You might recognize Asheru as part of the Unspoken Heard, a crew out of the DC/MD/VA area known for rocking shows and dropping Mid-Atlantic classics like The Cosmology EP and their debut full length Soon Come. The Heard are also community activists developing programs such as the ‘Do Things for The Kids’ scholarship fund and Ash’s own Nommo project. Project Nommo, is a community based, arts exposure program which serves as a creative outlet for students through the mediums of reading, writing, and the arts (music, photography, and/or theater). Nommo has made it’s biggest impact through numerous workshops in the nation’s capital but has also touched kids in San Francisco, Indiana and even Amsterdam. We caught up with Asheru to get more info on the program and how he has successfully fused hip hop and education.
Halftime: Tell me a little about Project Nommo and it’s history.
Asheru: I’ve been teaching in DC Public School for eight years. Around 1999 I quit teaching altogether to take a year off to try to focus on making an income off my talent. That was right before ‘œSoon Come’ came out. While I was taking the hiatus I thought about teaching and how some of the kids don’t relate to some of the material and how some of the material itself is old and outdated. I wanted to come up with a way to reach the kids that was entertaining and interesting but still sneak in all the basic curriculum standards they were supposed to learn for their grade. Out of that, I created Project Nommo. Originally, I was doing different workshops. I coached the DC youth Poetry Slam team. They went to the finals in San Francisco. I was doing a lot stuff with local art communities, getting grants, and basically bouncing around trying to spread the word. Then I went back to teaching and I ended up in the school I am in now which is a special education school for emotionally disturbed youth. I ended up taking the program and adapting it to these young black kids that were marginalized in the school system. I tried to reach them in a way where they could show some progress but in the context of music and literature. Now we have gotten into film and it really started to pick up. In the last year or so we’ve been doing a lot of workshops with 100 Black Men, The DC Commission for the Arts, and a lot of different organizations. We do Saturday Leadership Academies for young black males and we are trying to branch out. We presented Project Nommo at Howard University Grad School and George Washington University, showing them there is another way to reach these kids using hip hop. We have made it so simple that you don’t even have to be raised on hip hop to implement it.
What are some of the techniques you are using?
Asheru: A lot of our program is based on a theory called Multiple Intelligences Theory. It’s basically saying everyone has the ability to learn but some people have different intelligences than others. You may be good at technical, mathematical things but may not be good at reading. So we took that theory and applied it. In my classroom I have turntables set up, I have ‘˜Reason,’ the music production program, ‘˜Fruity Loops’ on the computer, hand instruments, and a tv/dvd player. They may come in and we might watch thirty minutes of Scratch the documentary on the art of the Dj, then we might have a live DJ in there showing them how to mix and how to do a back spin. This is over a two to three week period of time. We take a lot of local artists and bring them into the schools because schools don’t invest in arts programming. Project Nommo has an artist registry so we have photographers, people in theater, emcees, poets, djs, and producers come in and do hands on teaching in the classroom. I’m in the classroom but you also have a producer showing you how to do ‘˜Fruity Loops’ and how to sequence your beats. These kids go from kindergarten to twelve but we got kids as young as eight on ‘˜Fruity Loops’ straight up making tracks. Our next step this summer will be to put a CD together to showcase their talent. These kids who were considered the bottom of the barrel have opened up so much more now because they have something of interest to them. We’ll take songs like ‘œChildren’s Story’ and teach the concept of courage and how it takes a courageous person to go against the grain and maintain what you know is right. We work with songs from Mos Def, Slick Rick, PE, KRS ONE, DeLa, or Billy Holiday. We used Nina Simone’s ‘œFour Women’ and then we took Kweli’s ‘œFour Women’ and tied it together. We take a lot of old songs and play the current songs and show them the art of sampling. They love it and it’s to the point now where kids enjoy coming to school. That’s the beauty of it to me.
You’ve have a lot of connects with the arts community in DC. How did you go about building up those relationships?
