Many New Orleans kids struggle with literacy. Some simply cannot write. But even those who can, in my brief experience, often hate just the basic act of writing. My first attempt to teach writing at Cohen High School in 2003 earned me the nickname "white bitch." A second attempt, in 2005 at Crocker Elementary via My House Center for Learning, was more productive after I disguised my writing class as a music class. Though the My House kids still growled and fought me, they excelled at writing album reviews. Their perfect summations of New Orleans' harder-to-describe, alternative music acts "This music is so weird, it gives me the bubbleguts!" -- were published in Offbeat magazine. But getting published and paid 10 cents a word did not impress the My House kids, who remained angry at having to write so much. So I rode out the year teaching them to program my drum machine, operate my four-track cassette recorder and record their own original songs. From the rubble of our musical battle emerged the eight-song mini-masterpiece, The Luv Brats E.P. , which has often made me feel as if I'd finally served my meager earthly purpose. Until this summer.
I started my new Young Audiences classes with them penning album reviews as well. The students were fountains of colorful opinion, but of course objected to writing down anything, on the grounds that summer camp should focus more on fun than on scholastics. It was admittedly harder for these kids, while jumping off desks and doing obscure neighborhood dances, to write with much continuity. They gave me mostly just shards of childhood brilliance, which their editor Mr. Michael has culled together below.
Ninth Ward DJ and electronic music artist, Matt Vis, aka Kid Calculator, was one rare artist who really stimulated the kids opinion glands:
"Kid Calculator sounds like a bunch of voodoo tribes. It sounds like he's trying to get animals to come to him. It sounds like a jungle in another dimension and a broken radio. There's also a New Age beat, because he uses hand drums. But it also has new kinds of beats. It makes me feel like I'm in the French Quarter and people are playing random music. Or like I am in the future, because of the robot sounds. It sounds like science. The third track sounds like a spy whispering to himself while trying to get past lasers. I think it is good because it is not your regular sound. It has potential. It does not sound like anybody."
Other youngsters disagreed:
"Kid Calculator sounds like Bobby Brown he sounds so bad. It sounds like a little kid who made music with a pot and three spoons. Sounds like a technical difficulty with a Nextel phone. I would change the whole thing. It would be good to go on MTV or Fuse, but I listen to BET. This music is weak compared to basketball. The kids just don't feel the music of Kid Calculator."
My kids banged their heads and pumped their fists in seeming sincerity along with local swaggering rockers, The Bad Off, though their official opinion of the band's first spray-painted E.P. wasn't as easily discernable:
"They sound a hot mess to me. Their instrumentation sounds like biker boys driving down the road. I like the beat. Why? Because you can use it to make other songs. I don't like that the beat is louder than the singer. Why? Because I would like to hear the singer's words. The singer sounds like someone in a graveyard singing about a dead loved one. He sings like he knows how to sing, and he sings songs that you can dance to a lot. He sings like he's been a singer for a while."
Nor were they overly impressed with the album, We Are Night Sky, by local heroes Deadboy and the Elephantmen:
"Sounds like a man and woman fused together and their voice keep switching back and forth, and when it gets close to the end it sounds like an amateur singing, 'La, la, la.' Some of the songs have a fast beat and electric guitar that give it that rock flavor, and some of the songs have slow beats and use regular guitar that give it that country flavor. I do not like Deadboy and the Elephantmen because I do not know if it is rap or rock or country music. It sound like punk rock music. I do not like punk rock music."
When the kids eventually demanded hip-hop music, I threw them the curveball of anxious, space-age New Orleans rapper, The Mole. My bravest pupil, Chelsea James, extended her opinion of The Mole's Whirlwind World album, along with her "help":
"It sounds kind of freaky. You can't understand anything. Sounds like a garbage disposal because he has all these crazy sounds. He makes people not want to eat. He does have a record, but he still needs help and medication. He needs a track to tell people how we can help him. He sounds like he has a big imagination; I would not want to be in his head."
Asiah Crutchfield then finished off The Mole with one succinct jab: "I don't think you should buy this album, unless you like rap that you can barely understand."
