More than music: St. Paul recording arts school makes high marks

Submitted photo Students from HSRA in action.

High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) continues to prove itself to be a spawning ground for talent of remarkable consequence. Since opening its doors, HSRA students have made major contributions to the Twin Cities’ music and artist landscape.

In 2016, HSRA collaborated with Sounds of Blackness for the gospel hit “Royalty” on the school’s label Another Level Records. The song charted on Billboard for 32 weeks and was nominated for an NAACP image award.

Sounds of Blackness leader Gary Hines recalled, “Brother TC Ellis [HSRA founder] and I had talked about a project for Sounds and HSRA. I was asked to write and produce.

“In one of my last conversations with Prince, he encouraged me to write a song focusing in on youth, teaching them history, heritage, and legacy. God sent me the title, ‘Royalty.’ A message especially for our youth.” Students helped record the track, performed it and are featured in the video.

Other notable achievements for HSRA include the U Have the Right spoken word CD, which sounded off about teen rape; performances at SXSW the past two years; and last year, they swept first place through fifth in the statewide photography competition at the Minnesota State Fair.

This year, the school hit the ground running with Rondo: Beyond The Pavement, a student-produced documentary short that has been screened at — among other prestige venues  — the recent San Francisco Black Film Festival, Indie Short Fest Los Angeles and Multicultural Film Festival. It will screen next on June 20at Model Cities in St. Paul.

Why is a recording arts institute making films? Morgan Welch, project publicist in her junior year, answered, “Many people know [us] for music, but, we do other forms of recording. We work with pretty much anything technologically creative.”  

Submitted photo

Rondo: Beyond The Pavement honors the historic, thriving neighborhood that was destroyed by the I-94 corridor and Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Since the 1920s, it had been a district of music, theatre, businesses and, of course, families and friends enjoying a rich, vibrant community. Until 1956, when the city and state hampered civic progress by literally razing Rondo to the ground.

 “Learning what happened in the Rondo community…was heartbreaking,” said HSRA senior Jevrye Morris, one of 10 students who conducted interviews for the film and attested to the experience on the project’s website. “It lit a fire in me,” added Morris. “Rondo never stopped trying to rebuild what was there. I learned that I-94 going through Rondo was a power struggle to limit what the Black community could actually do. It didn’t stop us at all.” 

True enough, Rondo is home to a thriving community such as family-owned and operated eatery and art gallery Golden Thyme Coffee & Cafe, an enduring cultural cornerstone that annually produces the Selby Jazz Festival.Still, the community suffered a catastrophic loss. As Rondo images make clear.   

Scott Herold, HSRA business of media and music instructor and Bianca Rhodes, production manager and venue coordinator at Saint Paul Neighborhood Network (SPNN), were faculty guiding lights.

Rhodes, an Emmy-winning project director, commented, “My role was to teach the youth filmmakers basic production skills and facilitate the process. They learned media writing, video production, lighting, and audio techniques. After three months, they had a test shoot at the Saint Paul Neighborhood Network with elders.” 

She added, “They made it their own, and that is what I wanted for them. They became professionals, carried themselves very well.”

Welch took to it like the proverbial duck to water, getting the word out on the project. She generated coverage media coverage. “It’s an amazing story. One that really sells itself,” she said.

She reflected on an awakening brought about by working on the film. “I’ve lived in Saint Paul all my life and I had no idea about the history of Rondo. I grew up White, privileged. So, coming to this school, I wasn’t really thinking about problems other ethnicities faced. 

“That really spoke to me,” continued Welch. “When I was offered this opportunity to help spread awareness [of] gentrification, I was eager to take it. Minnesota Nice likes to sweep [something like this] under the rug. I was glad to be a part of sharing this story. If you’re not doing anything to combat racism or bias in general, you are being complacent. At that point, you are the problem.”

Submitted photo Margaret Lovejoy being interviewed for Rondo: Beyond the Pavement.

Angelo Bush, a junior, also contributed video and interviews to Rondo. “I feel accomplished, man, personally,” said Bush looking back on the endeavor. “I didn’t know that [the film] was going to get popular so widely and have such an impact.”

He added, “I loved the elders I interviewed. They’re some of the coolest people I’ve met!”

 One such elder, Donna Evans, reflected in the film, “If we know who we are and who we came from, it helps us to go forward in our lives. If we know nothing about our history, then how are we to know about our future?”

The next screening for Rondo: Beyond The Pavement is on Thursday, June 20, 6-8 pm at  Model Cities, located at 839 University Ave. W. in Saint Paul. Dinner is included. For more info, visit rondobeyondthepavement.org.