Making the next generation of the "Minneapolis sound"
By Cirien Saadeh | Staff Reporter
For decades, North Minneapolis has been a music incubator with two bountiful resources: the talent and creativity of youth musicians and the commitment of experienced teachers and directors.
Take for example, Beats & Rhymes, the program behind the viral music videos “Hot Cheetos & Takis” and “Grow Food.” The former was featured in the latest season of the popular Netflix show Orange is the New Black, and the latter impressed football superstar Colin Kaepernick so much that he donated $25K to the nonprofit Appetite for Change which supported its creation.
Beats & Rhymes is an after-school YMCA music program that follows a long history of musical talent being birthed and produced on the Northside and then changing the national scene. From Billboard-chart-topping Gospel singer Jovonta Patton to global-sensation Prince and the wealth of talented performers who got their start producing the "Minneapolis sound" at The Way, a former community center on Plymouth Avenue, African American youth on the Northside have shown a unique propensity to produce music that propels them to local and national stardom.
Music is everything to Kyle Rucker, a parent of two at Loring Elementary where he is contracted to teach music education – including songwriting, performing, publishing, and distribution. Rucker is also the founder and owner of North Minneapolis-based Ruck B Music, a music consortium of music educators and creators. He works with youth at Loring, in his neighborhood, and at Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary School.
His youth create songs that chronicle their young lives – grades at school, the economy, and for his kindergarten students – pumpkins. Their albums can be purchased online and at neighborhood gathering places like Goddess of Glass gift shop in Victory neighborhood.
“Music is already in many of these kids. It’s not that we’re coming here and necessarily teaching fundamental music. We’re coming and saying ‘you have this in you and let me pull it out of you. Let me show you a few things along the way, but you already have this,” says Rucker.
Rucker says his music classes are a place where Northside youth get to see themselves positively. “These kids are fighting every single day. They are not getting up in an environment where everyone is looking out for them; everyone is trying to see them succeed. That is not their world and so they have to really fight and the music class has been, for them, a place where they can come and celebrate the things they are doing and succeeding at,” said Rucker.
Rucker’s vision for his program is district-wide and beyond. He says the Minneapolis Public School District (MPS) is aware of his program and it seems like it also shares his belief in the importance of rich music offerings.
Despite MPS’ predicted budget shortfall of about $30 million, Nora Schull, the district’s arts coordinator, says music and arts education may be on the rise in the Northside.
“I predict growth in our music programming on the Northside. Many of our schools, teachers, and administrators in our Northside schools strongly support the arts and music. There is a strong history of outstanding arts programming in many of these schools. I am seeing growth this year in a band program being added back in at Loring and Cityview and the choral music program at Franklin. Of course there are concerns with the upcoming budget shortfalls, but MPS is committed to providing outstanding arts education to all students,” she said.
Many Northside schools are providing music education options by looking to the community, whether it’s bringing in individuals like Rucker or partnering with community organizations, like Hopewell Music Cooperative North on Fremont Ave. N.
“There’s an opportunity to bring community together in a way that is about celebrating life and community. I think music education also helps people to think about [the]topic differently,” said Brianna Farah, executive director of Hopewell, “Having music education, having a space like Hopewell. Our families, our kids know that they can come here and they're safe and getting something done. This space is theirs. We’re just creating opportunity for what is already here.”
Hopewell provides lessons and ensembles, as well as parent-taught early childhood music classes, and in-school programming at Brightwater Montessori and afterschool programming at four Northside locations: Lucy Laney, Jenny Lind, Nellie Stone, and Pillsbury United Communities’ Oak Park location.
The benefits of music education extend far beyond the possibility of stardom. According to a recent report from PBS, music education leads to learning in many fields, from language development to spatial awareness.
“Music education is tangible, they can feel it. It is about self-discovery and self-determination,” says Farah. “We expect a lot from our students, but we are also firm believers in everything that music can do.” Both Rucker and Farah compare music education to math, noting that music education is a prime way to engage and educate students in math learning.
That engagement is also key to the efforts of Janet Zahn and the leaders and staff at Plymouth Christian Youth Center (PCYC), a longstanding Northside organization which conducts cultural and educational programming, through their arts and technical alternative high school, after-school programming, and the Capri Theater.
“Music builds bridges between people, between organizations, between different parts of our neighborhood, between different parts of the city,” said Zahn, communications manager for PCYC and the Capri Theater, and a member of three different choirs.
North Minneapolis has raised many musical superstars – most notably, Prince, and more recently, Jovonta Patton, a Grammy-considered Gospel singer. Patton often performs on the Northside, and Rucker recently brought him to Nellie Stone Elementary School to sing for his students there. Students had the opportunity to interview Patton, asking him about his music career, inspiration, and experiences as a student at Nellie Stone.
“They see him and think “if he can do it, I can do it,” says Rucker who is a youth worker by trade. “We’re taught to abandon ship, but we’re teaching students to build pathways deeper into the community. We say ‘this is your neighborhood. Own it.’”
LaCresha Dobson’s teenage daughter Jordan is a violinist with the MacPhail Northside Youth Orchestra. “We’re Northsiders by choice and we do know that, for fact, that there is a lack of amenities in the Northside. So for us to find something like this, it’s so beautiful and so enriching, I can’t put a price to it. It means a lot,” said LaCresha.
MacPhail provides full orchestra training for students in grades 7-12. They specifically partner with the Harvest Network of Schools, where they offer a beginner and intermediate strings classes 2-3 days a week, and Ascension Catholic School, where they have a full strings program three days a week. MacPhail also offers general music classes at Ascension and the MacPhail Northside Youth Orchestra, offered on Saturdays, “for students who play any instrument, from sixth grade to twelfth, who have been playing their instrument for more than a year,” says Tamara Gonzales, the conductor for the youth orchestra.
“It gets us out of the house, it gives us opportunities we would not otherwise have. We played at Orchestra Hall; I don’t think that would have happened somewhere else. I think it’s really important that this is available and accessible to Northsiders,” said Jordan Dobson, who has played with the MNYO for two years.
Despite their enduring successes, challenges remain for music education programs in North Minneapolis. Sustainable funding is an issue, as well as parent engagement, district-wide prioritization, and access to instruments and music books.
"Funding for music education and arts education needs to be prioritized. It's getting better, but there is still a big gap on how people understand the impact that music can have on STEM education. The funders are not quite seeing the influence. That is the biggest thing: more awareness on the impacts of music education on the success of students, not just academically, but also those soft skills, of determination, of learning a skill, setting goals and accomplishing them, and becoming confident,” said Farah.