Asheru: Just rapping with cats and building with them. Someone gives me their card I’m gonna call. Then we link up from there. I’ve been teaching for eight years but now I’m no longer teaching. I’m the Director of Arts and Education at our school. Right now I’m building an educational product that can be marketed and sold to different schools and organizations. It teaches character education, courage, wisdom, strength, responsibility, etc, but using the Multiple Intelligences Theory and the media to drive the point home. I’ve used the entire ‘œNia’ album from Blackalicious for a lesson on the seven principles of Kwanza. The thing is I go to these schools and tell these people how I’m doing it and they’re like I don’t understand. So I’m telling them I’m going to put it in a way that even you can do it. Right now I’m in the process of developing a program that’s as easy as the teacher opening up the teacher’s guide and reading from the page. I want them to be able to speak to the kids in the language that applies to them using not only the good hip hop we grew up on but the hip hop out right now that kids are listening too. You may not know the latest Ying Yang Twins record but the thing is I can give it to you in a way where you can have them listen to that song and go do a complete activity on the Ying Yang Twins. Taking the song, listening to it, and transcribing it that’s one part of the lesson. Then translating what you hear them say into Standard King’s English that’s step two. Then taking it from there and examining it to see if it is of any value to you. If it isn’t then we need to address that. Don’t just say you like it because it’s on the radio If you like it be able to say why and if you don’t like it be able to say why you don’t like it. The beautiful thing about this program is that the music is already here. There’s such a wide variety of music to choose from we can teach anything whether its teen pregnancy, responsibility, or child abuse. We tackle everything and the kids see the value in it. That’s the end goal. I just finished my Master’s in Education focusing in Curriculum and Instruction. I took my program and tore it down and built it back up again so that it’s understandable to academia. We’re looking forward to going to colleges and doing workshops and gigs in the same weekend. The important thing is the community aspect and getting local artists to volunteer their time and talents. Through my company Guerilla Arts we get grants and other funding to pay artists but in some cases we can’t. Our motto is if any artist is lending any time or talent they should be compensated. That’s why the artists deal with us because they know we’ll break our backs to pay them but on the other end we appreciate it because it helps build the community up.
I was reading one interview that you did and you said you had a tour overseas and you actually set up a couple workshops at schools abroad. That’s ill.
Asheru: I’m serious with it. I want to spread it. Our first Project Nommo workshop was in Amsterdam. We worked with these kids out in South East Amsterdam in the projects. We were building with them for about a week. We recorded with them, did a gig with them and everything. These cats were sixteen and seventeen years old. They were telling us the things going on in their community and we just ended up exchanging our cultures with each other. That really said it for me that hip hop is so global and beyond what some of us thinks it is. I’m to the point where nobody around me wants a record deal, we’re in it for the culture. My school, Rock Creek Academy, is really the one that believed in my whole vision and gave me the green light to wild out with it. Eventually I want to train teachers on how to reach their kids. That’s what teachers complain about because these youngins are too wild. I want to be able to say I know you’re world is crazy right now but there is an alternate universe to what you’re dealing with. I just want to expose you to it and you can make your decision from there. Just from that attitude it’s turned into so many different things. This summer we’re placing kids in jobs. We’re doing this thing called ‘˜Earn While You Learn’ at my school where kids get volunteer internship jobs for sports, entertainment, promotions, etc. We have some kids interning at a recording studio and some are interning at the MCI Center. We are just getting people to say I’ll take an intern. It’s no cost to them and the school pays the kid $100 a week just for doing it. So kids are like you’ll pay me $600 to go to summer school, aiight I’ll do it. At the same time we’re getting them gigs and into different avenues. My thing is as far as hip hop is concerned I want to contribute in a way that’s gonna last. I put music out, I record, my album is coming out this year, but more important than that album I want to effect lives. I want to steer kids in the right direction and hopefully create new Q-Tips, Mos Defs, Kanyes, Pete Rocks, etc.
What do you think it is about hip hop that makes it a strong educational tool right now?
Asheru: It’s the language of the youth. Some people don’t know what it means when a kid says this is wack. The main thing I learned in grad school is if you’re trying to teach a person something and they can’t apply it to their everyday life then it doesn’t matter to them. So when teachers say I don’t understand why these kids are so wild it’s because you haven’t found a way where that math or that reading applies to their everyday life or has value to them. What does have value to them is what they see and hear everyday, which is hiphop. So if having a car with 28’ rims is a value to these kids you can’t shit on them, you gotta find a way where you can appeal to him and his 28’ rim fantasy and tie your shit into it.
What are some other things you plan on adding to the program in the future?
Asheru: Right now we have film, music, music production, an audio visual club, and an entrepreneurship club but what I’d really would like to do is have major artist come speak with the kids and do workshops. It would be cool if we could get Doug E. Fresh to holla at the kids or Kweli and Common. My main goal is to get this product accomplished by the end of the summer and have it ready to go to be marketed. We’re in the process of talking to different labels to get permission to republish the lyrics to some of the songs we’re using in the Nommo program.
Where can people get more information on Project Nommo?
Asheru: My website is GuerillaArtsInk.com. It’s under construction but on there we have info about Project Nommo and our Artist’s Registry where cats can sign up to volunteer at the school. It’s really bubblin’ and picking up.