Combining Shakespeare and hip-hop, students at Anchorage youth center learn to tell their own stories

Students in the program connected the themes from Othello to their own experiences and turned them into songs. Because the students are minors, they must remain anonymous. (Shiri Segal/Alaska Public Media)

Romeo and Juliet. Hamlet. Macbeth. Studying Shakespeare is pretty much a right of passage for students. And it’s no different for students at the McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage.

In order to help the material come alive, a nonprofit organization created a special project to help students relate to the material in their own lives, using hip-hop.

The unique project taught different lessons to everyone involved.

Tommy, 16, was skeptical when he first enrolled in a class at McLaughlin that combined the art of Shakespeare with the art of hip-hop. (We’ve changed his name to protect his privacy.)

“When you think of Shakespeare, you don’t really think of how relevant it is to music today. You just think of an old dude that writes poetry and stuff,” Tommy said. “But it’s really deeper than that.”

It was a new adventure for the students and teachers that some weren’t sure would work — none had ever done it before. But it didn’t take long for the students to find parallels in their own lives with the 17th-century playwright that helped them discuss and work through modern problems.

“There are themes of racism, there are themes of toxic masculinity, there are themes of jealousy, betrayal. So they would keep journals where they would relate all those themes to their personal lives and their experiences,” said Marie Acemah, founder and director of See Stories. See Stories is a local nonprofit organization that teaches students storytelling techniques through documentaries and podcasts.

Tommy and the five other kids in his group read “Othello,” a tragedy about a disgruntled soldier who plots revenge against his superior. Tommy found parts of the story that he could relate to.

For example, Act 5, Scene 2 in “Othello” says:

“Soft you, a word or two before you go / I have done the state some service / and they know ’t. / No more of that. I pray you, in your letters, / When you shall these unlucky deeds relate / Speak of me as I am.”

“I chose that because when it said, ‘I’ve done the state some service’ I just thought of me being locked up,” Tommy said. “And one of the lines said, ‘Speak of me as I am,’ like, don’t lie about me, just say who I really am. Don’t label me as something I’m not.”

McLaughlin is a detention center where Alaska kids between the ages of 12 and 18 are sent to undergo rehabilitative treatment.

McLaughlin Youth Center (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Classes like this are a chance for students to discover something new about themselves as they work to finish their treatment schedules and return to the community.

Acemah came up with the idea for the class after she completed a film workshop at McLaughlin earlier in the school year. She recognized the students’ passion for hip-hop and she wanted to harness it for a new project.

“The only issue is that I’m not a rapper,” Acemah said.

So, Acemah enlisted the help of a few artists including George Watsky and hometown hero Tayy Tarantino.

Acemah led them through readings and exercises to understand the text.

Tarantino, who grew up in Alaska, helped the students turn what they were learning into songs that highlighted their personal experiences.

He said he recognized the situations that landed some of the students in the detention center in the first place.

“A lot of people from the community, just being real, what they know about McLaughlin is it’s jail,” Tarantino said. “They think these kids are bad off, and they’re troubled kids. Well, I can’t really look at it like that because I know different uncles, friends and homies that have been in the situations that they have been in, so I know that certain situations don’t define them.”

The students came up with songs on a wide range of topics — their childhoods, learning from mistakes they made, and even songs about love and what their ideal girlfriend would be like.

For one assignment, Tommy unintentionally wrote about everyone in the class. The assignment was to just keep writing for a solid two minutes and see what came out.

“Everybody has a skill in my group,” Tommy said. “One of them is a football player. One of them is a skateboarder/rapper/just really good in sports. We have a storyteller, dancers, all kinds of just amazing talent. So I made a whole verse. I didn’t realize I was doing it at first, but I put everybody’s name in it, and it was just cool. Everybody was feeling it. Everybody felt involved and that’s the attention I want, to help people feel comfortable.”

Tommy was surprised at how positive the class was. Everyone respected each other’s experiences and the fact that they were all trying something new.

“I think it helped us communicate a lot better. I mean, at first, I think we’re a little iffy about it, a little uncomfortable sharing our poems or songs,” Tommy said. “But then eventually, we just felt comfortable being around everybody. And I think that helped us be vulnerable.”

While the students learned about Shakespeare, how to make music, and learned about themselves in the process, Acemah said allowing the students to express themselves reminded her not to make assumptions about others based on their circumstances.

“All those assumptions, you can just throw them out the window. These students, as I experienced them, are so deeply engaged, so bright. I just felt like the future is bright with them in it,” said Acemah.

Acemah is hopeful that the project will happen at McLaughlin again in the fall, and is interested in expanding it to the state’s four other youth facilities.

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