By Teresa Mills-Faraudo
Hip-hop is the music of the people. It lifts you up, promotes togetherness, allows self-expression, and it’s fun.
These are a few of the reasons why members of the Grammy-award-winning Bay Area children’s music band Alphabet Rockers say they use this genre to communicate important social justice messages that focus on racism, biases and oppression.
For Tommy Soulati Shepherd, who founded the group with Kaitlin McGaw in 2007, hip-hop gave him a safe place to be when he was growing up in the Bay Area.
“We knew that it was more than just music. We knew there were stories to tell and theater and all sorts of other mediums to express through hip-hop,” says Shepherd, who lives in Alameda. “I knew that hip-hop did something for me as a child and I knew that it was going to do something for youth when I was an adult. … It was the impetus for me to become a teaching artist – to bring that element of soul into the schools.”
The style of music meshes with the band’s topics, says McGaw, who met Shepherd through the Bay Area music scene and proposed they create a children’s music band.
“It’s a freedom space. It’s the music of the people,” she says. “In the ‘70s, children’s music was leaning on folk music because the musicians were primarily white people leaning on folk traditions. This [hip-hop] is black music from the black community for the black community and everyone belongs. …Your voice matters.”
In addition to McGaw and Shepherd, the group includes youth Kali de Jesus, Maya Fleming and Shepherd’s son Tommy Shepherd III, all freshmen at the Oakland School For The Arts, a visual and performing arts charter school in downtown Oakland.
On Feb. 5 of this year, Alphabet Rockers received a Grammy for Best Children’s Album for “The Movement,” after being nominated three times in prior years.
The album has 13 songs composed during the COVID 19 pandemic by all the band members, including the youth rockers. The pillars of the album, McGaw says, stem from themes brought up during a series of workshops that Alphabet Rockers held with community members. Those topics include “understanding our power, how can we disrupt bias, how do we end oppression and how do we take care of ourselves and one another in the community.”
“The reason we called it ‘The Movement’ is because we are in service to the movement for our community and justice for all,” says McGaw, an Oakland resident and mother of two, ages 3 and 6.
Meet the Youth Rockers
The teens have played a major role in the band’s success by singing, dancing, writing songs and contributing to its anti-racist musical curriculum. The elder Shepherd credits the youth, in large measure, for winning the Grammy.
“Each of the albums that got us Grammy nominations had a little more intention and more investment,” he says. “But I think part of it were these young folks and how they stepped up and put themselves out there. …They fell on their faces just like we all did, and they got back up.”
While winning a Grammy is a very exciting experience for the teens, they are modest about their new-found fame.
“It’s really dope. But we’re still kids and we’re still hecka busy. We still have to do homework,” says Shepherd III, 15, who made his first appearance with Alphabet Rockers when he was 3 in the video for “Shape Rap.” “I’m mostly excited that we got to have that experience at our age. The important thing is that the content of the album got magnified because of the Grammy.”
Fleming, 14, says she has moments in which she can’t believe it happened. But like the other youth, the Richmond resident realizes she must focus on important things like school.
“I heard a lot of people say, you won a Grammy and you’ll be fine now. But I still have to show up to school every day and do the work,” says Fleming, who started with Alphabet Rockers as a dancer and later turned to singing. “For your teachers, a Grammy is not the priority. You still have to show up to school. That’s good because it keeps you humble.”
In addition to producing music, Alphabet Rockers also holds workshops and professional development with school districts and other groups. The group created a virtual anti-racism curriculum called “We Got Work to Do” and wrote a picture book called You Are Not Alone (Sourcebooks, 2022).
“We Got Work to Do” (alphabetrockers.com/we-got-work-to-do) is a mini-course designed to empower youth to be proud of their identities and make change, modeling advocacy and intersectionality, questioning oppressive language and bias. It also gives on how adults can have meaningful conversations with kids about challenging topics.
When McGaw and Shepherd started the band, they often performed songs at libraries and schools with lighter messages. But when the youth rockers joined in 2015, they took on more serious topics.
Shepherd III and de Jesus, 14, met when they were in elementary school in Alameda and became good friends because they both love music.
When de Jesus first joined the Alphabet Rockers, he talked to McGaw and Shepherd about issues at school with racism. They helped him create songs based on his personal experiences.
The Concord resident says he loves how rap and hip-hop allow him and other youth to show their true self through so many different mediums.
“There are many ways you can express yourself through hip-hop. Through dance, through art, vocally,” he says. “I feel like that allows so many people to get into it.”
Presenting the Grammy
For the three young band members, the Grammy Awards Premiere Ceremony felt a little surreal. It was held at the same location as the main Grammy event, but in a different auditorium. It had a similar format.
“It was kind of weird. It was like what you see on TV, only it’s you,” de Jesus says. “The crowd was so much bigger than I thought it would be.”
“You can see yourself on this the big screen as you’re walking up to the stage,” Shepherd III says. “It was so weird.”
The premiere Grammy ceremony nominees are always so supportive of each other, McGaw says.
“Everyone in the room is an independent artist who has done a lot of the same things you did. They took their piano lessons. They told someone they wanted to be a musician when they grew up. They worked three jobs when they recorded their first song,” she says. “All these things we have in common even though the way we express ourselves is so different. At that moment, everyone was just excited to witness everyone’s success.”
For the senior Shepherd, the Grammy win confirmed to him that the group is heading in the right direction.
“We have big dreams,” he says. “It made us realize that what we’re doing is big and it’s going to get bigger.”
To learn more about Alphabet Rockers go to alphabetrockers.com.