Music class has taken on a whole new meaning at a high school that counts superstar — and recent Pulitzer Prize winner — Kendrick Lamar among its alumni.
“When I first found out about the award he had won, I actually didn’t even know what the award was,” Mykail Mcdade,18, told CBC News in Compton, Calif. “So when I learned that he just almost reached a class [of] his own, and he’s walked the same halls as me, I feel like I can do the same.”
The trombone player, who hopes to pursue a musical career, is among other teenage instrumentalists at Centennial High School in Compton, who say they’re used to other people’s stereotypes.
“They think we’re affiliated with gangs and stuff and we don’t pay attention in class,” said drummer Bianca Gonzalez, 16. “The word Compton to other people, they think it just means ghetto. They don’t think nothing comes out of it.”
But superstar Lamar, 30, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his edgy and critically-acclaimed album DAMN. earlier this week, is among those helping to change that narrative.
Many of Lamar’s lyrics paint a picture of life in the community he called home growing up.
“It’s nasty when you set us up/Then roll the dice, then bet us up/You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox to be scared of us/ Gang members or terrorists, et cetera, et cetera/America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does,” he raps in XXX featuring U2.
Violence and social injustice might be part of his storytelling, but it’s not all of it — which is why these Centennial students say they’re among his many fans.
“He speaks the truth about his community in his music and what’s going on in the world and where he’s from,” said Drexton Perona, 19.
CBC News asked him if that’s rare.
“Very rare,” he said.
“Others just like to rap about drugs, money and women or whatever,” said Perona. “I don’t think that really delivers a good message to anybody.”
The shift in attitude even surprised music teacher Manuel Castaneda when he first started noticing it. Castaneda, who’s been teaching at the school since 2012, says Lamar is a “clean rapper” who doesn’t “glorify” violence, and it’s rubbing off.
“The first change I’m seeing here is students trying to emulate that,” he said. “Their rap is clean. Now their message is positive.”
And that’s not always easy in a community still facing challenges. The school, for example, has faced lower enrolment as higher housing costs force more families to move out. And though statistics are improving, the neighbourhood’s crime rate is still significantly higher than the U.S. average. That means extra-curricular activities at school are limited to daylight hours.
But all over school walls, there are posters encouraging students to “Stay positive. Have faith. And spread kindness.” Outside, a towering sign congratulates Lamar, who has donated to the school, on his latest accomplishment: “You help us dream bigger.”
As the marching band rehearses diligently on a sunny afternoon when most kids are already out of school, a familiar tune pops up on their music sheets: Lamar’s Humble.
It’s one of the many catchy tunes that have helped the band win consecutive state-wide and national competitions multiple years in a row. It’s also what has led 95 per cent of those enrolled in the music program to go on to university or college on scholarship.
“Good things could come out of Compton and people just don’t know that,” said Gonzalez. “They underestimate us — a lot.”
CBC News asked Emmanuel Tabi, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Toronto whose specialty includes hip-hop artists and activism, to help decode some of Lamar’s most popular tracks from the Pulitzer- and Grammy-winning album DAMN.
“The ways in which he speaks about humility, like ‘Sit down/Sit down/Be humble’ … He might not always be talking about himself, but other people in the rap game and what success looks like,” Tabi said. “And the rhythm of it, that West Coast drum beat — It will hammer you, it will get in your head. And also if you’re the people that he’s talking to, it’ll convict you.”
“On social media, there are so many different memes and conversations about what loyalty is. What it’s like growing up: Do you stay loyal to particular situations or do you grow past them?”
“The whole song’s playing off one another, saying you have things that some people deem as positive and some people deem as negative within your DNA. What I learned from that song is you have both positive and negative around you and within you and it’s kind of your choice which one you’re going to invest in.”