personal work I'm trying to do as an artist. Because I realize that what actually makes the class so amazing for the students, and for me, is to be able to feel like…when a student sees a teacher walk into the classroom who's not a teacher, who's actually a hip-hop artist…that just changes the game completely. And it allows them to engage with me in a way that feels genuine to them. And so I can't lose that side.
So I'm building this project, and I have this end goal…I don't know how I'm going to get there, but I'm sure I will…
I can't imagine you not getting there!
I'm very confident that somehow it'll happen. But the goal, I guess, is to pioneer a kind of counseling that has not been done before. To have a space where I can work with youth all the time…or…really, anybody…who has an interest in writing lyrics or poetry. And then use it as a therapeutic tool for them. And then also, to tour the world and perform! I want to do both of those things. And I think that I can simultaneously tour as an artist and as a workshop leader.
That's where my thought process is now. Which is incredible to me, because…looking back, there's no way I ever thought that this is where I would be.
Right! Can you imagine coming up with all this when you were back in high school…?
I was not even inspired to go to college…
Tell me more about your music. What do you write about? I'm so curious about that.
Well…if you've ever kept a journal, that's kind of what my music is for me. I write about my experiences as they happen. It's hard for me to sit down and write about concepts, necessarily, unless it's something that I've been consciously thinking about. So…through this evolution of who I am and where I've gone, I've also changed the way that I dress. Have you met Alex Cohen?
He's inspired me a lot and we relate in fashion, in a certain aesthetic. We dress almost exactly the same. Cardigans and v-necks and bowties and ties... I love to dress this way now, and I feel the way I was dressing actually represented where I was in life. When I went back to those years in college when I was aimlessly going around, not really knowing what I was doing, I was wearing ripped jeans and baggy graphic t-shirts…I just didn't care about how I looked. Whereas now I feel better, and so I dress in a way that represents that.
Knowing Alex, I think his fashion aesthetic expresses who he is as an artist. It says so much about who he is, and it sounds like it's the same for you.
It's exactly the same. I wrote this song…it’s called “Swag.” Swag is your style. In hip-hop culture, your swag is your look, and how you dress. People in hip-hop don't usually dress how I dress. It's a way to redefine what swag is to me. I can recite the lyrics to you briefly…
"Dressin' fly in a bowtie
people see me, they be asking why
but it's more than just a lie, see,
skinny jeans and a cardigan are a part of me.
and so I'm hearkening my heart, B,
let it beat in a way that reflects me,
the best me,
my closet is deep,
with class comes knowledge and a college degree.
Swag so sweet; peep the socks on my feet,
and the single-tone sheets
And I can't rock flip-flops; I'm too hip-hop
The new hip-hop, music without the movement of glocks
but hold up-- my style is clean, an art-based machine
wear my heart on my sleeve. I used to feel weak
in my graphic tee,
But now I sip green tea and read magazines.
I love the morning and its sunshine;
writin' rhymes while the train pass by
I yawn and stretch, pull over my v-neck,
ready for whatever comes next."
That's the first verse in that piece.
Oh my god! I love that so much.
Well, thanks. The idea is that all my songs cover who I am, and why I am, and being in touch with who I am; not subscribing to anything else other than who I am. And so this is about clothing, whereas I have another song about the idea of being humble…So much was happening in my life that I'd never expected before, and so naturally I was talking about those accomplishments with people. I started to feel this sense of guilt that I was bragging. When in reality, I wasn't trying to. I was just so personally proud of what I was doing, and I wanted to share it with people.
But I was gathering that I'd been coming across that way. One of my very good friends actually called me out a little bit on it-- not in a bad way, but he was letting me know that sometimes, it could come across in that way. When in reality, to me, I just felt like I was a lot more confident.
So I was thinking, "Wow-- it seems like I've gone from not being confident at all to being a little bit TOO confident." But being able to make that change is still so significant-- it's about maintaining that balance. I wound up writing a song about that, which is called "Humble". I'll recite a little bit of it:
Startin' to feel real good
Doing everything that I never thought I could
I should tell the world how I'm feeling on Facebook;
addicted to the way it looks.
Another chapter in the textbook mistook,
I'm recreating my success by explaining how I feel good…
when in reality I don't. This is my way to cope,
and if I get thirty likes for thirty minutes I'm dope.
Now I'm opposed to quotes,
but paint a perfect picture of a life I'd hope to know
or the type I'm 'bout to grow into,
so please excuse my condescending mood.
I'm kinda caught in a feud
with the old me and the new, I thought I knew;
was doin' what I thought I was supposed to,
but now I seem rude,
egotistical and over-vocal, but my goal's to be the mogul
who's humble and noble. Raised with preludes and show tunes,
paying homage to greats who caused breakthroughs and stayed true,
And all they ever said was "thank you," cranking out records with gratitude.
