Like knowledge, music is power.
Kaitlin McGaw of the Alphabet Rockers, a music group that creates brave spaces to shape a more equitable world through hip hop, can testify first-hand. She’s heard endless stories about how their music has had an impact on families.
“This family was traveling and the kids were called the N word,” McGaw recalled. “They went back to their hotel room and they played ‘I’m Proud’ on repeat.”
I got the courage. I got the drive. I got the magic forming inside me. It makes me who I am. Look to the left, say it loud: HEY I’M PROUD. Look to the right, say it loud: HEY I’M PROUD.
“Then [the kids] felt like, ‘let’s go back out,’” McGaw said. “The music was already in their bodies. They already knew to be true, though, that they were incredible beings [and] that racism was a tool of oppression and was not a form of truth.” Music just facilitated the way.
Meet the Rockers
McGaw and Tommy Shepherd formed Alphabet Rockers in 2007, developing into an intergenerational group that includes adolescent Rockers: Kali de Jesus, Lillian Ellis, Maya Fleming and Tommy Shepherd III. As a whole, through music or their other projects, the Alphabet Rockers embrace Black liberation, Queer liberation, Indigenous rights, immigrant rights and intersectionality— all while centering children’s voices. The goal is to amplify authentic stories and interrupt the patterns that got us here, as explained on their website.
“We wanted to make music that reflected the freedom space of hip hop,” McGaw said of the Alphabet Rockers’ inception. “We don’t sing about ABCs anymore, but if you don’t understand the power of language and words, then you can’t kind of move through the world and [be] in a place of power, empowerment and resistance.”
In 2015, the Alphabet Rockers’ focus started to shift. In getting to know their community better, they understood where the music needed to be elevated to.
“A lot of folks had expressed that they needed some music to help the children become more confident, especially young girls,” Shepherd said. “Some parents expressed that they were having a hard time talking to their Black babies about things that they didn’t think that they were going to have to speak to them about at such an early age.”
What do we want to see in our communities?
Who is in YOUR community, standing up for you?
The bedrock of our anti-racism course, We Got Work To Do, is that you can see yourself in a community that is reimagining the world—and showing up for you!
— Alphabet Rockers (@alphabetrockers) October 15, 2020
The pivot proved fruitful. The Alphabet Rockers earned Grammy nominations for best children’s album for both “Rise Shine #Woke” and “The Love.” In addition, the Alphabet Rockers have performed all over, from schools to Lollapalooza to The Kennedy Center. Their music is supported by “We Got Work to Do,” an anti-racism mini course that guides families in having meaningful conversations about challenging topics. The aim is to empower young people early on to be proud of their identities and feel powerful enough to change the world. (A free starter pack is also available.)
Most recently, the Alphabet Rockers announced a three-book deal with Sourcebooks Kids. The first book, set for a January 2022 release, is inspired by their song “Not Alone” and will empower kids to love themselves, stand up to hate and support one another.
“Critical thinking can start at any age. ‘You Are Not Alone’ and the media we create reflects our complete lives, helping all of us to see others for who they are,” Shepherd said in an announcement about the book deal. “We all have work to do in this lifelong process of anti-racism.”
Start ‘em young
Development of one’s identity and belief system is another lifelong process. It’s not something you establish once you are a “mature enough” age. In fact, the American Psychological Association explains that despite U.S. adults believing children should be 5 before ever discussing race, some infants are already aware of race and preshcoolers may have developed racist beliefs.
“Children are capable of thinking about all sports of complex topics at a very young age,” study co-author Dr. Jessica Sullivan said. “Even if adults don’t talk to kids about race, children will work to make sense of their world and will come up with their own ideas, which may be inaccurate or detrimental.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, children are already rigid about gender stereotypes and preference at 5 to 6 years old, though such feelings become more flexible with age. Even before that, children can recognize stereotypical gender groups by age 2 and most categorize their own gender by age 3. By age 6, children learn to develop the ability to think in concrete ways, laying the foundation to do more complex thinking by age 12.
From television to the internet, media ever-surrounds our day-to-day lives, including our children’s. Without the proper guidance, kids are susceptible to possible messages of hate and racism during such cognitive development. What’s more, education curriculum across the U.S. is widely known to present a white-washed version of history.
McGaw remembered one of the youth Rockers expressing that the lies start so early with children. “His example was white people owning the land, like that’s a lie. And it was given to us at a very, very young age.”
Opening children up to a more truthful understanding of history instills a more wholesome and complex view of the world. More importantly, navigating conversations around race and identity are important for everyone to have because not everyone has the option.
“Some families don’t have the choice of sparing their child’s innocence,” Shepherd explained. “If I don’t have the choice, why do you have the choice? Why is your kid more important than mine, that their innocence is going to be spared over my child’s innocence?”
“I think it’s just fear,” McGaw said. “And I think it’s up to each family to decide where their fear is coming from.”
Educating our kids now will ensure a better future for everyone.
Over the summer, sales of anti-racism books hit an uptick in line with the swell of Black Lives Matter protests. When Vox reported on this on June 11, every book on the New York Times’ best-seller list that week was about anti-racism. But the trend begs the question: will white people want to continue anti-racist work, particularly after January’s inauguration of Joe Biden?
To put it plainly, they’ll have to. Without a genuine understanding of race and its intersection with the functioning of the United States, we will not be able to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, economic decline/the wealth gap and hate crimes.
“Our young people can walk within this worldview with us, they don’t need a small worldview,” McGaw assured. “It’s OK to know that things are built unfair. And it’s OK to know that things are not always safe.”
Such honesty is imperative, which is reflected back by the Alphabet Rockers’ decision to be an intergenerational group. If kids are the future, their voices are essential to highlight.
“There’s not one person who has the wisdom,” Shepherd said.