Finally, it was on to songwriting. Though many of the kids had dabbled in a school band and fiddled with a trumpet or snare, none had ever touched a drum machine and didn't know what a sampler was, much less how their musical idols use them to create chart-toppers. Our first sessions were incredible fun with much spontaneous chanting and dancing. The kids even listened to me sometimes when I would explain the mechanics of their favorite songs. The four-track documented my screaming attempts to quiet a dozen kids so that a single soft-spoken girl could record her verse, but for the first time in my brief New Orleans teaching career, the kids appreciated what I was doing -- and fell into line! They clamored for the microphone -- which they were not allowed to use until I saw and approved all of their written lyrics. Still, along with "We Rockin Jewish," we managed to write and produce nine other ditties, including the radio-ready, "A Tale of Two Siblings," starring my two ringers, Arthur Stevenson, 12, and his sister Havion, 10. Whenever a track felt uninspired, Art and Havion jumped in to inject remarkably professional, confident lines like, "You know my brother is the best, better than the rest / He helps me when I'm in a mess, so I know I'm blessed / If any fool mess with me, he's ready to attack / Cause he shows me all his love and I show him love back."
The kids generally didn't want to sing about the flood. Not for sadness' sake; they claimed simply to be bored with Katrina. When asked to detail what they missed about New Orleans while evacuated, one second-grader looked up from his drawing and stated calmly, "I missed my dog. We left him chained up and he drowned. So did my gramawmaw. And my uncle." Then he went back to coloring. I'd bet that New Orleans kids are tougher than other kids; before all this mess they were already used to many things going wrong in their city, used to people dying in their neighborhood. "Everybody had to leave, the city was a mess / People on the news with water to they chest" one student sang almost gaily, in the classes' brief hurricane anthem, "Katrina! Katrina! (Oh no!)"
But most of the songs are simple, fun, braggadocious class roll-calls, á la, "Who We Are (Mr. Michael's Hard Fools)" which begins, "My name is Kyrin, I'm in the second grade, I like to get paid" Or like Ricky Williams' verse on the Lil Wayne-influenced lead track, "From New Orleans": "I'm from New Orleans where them boys stay packin the heat / Mess with them big dogs, you be scared to go to sleep" etc. I later urged cousins Dominique McCormick and Jazmine Colin to balance Ricky's thug vibe with their own feminine perspective on the city: "I'm from New Orleans where the girls stay rappin the beat / Saturday, go to the mall and buy some shoes for my feet / When I'm done at Foot Locker I get some shrimps to eat / Then I go home at ten, and never get enough sleep."
With new digital recording equipment bought for me by the Music Cares Foundation, I was then able to dump all the kids analog songs into a computer and add MOOG keyboards and the Sabbath-esque guitar line on "N.O. Hustlas Theme Song."
But the class' major accomplishment was undoubtedly the slow-jam, "Shoulda Been." In November after the flood, my girlfriend Mizzy took a temporary, Katrina-related job up North. It has not been easy. And the kids could tell; heartache wouldn't let me sleep all summer, and I ate just once a day, whatever they fed the kids: chicken nuggets and goldfish crackers; a single pepperoni pizza hot-pocket. Until eventually, "You look sick Mr. Michael," said tall, striking Kayla Mitchell, who has always made a point to loudly sing her original lyrics for me, despite her for-now-unwieldy vocal chords and classroom snickers.
So I asked, "Y'all wanna hear a sad story?" Of course, they did. Especially the girls. So to all of them, I admitted that Mizzy may not return to me, or to New Orleans. And knowing nothing but New Orleans (and whatever cities they evacuated to), the kids were outraged and pledged to help my cause.
But first: "How long y'all been together?" Kayla asked.
"Five years," I sighed.
"Oh nuh uh!" shouted Kayla, who had so far absorbed my sob story dreamy-eyed. "You shoulda been married that girl!" Kayla herself penned the chorus:
"He shoulda been married you / But his mistake, shouldn't take / you away / if you love him / cause he loves you. / He's good with kids / and he wants you back, Mizzy / He wants you back."
Followed by Arthur's rap:
"Mizzy why you dissin me? / You missin me / and you know I'm missin you / It's like a bunch of misery / We gotta solve this mystery / We could have got married, but you moved away from me / I gave you all my love and look what you do / you break my heart in two."
I mailed the CD to Mizzy via cheap, slow mail, and every day for the rest of the summer the kids hounded, "She hear it yet? What'd she think? She comin back?" Until finally, camp ended, with no answers for any of us.
For a while there though, "music writing" class had us all feeling temporarily better despite New Orleans' summer, and all that summer entails.
To learn more and to hear MP3s of the kids' music, visit myspace.com/mrmichaelsclass. Young Audiences programs were made possible by the generosity of Save the Children, The American Red Cross and Louisiana Family Recovery Corps (LFRC), which assured that thousands of children affected by Hurricane Katrina were able to participate in free, quality summer programs.