Philly kids rap about the stigma of being a ‘bad kid’

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It’s easy to label the kids who land at Camelot KAPS, a K-7 school in Philadelphia’s Germantown section.

The school educates students with extreme behavioral and emotional needs, many of whom acted out habitually before arriving. By the time many kids make it to Camelot KAPS, misbehavior has become part of their identity.

“I see them becoming more aware of it younger and younger,” said program manager Carolyn Abele. “I’m bad. I’m stupid. I don’t know how to do anything right. Nobody likes me.”

The students know, at a young age, they’re different.

But one of their teachers, Luke O’Brien, wants them to wear that difference with pride. To do that, he helped them create a delightful catchy rap song and music video called “Way Above Average.”

“Way above average means I’m not a bad kid, but I just need to work on some things,” said sixth-grader Jeremiah Johnson, one of the song’s stars. “The song is about everybody in here. They have some problems. Nobody’s bad in here. We all good.”

Despite its bubbly sound, the song tackles a serious topic: the stigma often attached to young kids in disciplinary schools. As the chorus goes:

They try to put me in a box now

They try to say I’m a bad kid

But I know that’s not the case now

I’m just way above average

Camelot KAPS accepts students from any of the city’s Mastery Charter campuses who need intensive emotional support. Class sizes are around 13, with two adults in each room.

O’Brien is the school’s music and arts counselor, which grants him about 90 minutes with each class every week. When he isn’t teaching, he’s making music.  About two years ago, he hauled in some of his own equipment and nudged his students to start rapping.

At first, preteen reticence won the day — but, soon, students began stepping to the mic with their own verses. From simple rhymes on simple topics, O’Brien began slowly pulling out more meaningful and personal testimonies.

“My goal is to really have them tell their story,” O’Brien said. “I want them to get deeper with the music.”

For “Way Above Average,” O’Brien collected some of his star students and asked them to reflect on how the “bad kid” label makes them feel.

“You can’t put a label on me unless you makin’ records,” sixth-grader Khalif Henry rapped.

Jeremiah Johnson chimed in:

You know I got the sauce I’m the saucy kid 

They got mad love for the foster kid

I guess the beat is my home

I’m a take a seat at the throne

Jeremiah was recently separated from two of his siblings, both of whom attended Camelot KAPS but now go to school outside the city.

A lot of the kids at Camelot KAPS endure personal turmoil, and O’Brien hopes music can help heal the festering wounds that too often accompany difficult childhoods. Even if his students aren’t ready to talk now about what they’ve experienced, O’Brien believes honing their lyrical skills will give them the vocabulary they need later in life to express themselves.

“My hope is that when they turn 15, 16, 17 they’ll [use] the same writing skills, the same recording skills they’re learning here,” he said.

Whatever shyness students felt when O’Brien first introduced his recording equipment seems to have evaporated.

On a recent Monday, students scribbled couplets at their desk while O’Brien pumped a beat through the room. When their rhymes were record-ready, each kid stepped to the mic and strapped on a pair of headphones.

“Zion” said he was going to get his “fry on.” Most of the verses dealt with doing well in school or setting a good example.

Most crucially, the room felt safe. Screw-ups elicited muffled laughter, but no scorn or teasing.

The students’ veneration for rap music was predictably apparent.

Caron Cooper said he liked hip-hop because “rappers express they life and true feelings, and I just like that.”

Caron said he was trying to work on “talking about what I been through,” and that working with “Mr. Luke,” as the kids call him, felt like a step in the right direction.

“I feel good because I’m expressing my true feelings, my true colors,” he said.

Largely, though, the mood was light.

As class broke up for the day, students broke into another song they co-wrote called “Big Tickets.” Students at Camelot KAPS earn tickets for good behavior they can exchange for rewards, and the kids shoehorned a typical hip-hop song about financial largesse into the context of their ticket economy.

Big tickets

Big tickets

All I do, is earn big tickets

It could have been a group of friends at any school, except these kids sounded a little crisper and more confident. They sounded, in a phrase, above average.

(Note: Camelot, a for-profit company with contracts across the country, has come under scrutiny recently for reportedly harsh disciplinary practices. News reports have focused on Camelot’s programs for high school-aged students. The Camelot KAPS program in Germantown has not been implicated in those recent reports.)

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