“I tell these artists, look son, what you gonna do? You gonna try to be a rapper until you’re 45. You’re pushing 40 and you’re still trying to get on. Find another thing, find another outlet to do your music.”
He’d pair an emcee with an English teacher, put a graphic designer in an art class. He had a music producer help the music teacher, and they had names of artists and chord progressions tiled on the walls. At the end of 2005, 14 of their 17 graduates went to college or trade schools. It was a school first. Guerilla Arts began offering a la carte services to schools around the city to supplement arts programs whose funding had been slashed.
The following year, the school owner asked Benn to design a reading curriculum from his song lyrics. Benn decided to use lyrics from well-known hip-hop artists — Mos Def, Common, Kanye West. His workbooks — which examine word patterns, literary devices and other reading skills — became the Hip-Hop Education Literacy Program for K-12, which has been used in more than 100 schools across the country, Benn says.
Helen Dana, who teaches ninth- and 10th-grade reading and culinary arts at Quince Orchard High School in Montgomery County has used the HELP workbooks for the past five years. “It takes the kids out of the proverbial dead white men books and puts literature in their hands in a way that’s contemporary for them,” she says.
In 2005, cartoonist Aaron McGruder, who’d met Asheru during his “Soul Controller” days at the University of Maryland, asked him to do the theme music for his new animated series on the Cartoon Network, “The Boondocks.”
In his “Return of the King” episode, McGruder had a resurrected Martin Luther King Jr. recite lyrics from Asheru’s song “Niggas.” The episode earned a torrent of criticism, and won a prestigious Peabody Award in 2007. It wouldn’t have gotten the Peabody “if that moment didn’t come off the way it did,” McGruder says, “and that was because of Asheru’s lyrics. I think he made the moment beautiful. That’s what allowed us to get away with it. And I could not have written it.”
Benn, who’d been touring, writing music and promoting his Guerilla Arts and the HELP curriculum for the past four years, did a summer program for special education students at Ballou in 2009. They published books, painted a mural and recorded a series of public service announcements.
This year, Rahman Branch, a U-Va. friend, former roommate, and member of the Unspoken Heard collective, coaxed Benn into a full-time position at Ballou, where Branch is principal.
Benn threatened to quit the first day, but Branch leaned on him. Now, Benn has plans for just where he wants to take the Ballou program, tied, of course, to his artistry and the work of his most creative friends.
“Just wait until June, when you see them,” Benn says excitedly. “It’s going to be a whole other thing.”
performs Jan. 8 at 7 p.m. with members of the National Symphony Orchestra at BloomBars. 3222 11th St. NW. 202-567-7713. Free; donations welcome.