Streetwise hip-hop poets find their voice


66964_hamilton Thanks to Susan Hill (right) who heads a UCLA arts outreach program, the Hip Hop Poetry Choir, founded by Amde Hamilton (above) found a forum for its works. BY JULIE JASKOL

UCLA Today

For the last 34 years, the legendary three-member Watts Prophets, considered pioneers of hip-hop, have raised their voices all across the country, rapping about the urban streets and the spirit of the people living there.

But Watts Prophet Amde Hamilton wanted to amplify three voices into a choir for this spoken-word art form that has become the soundtrack of urban America. Most of all, he wanted to give young people an outlet for artistic expression that would become a source of self-esteem.

Last spring, with the help of Artsreach, an organization founded by UCLA Extension in 1978 to bring art programs to underserved communities, and David Sefton, director of UCLA Performing Arts, Hamilton’s dream came true. Thanks to $5,000 grants from both organizations, the Watts Prophets was able to recruit a dozen young poets, ages 10-30, to become the Hip Hop Poetry Choir. Two weeks ago, they made their Royce Hall debut, opening for the Watts Prophets. Fresh from that exhilarating success, they’re seeking funding to continue training and performing.

“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever been involved in,” said choir member James “Illogic” Langford, 18, of Inglewood. “The unity and the family environment — it’s beautiful what the Prophets are doing for us.”

For Hamilton, it’s also an opportunity to hear what the next generation of hip-hoppers has to say. “The youngsters today are putting their edge, their thoughts on what’s going on, and I want to hear that,” he said.

Nourishing the arts in non-traditional settings is Artsreach’s mission. Artsreach Director Susan Hill, an accomplished visual artist, brings professional artists like Hamilton to housing projects, continuation schools and state correctional facilities. The artists do extended residencies, working with the community to design free, multi-disciplinary art programs.

“She’s such a community-minded person,” said Hamilton. “She brings UCLA to Watts. That’s important because it seems sometimes that UCLA is so far away that it has a rough time reaching that far. People like Susan make it real for people in South Central L.A. and all over the county.”

The Hip Hop Poetry Choir is just one of several outreach ventures for Hill and Hamilton, who has worked with Artsreach for the last three years. Together, Hamilton, teaching writing, and Hill, focusing on drawing, mixed media and collage, have worked with some of the county’s most violent youthful offenders in maximum security facilities.

Their work has not gone unnoticed. Artsreach was ranked one of the Best Practice Programs in Los Angeles by the Rand Corporation in 1999 and named one of three model programs in the nation by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Federal Department of Juvenile Justice in 2000.

“Our deep belief is always to use arts in service of creative, positive, peaceful social change and authentic connection between citizens across boundaries of race, religion, economics, language, geography, culture, and age,” Hill explained. “We don’t just show up to do good. Our real purpose is to bring about change.”

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