By Dwight Hobbes
Arriving at renowned Watershed High School in South Minneapolis and walking to the “Hip Hop, History and the Arts” classroom to speak with curriculum founder-instructor Chadwick “Niles” Phillips is, to say the least, an interesting experience. The students have wrapped up rehearsal for the day, and he’s prepping them for the following evening’s premier of their artistic outing, “The Youth Performance Series (Act 4).”
This is, it’s clear, not simply a gathering reminiscent of Fame. These “at-risk” adolescents of color are taking advantage of the vital opportunity to pursue an alternative to the street life that more and more often sees minority youth ending up either victims or perpetrators of violent crime.
The class is a viable alternative to having idle time on their hands and unwittingly following a dead-end path to a trouble-laden future. It’s a chance to begin realizing an ambition to do something positive with themselves and enjoy having their dreams nurtured to the fullest extent possible.
For instance, one brightly animated African American girl, practically bursting with energy, barrages Phillips with questions, some germane to the upcoming performance, some clearly because she wants to hear herself talk. A pensive Latina young lady, fairly hiding behind a hip-length mane of flowing hair, merely watches, taking in information, reflecting on what’s about to come.
Each of the half-dozen students is all ears as Phillips coaches them, assuring them: “There’s no need to be nervous. Not as long you make sure you’re ready. When you prepare yourself to do your performance, you have nothing to be nervous about.”
With that, everyone huddles, he leads them in a brief cheer and, in typical teenage fashion, they scatter in a rush out the door, on their way to enjoy what’s left of the summer afternoon.
“It’s rewarding to help them help themselves. In a good way.”
Phillips watches them go, then sets about putting up materials and straightening chairs. “It’s rewarding,” he says, “to help them help themselves. In a good way.”
Hip Hop, History and the Arts follows, as it were, a path of least resistance. If you want to reach today’s kids, you do it best with something they’re already interested in. As pervasive as the genre is, for nine out of 10 that means hip hop. Naturally, the more you can steer them away from the negative examples glorifying thug life and sexism, the better they can utilize the art form as self-affirmation.
The components, sensibly effective, aren’t complicated. They combine acting, songwriting, spoken word and creative drawing, all underscored with a sense of culture.
“It has to do with [the students’] creativity and what their passion in life is. They learn about the history of various art forms. For instance, you’re an actor, I’m going to take you back and teach you about people like Sidney Poitier, teach you about movies like Harlem Nights or Do the Right Thing. Also,” he adds, “I’m going to tell [you] about someone like Gordon Parks, the photographer who was active in civil rights.”
Longtime St. Paul resident Parks, of course, was also an accomplished screenwriter and film director who spent some time working with Cecil Newman at the then-Minneapolis Spokesman just down the street from Watershed High School.
“Young people, when they know about someone like that, it’ll help them do what they need to do in the arts with that much more conviction, that much more passion,” Phillips emphasizes. “To understand about people who came before them and people who remain. They also learn about self-preservation, about things like staying away from the wrong crowd, keeping their education as [a priority].”
Chadwick “Niles” Phillips is no stranger to performance himself, having among other impressive credits the one-man show Niles on Broadway/When the Clock Strikes XII. Inspired by the likes of Andre “3000” Benjamin, Nas and Common, his track record in the art of hip hop emceeing includes opening act stints for Dead Prez and KRS-One.
Phillips has performed at the legendary Apollo Theater, recorded for Koch Records, and appeared rapping solo on a B.E.T commercial for the Barack Obama You(th) Vote. Phillips has introduced the Hip Hop, History and The Arts curriculum to such area institutions as Urban Leadership at North Central University, 4-H Youth Program (University of Minnesota), St. Paul Neighborhood House and District 287. He holds a communications BA from Michigan State University.
Watershed High School, with a national reputation for educating and empowering youth via the arts and theater, has been featured on NBC-TV affiliate KARE-11 and has the enviable distinction of having licensed to stage a production of the hit SMASH musical Into The Woods.
For more information on Watershed High School, go to www.watershedhs.com.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.