Kaitlin is Artistic Director for a children’s hip hop group named “Alphabet Rockers.” The Equity Collective is participating in a collaboration with them. The intent is to provide a way to explore systems and collective history in a space occupied by both children and parents. Together, we are exploring paradox and cultural learning. Our working assumption has been that we need to interrupt the teaching of young children as early as possible, to support the development of an inclusive and holistic understanding of race, while at the same time challenging parents to expand and confront their long held and mostly unintentional identification with white supremacy.
What does it look like for parents to have authentic conversations about race with their children?
How does consistent work on our own bias, as adults, support the development of a healthier world for our children?
At this point in the conversation with Kaitlin, we are discussing the idea of a middle class white woman creating hip hop music for diverse audiences of children.
Support their new album HERE.
Dia: Do you feel like the work you are doing is to make money or to change culture?
Kaitlin: I think it’s both. Oddly, I would say, we – um – I, I felt like it had to get more and more specific, in the work that I was doing. I had to, myself, commit to being uncomfortable. And that’s, like, definitely from a white woman’s perspective, because things that were making me uncomfortable, were things that were making me uncertain. It’s hard not to know the answers. Uncertain meaning, “is this going to lose my market value if I claim that [not addressing racism] is okay?” And this is in the realm of children’s hip hop, which was laced with elements of you know “what is hip hop, what is black culture, what is appropriation, what’s ‘okay’ hip hop?” There is like a lot of dialogue around it already and so to be specifically forcing conversations around changing lifestyle. Yeah, and it may make some people uncomfortable, including me.
Dia: So where did your interest in racial justice, as a white woman, where did your interest or investment sort of start?
Kaitlin: Mine started when I was 14 years old and I had it, they’ve got to come up with a name for it – like my whiteness epiphany, like “oh shit, I’ve been experiencing the whole world as a white person” and not- I think prior to that everyone was othered in my framework so I started thinking about “where has my whiteness formed my experiences?” And since then I’ve been very focused on it.
Though…there was a period of time like in my twenties I would say where I was not really an ally. I was kind navigating…I was living in San Francisco trying to get work, trying to figure out who I was, I don’t think I was being hurtful, but I wasn’t being an ally. There was a period of time where I was just kind of coasting in another world.
Once I found the alignment to be able to do both, I felt like I was more authentically myself. So, I would say being an ally is a focused is commitment. Yeah, it’s a lifestyle of commitment I think, what kind of questions do you ask knowing, knowing what the impact of your silence is as a white person if you hear something happening. Yeah, I guess it just becomes, like, a lens to see how everything operates. So it’s a lens for seeing how systems are always at work. So then it’s trying to figure out, “do I interrupt the system, do I work with the system, and if I do work within the system like as a teaching artist in the classroom, how can I disrupt it?”
Dia: So what was the either series of events or how did you get to the place where you were working in hip hop? How do these things overlap?
Kaitlin: Right. Um, okay I would say that initially it would be through like reading Nikki Giovanni’s poetry and though she’s not like a hip hop artist it was a Black power narrative initially and also this kind of I’m going to be me narrative. I just devoured all of her poetry and meanwhile I was listening to pop and hip hop and Tribe Called Quest in particular as a young person. And so when I became a musician, I was a singer. I’ve never been a rapper. And when I actually started Alphabet Rappers I was working in a music school which was devoid of Black culture and the first song I was actually inspired to write was after watching Lynn Johnson and Allison Kenny [Go Girls] perform their first iteration of their theater camp for kids. And it was like an exploration of shapes. And it was just like this really creative piece and I was listening to it and then I was like “oh I can write, I’m going to write a song inspired by that.” And, it came out based on beats, so, I was hearing in just spoken word. So then I was like, oh wow this might actually be like a hip hop project. And, it wasn’t until the album was finished and that was 2007 that I started thinking about staging the work.
So it actually was “hip hop” and I’ll use quotes for that, but I don’t think it was actually from the culture of hip hop. I was more of a hip hop fan at that point, though I wasn’t like a white girl with no Black friends moment and it wasn’t something I was afraid to, I’m really going to say it – I wasn’t afraid to play it for Black folks. But, it was definitely an appropriation in the first album, and when I was starting to stage it I was like “oh it can’t be that.” And, this is also getting into my twenties transition I was, like, how can I stage this ? I was thinking, I need beat-boxing to make this really come alive so I called up my friend who’s a beat boxer. Then, I thought about the best hip hop theater I’d seen in the Bay area and that’s how I met Tommy [Shepard]. And so Tommy came into the group and it became a play space. It developed into the idea that I had about learning coming alive—this musical experience and the foundation of hip hop theater.
I don’t think I was that deep about the work until [Tommy and I] became partners. Then it became real. Because then it was like, oh we’re performing in front of kids, we were having an effect on people’s families. Like on stage we were a multiracial group of Black, white, and Asian. We affected people, just by being who we are. We all had shared language around discussing cultural identity, so it started to pivot. The show was an experience of a multicultural way of being, even though, topically, it took us like six years to start writing songs that addressed it.
Honestly, I think that’s partially due to funding. We had other jobs and we wanted to have the money to be able to record it. Making music is expensive and takes a lot of focus. I think it all worked out in a way because we had an authentic relationship with children at that point. A lot of this comes down to authenticity for me. Now, it’s like the deepest work because there are so many community partners which is the way actually sustainability should happen. Nothing is a silo.
Dia: How do you think that your industry – children’s music – could be more inclusive?
Kaitlin: Right now it’s mostly white people I would say and then within that most of the time the white performers have white bands. When we “children’s music performers” are working most of the time we were performing it for free audiences—libraries, farmer’s markets, other entry points, and they are community events. So your in community anywhere in America is not going to be all white people, like, no matter where you are so who steps up to be the town singer has to hold space for everybody. And that’s a real challenge because we can’t all naturally do that. I would say all of us who have come up and decided to bring our musical talents to kids and families have an ability to communicate to all children, but the lessons that we’re imparting…I mean, I think there’s so much self-work that has to be done. The images that kids see, this is where I’ll get into the like, “how do we interrupt bias for our little babies?” Sadly, it’s not everyone’s objective.
Dia: What do you think that it takes to make it people’s objective?
Kaitlin: Personal experience. So maybe it’s a family that says “your show is not for me because this upsets me a little” and then, having someone go home and struggle with that. I mean I can put myself in those shoes.
Dia: Do you think that there is any intentional decision to not be inclusive or do you think that it is often unintentional?
Kaitlin: Actually, I think it’s that people feel like they ARE being intentional. I mean inclusive. I think all children’s music makers feel like it’s for everyone, but children’s music is lazy. I do it myself, we make music that kids and parents will like… but guess what, every parent group that we’re talking about is a demographic. So, it’s not invisible culture. So I don’t think people are going around, “this is something that Jewish families and like Ivy League families are going to enjoy Still – it’s not all kids. Or is it? It’s a deep question. Is it how the parents react to it that affects the kids? That’s a question for me actually, remind me of that! But the ongoing thing is, is it music that kids and parents will like. Most children’s music makers are pretty creative thinkers, there’s a lot of different ways people are doing their business models so you’re getting people who, I don’t know there’s just, there’s a lot of cleverness out there and so my question becomes, “can we use that creativity look at bias?”
Dia: If there was one thing that you could change in your industry by having this conversation today – just one – what would it be?
Kaitlin: I hope is that parents really look at their library and media and assess what is really putting the best interests of all children forward, what are the question about the construction of race, the stories around gender and sexuality. If we interrupted that lazy mass children’s marketing that would be great.