And that was proof, but this is the beginning,
I feel as if I'm winning, so as the notes keep swinging,
my mind keeps spinning.
and how can I know nothing will stop me,
but not seem cocky?
Ima shut up and make tunes--
so watch me."
…and so that's the idea of that balance. And the next verse begins:
“So here's the sitch: I made a wish
to switch from insecure to confident--
lost sight of common sense, and made comments
that came across a little bit on that pompous tip
made promises to push myself,
then reveled in accomplishments."
It's about sorting through that balance of being true to yourself, and being confident, not being cocky.
So my music captures whatever I'm going through, wherever I am.
Right. Wow. In the process of writing that song…does it help you figure out exactly what you are feeling? Because that's my experience with keeping a journal. In writing about how I'm feeling, I actually then come to understand more about that. I discover things I didn't know…
Yeah absolutely! That is it. And that's the same nature of the work that I'm trying to do with the students. I don't think I'm going to be able to sit down with a sixteen-year-old student, and say, "Hey, tell me everything that's going on," and they’ll spill everything to me. But if I can say, "Hey, let's write a song about that…" there's something in that that doesn't feel like therapy. It doesn't feel like disclosure. So they write a song, and then through that process, it's the same as us having a conversation about it.
I don't usually go into something with a complete understanding of what it's going to be. I just go into it with these feelings, and I figure it out through the process. And then at the end, I can usually look back and feel like I've gotten some closure on that. Like at the end of that song Humble, I was like, okay, what I actually need to do is just consciously try to keep that balance, and stay humble, and do what I need to do. So that's what it was for me. It was very much like that journaling experience that you're talking about.
Right. And then it becomes something that you share with other people. It's this really accessible medium…hip-hop is not accessible for EVERYBODY, but more than reading someone's journal.
Absolutely. That was the coolest thing about the process for me from the get-go… it was a socially acceptable way to talk about my feelings.
For some reason there's this idea that if you're emotional you're weak, and if you talk about your emotions, you're weak. That's what I've seen with my students. But if you rap about your emotions, you're awesome and strong and somebody who's confident and cool. When in reality you're doing the same thing-- just through a different medium. So that's the power of hip-hop.
In counseling…no matter what sort of conclusions you come to in the therapy room itself, the hardest part is transitioning back into the real world and using what you learned to actually change your life-- to change the way that you think and be. But the act of recording or performing these songs that we write IS that, exactly: bringing the work that you've done personally to the public. And once you've performed it, you're telling people, “this is who I am, this is how I felt, this is what I've learned, and this is how I'm trying to be.” All of a sudden, without really consciously thinking about it, it becomes part of who you are and how you act and how you feel.
It's such a wild process. I was doing it without consciously thinking about doing it. But once I was in a place where I could start to look back at what hip-hop did for me, I could start to think about how to document the process and use it to help other people.
Yes! And then the actual songs themselves are transformative for other people too. It's not just about that person's development, and the fact that they get to share it with other people. The thing that's actually gotten created can be a vehicle for someone else's development. We all know-- music can really shift things. So the REALLY cool thing is that yeah, it's about that person's development…and it's so much bigger than that. It's about something so much bigger than the individual. And yet it is still all about the individual.
Right. We can all write conscious hip-hop-- if I have forty or fifty students one day that can all write conscious hip-hop, and I'm doing that myself, we're developing ourselves, yeah, but ideally a lot of people will listen to the music that's been created, and hopefully will turn it inward and start to stride forward themselves.
Exactly. And they probably are going to hear something and say, "Oh my god. No way. Someone else feels this way? I thought I was the only one."
That feeling of universality. That's why I started writing-- because I felt like I had so much in common with a lot of the poetry and hip-hop that I was listening to. It's such a powerful feeling, to hear somebody else verbalize something that you thought you were the only person in the world felt… it's wild. It makes you feel a lot better. (laughs).
Exactly! Particularly when you're an adolescent and a young adult-- that's such a prevalent feeling. You don't know what other people feel. You just haven't lived long enough to get that…wait, if I'm feeling this, a whole bunch of other people are feeling it too.
Also because the world we grew up in is, unfortunately, not as in touch with their emotions as they could be.
We don't have a model for it. But part of what you're doing is creating one, and there are so many dimensions to it. I'm so thrilled to hear about it, and I'm so happy that I got the chance to talk to you.
I was in my senior year of college, confused about where I was supposed to go, what I was supposed to do next. I began researching grad programs and found a bunch of programs in school counseling. I thought, wow, how cool would it be a presence in a school for students who were in the same shoes I was in high school — following their parents, not necessarily staying true to themselves, but with nowhere to go to help them grow as a person. What if there was a presence like that in a school?
How cool would that be?
— Ian Levy
Educator, Hip-hop artist