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Hip-hop: Undergrads, local youth partner to explore genre

Berkeley undergrads and Richmond teens created songs together through a partnership between the youth organization RYSE and a summer music course at Berkeley on the history of hip-hop in urban America.

Berkeley students at RYSE center
Berkeley students at RYSE (UC Berkeley photo by Cathy Cockrell)

Rapping in Mandarin, Berkeley undergrad Vanessa Guo shared the stage with her teenage collaborator, Miyosha, and volunteer Juanita Greene at a lively, outdoor talent showcase last weekend in Richmond. The trio co-wrote the music and lyrics for “Dance with Me,” a hip-hop track about boy-watching, through a partnership between the Richmond youth organization RYSE and a summer music course at Berkeley on the history of hip-hop in urban America. (Text continues below slideshow.)

“The process of making the music shocked me,” music major Juan Carlos Zepeda, a classical pianist, said of his work at RYSE through the campus’s American Cultures Engaged Scholarship program. In its use of rhythms and harmony, he discovered, “popular music can be complicated.”

A native of Tijuana, Zepeda took the course in order to work with youth and increase his cultural awareness, given hip-hop’s worldwide popularity and influence. He got all that and more, he says.

Teens can have a lot of great song-making ideas, but don’t always know how to take them to the next level, Zepeda found. It was rewarding to put his theory into practice, he says – sharing ideas on harmony with his songwriting team. And he can now recognize features of hip-hop styles from New Orleans to New York City.

At RYSE, interactive sessions geared to teens explored the evolution of the genre, from musical roots in Africa, the Caribbean and the American South to signature sounds of various cities, including those of the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Hip-hop is a uniquely powerful way to think about race, gender, sexuality – so many issues that are incredibly pressing right now,” says visiting instructor Sarah Lappas. “So many students love hip-hop, regardless of their socioeconomic background. It’s sort of a leveler.”

Growing up in Fairfield, “hip-hop was always around me, but I remained aloof from the culture,” recalls music major Jedediah Bruni, who played in his high school marching band. But when he wrote a hip-hop drum-line medley for a holiday parade in Oakland, the crowd “went crazy and loved it,” he recalls. “It showed me the power and energy of this style of music.”

Despite “18 lost years of missed opportunities,” Bruni took up rapping as “J.J. Baby.” Over the summer, he collaborated with RYSE participant Marshayla and fellow undergrad Jennifer Peneulas on a bilingual track titled “Mucho Dinero.”

“I thought I knew everything to know about hip-hop,” recalls Daniel Roman, who rapped as a teen in San Francisco. But the class at Berkeley, and sessions at RYSE led by Lappas and guest artists, brought a deeper appreciation for Bay Area contributions to the genre, including its “independent hustle” for distribution, he says. Early on, West Coast hip-hop pioneer Too $hort sold recordings “out of the trunk of his car at the Coliseum.”

Given the big success of stars like Too $hort and Richmond native IamSu! (who made a surprise appearance at the RYSE Summer Jam), “it’s pretty immediate” to Richmond youth “that it’s possible to make it,” Lappas notes. But for hands-on sessions at RYSE, songwriters and DJs of lesser fame were invited, as well – proving that “you don’t have to be a breakout star to make a living” in the hip-hop industry.