Grammy-nominated hip-hop performance collective offers
a consciousness-raising show at Kahilu Theatre
In 2007, Bay Area hip-hop artists Tommy Soulati Shepherd and Kaitlin McGaw wanted to reach kids with empowering messages, so they founded the performance collective Alphabet Rockers.
Their main goal was to make music that inspires progress. So, when they’re not touring, like their recent concert at the Kahilu Theatre, the Alphabet Rockers offer workshops for kids in libraries and schools and have published a picture book called You Are Not Alone.
“Our original goal was to bring hip-hop into children’s spaces, knowing that it connects us,” noted McGaw in our pre-show interview. “It reflects who we are and in school environments, in particular. To be fully yourself means that you can actually learn. It was made for the kids, but we knew it also helped the teachers be more authentic in how they held space for young people.”
“After a couple of years, we also recognized as a multicultural group that some of the things we were doing intentionally as performers and creators could be turned into songs so that we could explain social justice in a very current and contemporary way. And not just around racial justice; it’s gender justice. We want to ensure that everyone knows that you belong when you’re with Alphabet Rockers!”
The concept worked, earning two Grammy Awards nominations in the Best Children’s Music Album category. Alphabet Rockers have a new album titled The Movement, which features a positive message that appeals to both kids and parents.
“The album title is a play on activism. It’s like one of our phrases, ‘A community that moves together makes moves together,’” said Shepherd. “The album came together during the pandemic when we started asking questions like: Why is it that when you do something wrong, it has to go onto a record that carries on through your life? How come in prison, where we’re supposed to be rehabilitated, when we come out nobody sees us as rehabilitated? Why can’t we make mistakes and learn from them? That’s one of the subjects we talk about on the album.”
“With activism and the ways we’ve looked at activism both recently and in the past, it looked like big gatherings. And really, ‘the movement’ is cellular. It’s very invisible. It is also the power of love. That’s really what it is. So, listen to The Movement and then let the same experience be how you walk through the day,” added McGaw.
If their message is in their music, then the best place for them to deliver it was at their high-energy Kahilu performance last Tuesday. First, Shepherd and McGaw were joined on stage by DJ Rosa and singer-dancer Samara Atkins. Then, for the next 60 minutes, they led about a hundred kids (ages 5-10 years old) and their parents in easy dance moves and hand gestures while promoting positive messages in their songs.
“We make music that makes a change, and we’re here to connect hearts to heads,” announced Shepard in the opening number. “We hope our music is the soundtrack for you to be your complete self.” After some encouragement, the entire front row of the auditorium quickly filled up with keiki, who wanted a better look and to be closer to the action.
Shoulder-to-shoulder, some with chins that barely cleared the edge of the stage, they made their best dance moves to the infectious beats and tried to form heart shapes with their two little hands. It’s unclear if any of the lyrics sunk in, but for those that could read, messages flashed on the video screen behind the performers like “I’m Proud,” and “I have the power to imagine.”
“With our shows and music, we’re trying to create space for people to go inside themselves and come out on the other side into a community that will embrace them because we’re embracing each other. For this to happen, you must work on yourself first, which we do every day, and then after that, the world is your oyster,” Shepard said.
For a typical Tuesday (school) night in Waimea, when shops and restaurants close early, an upbeat, youth-empowering hip-hop show was a historical event.
The Alphabet Rockers wrapped up their concert with “The Word is Love.” It’s not a new message – The Beatles were touting that over 50 years ago – but it’s still refreshing to hear, and grand to see it passed down to the next generation.
Listen to an exclusive interview with Alphabet Rockers Tommy Shepherd and Kaitlin McGaw.
Notes & Links
Power Up | The Nitro Remix | Ante Up (honor the land) | I’m Proud Remix |Shine Melanin | Until You’re Free | We Feel It | Get You A Friend | Restorative Justice | YANA | Sway Remix | The Word is Love |
Performance date: 18/October/2022
Photos: Steve Roby
About the author: Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
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