Nearly an hour after the show was supposed to begin, the Unspoken Heard takes the stage at BloomBars. But in the crowd of 40 or so, no one seems to mind. True heads understand that you’ve got to wait for good hip-hop.
The group’s founding members, Asheru (Gabriel Benn) and Blue Black (Robert Jackson) joke they might have to ante up money for the art bar’s curse jar. Both culturally and percussively, sometimes the music just calls for a good expletive.
Benn checks the iPad rotation, their guitarist Munier Nazeer starts to play, and as the duo breaks into their “BBoy” rhyme, heads nod in the half light of the Washington club.
You a true thug?
C’mon man, you get a group hug
We embrace you, but we ain’t scared to face you . . .
On and on, the emcees’ flow is the product of chemistry and long years — 10 years since their milestone album, “Soon Come,” a classic in independent hip-hop circles. They pause at times to narrate the journey they have taken from the late ’90s U Street underground hip-hop scene. “It’s a beautiful night,” says Benn, a D.C. native. “It’s kind of like a family reunion.”
In the decade since the album was released, Benn has toured Europe and rocked crowds in South Africa as part of a BloomBars artist exchange program. He wrote the theme song for “The Boondocks,” on the Cartoon Network and won a Peabody Award. He’s married and has three kids. He has a master’s degree in education.
He is, in short, a hip-hop renaissance man.
He wades his 6 feet 3 inches into the crowd as he rhymes so they can celebrate “Soon Come.” But come Monday, Asheru will be Mr. Benn — in a decidedly different place.
Shortly before 2 o’clock, Mr. Benn helps to clear the hallway at Ballou Senior High School in Southeast. In September, he became director of arts integration at the school’s Arts and Tech Academy, formerly the Transition Academy for emotionally disturbed and learning disabled students.
He waves his hands to direct the flow, and in a deep, theatrical voice, urges students to get to class. He closes the heavy metal door to his office, but school noises still filter through. Laughter. Running. A kid wanting attention she doesn’t know how to ask for lies out in the the floor, throwing a tantrum.
These kids “need a special teacher who can reach them,” Benn says. “Instead of putting the stigma on students, I try to put the onus on the teachers.” He’s been an educator and administrator in D.C. public schools off and on for 13 years. It’s part of his hip-hop citizenship. It’s how his Guerilla Arts Movement — which brings local artists into District classrooms — got started.
“There are so many cats from the D.C. hip-hop and urban arts scene in the schools now,” says Rhome Anderson, DJ “Stylus.” He met Benn doing his University of Maryland “Soul Controllers” radio program in the mid-’90s and later toured with the Unspoken Heard. “What happens when the children of the golden age of hip-hop grow up?” Anderson says. “They become educators.”
Benn’s divorced parents stressed education. He attended public and private schools in the District, and spent his middle school years in his father’s native Barbados. He returned to D.C., entered Mackin Catholic High School as a 12-year-old, and, at 16, was a freshman at the University of Virginia. Bad grades brought him home, and he became an editorial assistant at the Smithsonian’s African American museum project, but he returned to U-Va. and even after taking a year off, still graduated with his class.
In college, he joined a collective of progressive students focused on hip-hop. They graduated and even as the genre became polarized, with much of commercial rap turning cookie-cutter and nihilistic, they made music. They dreamed of “getting on,” and big hip-hop careers. Meanwhile, they got grown-folks jobs and started families.
Shortly after graduating from college, Benn taught sixth grade at McGogney Elementary School in Southeast. There, he faced the central contradiction of his teaching career. “I had a bunch of middle-school kids reading on an elementary school level. So you had to compensate for their reading deficiency while you are trying to teach what they are supposed to know for sixth grade,” says Benn. “You have to do grade-appropriate content for low-functioning readers. Nobody is outright saying that, but that’s what the problem is, that’s why we can’t reach them.”
In 1999, he took a year off from teaching to focus on music. He was touring with Unspoken Heard and doing solo projects. He was an artist for hire, doing shows around the city.
When he returned to teaching the following year, a mentor told him, “You’d be amazed at what a crisp white shirt and tie would do for your classroom management.” Benn developed the ethos that “you’ve got to dress up for these babies. You’ve got to let them know that they are important enough that you’ve got to dress up and show up for them.
He’d just gotten off tour for “Soon Come” when 9/11 hit. Shortly afterward, he married a woman he’d met during his hip-hop days on U Street, decided he needed to travel less and taught a first-grade class.
In 2002 at the Rock Creek Academy special education center for K-12, Benn encountered kids who were 14 or 15 yet could barely read “Mary had a little lamb,” he says. The students were “always all black; it was 80 percent male. I thought this is [expletive] ridiculous! These kids have been neglected. Somebody needs to go to jail for this. That’s how I really felt. It was criminal.”
The school had a padded room where kids in crisis would scream until they were spent, but Benn made a pact with his five seventh-graders. Nobody goes to the crisis room, he told them. Nobody gets restrained. If something happens, we are going to close the door and figure it out.
He brought in turntables to help with that.
If they had desk work, he’d play music: Rakim, Earth, Wind & Fire, Funkadelic. He played Vivaldi “and they’d be like ‘man, turn that white people [expletive] off.’ ”
“They’re bringing in weapons, you’re bringing in art,” says Benn of troubled students in general. “We’re using media, pop culture, technology, hip-hop. You can’t just give them a Houghton Mifflin textbook, say ‘turn to Page 29, oh you can’t read it, you fail.’ Art is the great equalizer. Technology is the great equalizer.”
He taught them — gently — to put the needle on the record, and assigned classroom DJs. One day “a kid goes over and puts the Vivaldi record on. I looked up and I was like, ‘Word?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, man, it relaxes me.’ ”
Outside of the classroom, Benn kept things moving artistically. In 2002, he put out “Mood Swing” with Talib Kweli and Raheem DeVaughn, which became a hip-hop classic. He got a master’s in education in 2004 from National Louis University.
He started bringing his circle of artist friends into school, and his Guerilla Arts movement was born. It was a new paradigm, and a way to stay relevant and age in hip-hop, Benn says.
“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.