Grammy-nominated hip hop group Alphabet Rockers inspire children to be “woke”

Honoring community, family and friends, the Alphabet Rockers performed songs from their social justice-themed album "Rise, Shine, #Woke" in front of a sold-out crowd at Ashkenaz.

The Alphabet Rockers roll deep.

And that’s precisely how the children’s hip hop group arrived for the 60th Annual Grammy Awards in New York. Nominated for Best Children’s Album, the Oakland-based musicians brought an entourage of about 40 people—including partners, parents, dancers and artistic collaborators—for a multi-day affair that culminated with the awards ceremony held on January 28.

Despite not taking home the Grammy gold—Lisa Loeb won the category that night—music director Tommy Shepherd Jr., said the nomination of their album Rise Shine #Woke was not only an important motivator to continue their music’s messages of social change, but also an opportunity to honor the community that stands alongside them in their work.

“The most important part about is that people are listening now. We’re not doing anything different. We’re still pushing this social justice message and we’re doing it in a way that is for the community and with the community,” said Shepherd.

Founded by Shepherd and Kaitlin McGaw, The Alphabet Rockers received its first Grammy nomination for Rise Shine #Woke, an album that breaks down social justice and equality issues for kids age 10 and under. It features collaborations with Genevieve Goings from Disney’s “Choo Choo Soul” and producer Chief Xcel of Blackalicious.

The music is upbeat and energetic without being corny or compromising the spirit of hip hop for its young listeners. The sampling and beats are fresh, contemporary and stand alongside those of hip hop artists at the top of radio charts. And the lyrics hearken back to hip hop’s conscious roots with themes of self-determination and truth-telling, covering a range of complex issues, from racial bias to divisive views about America’s immigrant families.

For example, the lyrics in the song “Walls” echoes the confusion that young kids may feel about the issue:

They wanna detain
cause of your name
or the color of your face
I wish I could explain
why are people calling us bad things
when we’re looking for the same as you

In the song “Turn On the Lights,” the first one written for the album, the lyrics are formatted as questions a child is posing to their parents, asking them to explain the unrest and confusion they’re witnessing:

All these lessons and all these questions
That y’all have been teaching us since birth
You don’t want me to get hurt
But all this pain is making me work
Help me see what you see?

“It’s just a beckoning from a child’s perspective to a parent,” explained McGaw. “Like, ‘Tell me what’s going on,’ essentially. Wasn’t Marvin Gaye writing in a similar way: ‘What’s Going On?’”

The Alphabet Rockers formed in 2007 after Shepherd and McGaw moved to the Bay Area around the same time. They decided to collaborate on bringing hip hop and learning together for young children. In the performance group’s early years, they toured schools and libraries around the country, performing in classrooms and at assemblies. Educators used their music to teach traditional elementary school subjects like counting, nutrition, how to be respectful and how to take turns.

Previous albums such as GO! and The Playground Zone (EP) touched on themes of diversity, peace and inclusion, but it wasn’t until the issues of racism and inequality took center stage in the media that they decided to go deeper with their messaging.

During the July 4 weekend of 2016, Philando Castile, a young black man, was shot by a police officer who pulled him over. His death was livestreamed on Facebook by his girlfriend, who was also in the car. McGaw called his death the impetus to pivot their artistic message. “You can’t tell stories about lemonade stands right now when you know our babies are getting shot, when Tamir Rice gets killed playing,” McGaw said. “We can’t just go on telling these other narratives about an idyllic white childhood and assume that it’s accessible.”

“We talked to a lot of parents, a lot of kids, and the times of police brutality were really hot,” agreed Shepherd. “We were just trying to find a way to talk to our youngsters about it, because I think they need to be prepared.”

Compared to the generation he grew up in—when many parents didn’t address difficult topics with their children—Shepherd believes that today’s youth should have the opportunity to think critically about the world around them. “You know, a lot of our parents tried to shield us from something that might hurt us, but it was a bad idea. You got to tell them now, and you got to prepare them so they’re not blindsided by so much of the world,” Shepherd said.

Both founders say their backgrounds in theater performance and education—Shepherd toured with the group Felonious to create original hip hop theatrical productions and McGaw came from the arts education industry—helped them hone in and listen to the needs of parents and families, which shaped the messaging of Rise, Shine, #Woke.

