Arts Greenhouse helps Pittsburgh teens explore world through music
Imani Chisom, 14, of the North Side sings the Stevie Wonder song "Love's in Need of Love Today" Monday during The Arts Greenhouse performances for Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Carnegie Mellon University. The Arts Greenhouse is a hip-hop music education outreach program.
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When Darius Lassiter sneaked out of his house to attend the 2012 Arts Greenhouse Martin Luther King Day show, he thought the risk of getting in trouble with his father would be well worth the reward of his first hip-hop performance.
Although it took nearly a year longer than expected, Mr. Lassiter, 15, finally had his Arts Greenhouse debut Monday with a song called "Ambition," which provocatively asks, "This world is getting messed up and who's to blame?"
Arts Greenhouse is a music education program affiliated with Carnegie Mellon University that gives local teenagers an opportunity to learn about race, music and social justice through hip-hop, and to compose and produce their own music.
About 40 people gathered in Kirr Commons at CMU's University Center Monday for this year's Martin Luther King Day show, which featured performances that addressed issues as varied as King's legacy to what it means to be an authentic musician.
"Rap isn't just for African-Americans," Mr. Lassiter said in reference to King's desire to promote racial unity. "We talk about how race influences us. That's why we picked today for the performance."
One of the more explicit references to Martin Luther King's legacy came in an excerpted live performance of "Dreams of Kings," a song and music video that was created by Arts Greenhouse for last year's King holiday. According to Amos Levy, a CMU graduate and coordinator of Arts Greenhouse, " 'Dreams of Kings' was a direct response to Martin Luther King's legacy and how it affects their lives."
Curtis Pope, a senior at the Barack Obama Academy in East Liberty, performed his segment of the video live. The lyrics he wrote for his adapted performance of "Dreams of Kings" included, "His dream is not achieved like most of us believe," and "We've been shoved to the ghettos like sheep to the meadows."
Mr. Levy explained that the purpose of the program is to give teenagers a platform to express themselves through music. "We think building a voice is empowering for [the students]," he said.
But it is clear that the goal isn't just to promote lyric writing and production skills. The students are meant to become more engaged and curious about the world around them. Each week, before any recording or writing happens, the students meet to discuss everything from what makes a song a "party song" to teenage pregnancy. "We try to cultivate a community of trust to talk about difficult issues. ... We're trying to create voices that can take flight beyond our program," Mr. Levy said.
A student who credits the program with giving him a window into an engaging intellectual world is Kai Roberts, a seven-year Arts Greenhouse veteran. Mr. Roberts first heard about the program when he was a student at Pittsburgh Schenley High School and decided to sign up.
He hasn't looked back since.
Now a junior at CMU, Mr. Roberts volunteers for the program and talks about Arts Greenhouse with a great deal of reverence. He said that he probably wouldn't have thought to apply to the university had it not been for his high school music experience there.
But managing a program like Arts Greenhouse isn't always easy. Mr. Levy is always looking for more funding sources and donations because he worries that the program won't be funded indefinitely, although he said that CMU has been generous in its support.
Mr. Roberts said that sometimes students come into the program with a sense of arrogance. "Lots of students come in with their egos. They want to get noticed."
Although this can sometimes disrupt the free flow of ideas, Mr. Roberts said that he has never seen a student stick with Arts Greenhouse and leave as the same person. "Everyone who gets involved in Arts Greenhouse transforms in some way."
First Published January 22, 2013 12:00 am