Juan Amador, the group’s emcee and DJ who joined in 2013, added that the shift towards social consciousness was not only a response to the times, but also an organic progression that reflected each member’s passion and roots. “All of us have backgrounds in activist community work,” said Amador, who became involved in student activist groups at age 14. “Whether marching or organizing, we’ve had this around us all our lives in the Bay and elsewhere. That’s the community we’re speaking to, those are the parents we’re speaking to.”

McGaw, who holds a degree in Afro-American Studies from Harvard University, said that from an early age she was invested in how conversation and dialogue could help shift racism. “As a young white woman, I was really about interrupting my own racial privilege and also looking at just how I could be more of an ally in spaces I wasn’t even thinking about,” she said.

McGaw noted that, historically, most children’s musicians have been white—this year’s fellow nominees in the category included folk and acoustic artists Loeb, Justin Roberts and Gustager Yellowgold. McGaw said that understanding and being transparent with her own privilege has helped her address issues of equity in her music.

“You are an activist by being a cultural force in kids’ lives, so bring your knowledge as you understand your privilege,” said McGaw. “Bring that to the kids, don’t just assume it’s going to happen somewhere [else] in their life.”

For all three members, the distinction between being a musician and social organizer isn’t an easy one to define. “I feel like as a musician of color, as a person of color, we don’t have a choice in that,” said Amador. “It’s our moral obligation to do [this] type of work.”

For them, the authentic spirit of hip hop drives much of their work, a genre of music they say saved their lives in more ways than one. Amador attributes hip hop for keeping him on a safer path as he was growing up:  “In the town I grew up [Bay Point], there wasn’t much going on. You either got creative or you got in trouble. I think if I hadn’t been so involved in hip hop, I would’ve gotten caught up doing other things that weren’t as positive.”

“It’s a part of us, we feel like it’s not just music,” said Shepherd, who said he was known as the kid who was always writing raps. “It’s a culture, freedom culture.”

Without an agent or record label, the group follows its own business model. Their project is fiscally supported by the Intersection for the Arts, a nonprofit arts development organization in San Francisco. They are also music residents of Zoo Labs in Oakland, a music incubator, and receive grants from the East Bay Community Foundation, the City of Oakland, Clorox and Eventbrite.

“We’ve been really fortunate,” said McGaw. “People are invested in creating this kind of content for young people, so we are continually trying to evolve and make these kinds of partnerships so we can create intentional work.”

Traveling to New York for the Grammy Awards allowed the group to celebrate everyone who helped them create their work. They decided to fly many of their collaborators and family members across the country and hosted a weeklong trip, which included a subway serenade, where young 9- and 10-year olds, including Shepherd’s son Tommy, were able to perform. Though they were unable to take their whole entourage into the main Sunday event, the members felt the support of loved ones, including those from back home who were texting and sending well wishes.

“You’re representing all these people, your hometown, your family, your community, the people that stand by what you believe in,” said Amador. “Yeah, I just got emotional, it was really touching, just how much bigger it is than ourselves.”

Amador also reflected on his years of struggle as an independent artist before finding success as a part of the Alphabet Rockers. “I slept in cars, I slept on park benches, on floors. I worked so hard for this, and a lot of the time it’s me almost begging people to be like, ‘Please listen to what I’m doing, it’s dope!’ for years and years,” Amador remembered. “I never trip off a statue, but just to be able to say I’m Grammy-nominated and make you stop and be like, ‘Oh, now I’m going to listen to you.”

When asked what’s next, the group hinted at going deeper with their activist work. In addition to continuing to perform in educational spaces, Shepherd said they are currently discussing a television show that showcases “new identities in this world that aren’t being honored” and recasting underrepresented characters as a central voice. The plan is to become “more unapologetic,” Shepherd said.

McGaw added that there are new frontiers for the Alphabet Rockers, including writing songs about gender pronouns, becoming allies for trans women and men, and telling stories of indigenous cultures. For them, this growth acknowledges the importance of intersectionality and honors the independent spirit of the Bay Area, which has shaped their commitment to creating what the group calls a “brave space.”

And that’s important because kids will always listen.

“You can’t rest because you got some award,” said McGaw. “You have to like to be that magical being for this incredibly receptive audience.”

Added Shepherd: “That’s what we need. We need something like [a Grammy nomination] to push us to different places so that the social justice messaging can become bigger and really become a movement.”

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