Hip-Hop Music as the Soundtrack to Positive Change

What if hip-hop music moved children to seize 2016 through positive action?

Photo of Ahmen
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

A theater is filled with teenagers of color. One by one, they step up to the stage. A young girl strums a guitar and sings her own version of “Phenomenal Woman,” the empowering poem by Maya Angelou. A group of young men perform an original song about rising from poverty, with lyrics that scream, “I can do this.” On the perimeter, parents and community leaders shake the walls with cheers and mark the floor with tears.

This isn’t a scene from a prestigious arts school. It’s an event for my organization’s juvenile justice program, and the participants are teenagers who would typically be written off after making a mistake. They discovered their voice and hope through music, and they’re creating a brighter future with every lyric, beat, and chord.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • Asian (for example: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Pakistani)

Website

http://www.ahmen.us

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • New York

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

New York

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • New York

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

New York

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

You don’t have to feel helpless. You don’t have to feel silenced. As adults, we know that music can give us a voice, and ignite us in moments of isolation, difficulty, and anxiety. But are we offering that catalyst to children? Turn on the radio and you hear simplistic music filled with messages of money, partying, and other superficial desires. By continuing to press play, we are robbing our children of the power of music.

Hip-hop grew as the voice of the people, with legendary artists advancing the causes of self-worth, civil rights, equity, and positive change. Although we’ve steered off course, it isn’t too late for music to play a critical role in advancing the sense of self, belonging, and purpose in our children. We can rediscover the power of music, and help children to shape inspiring lives.

“I’m starting with the man in the mirror…I’m asking him to change his ways”

“Don't ever change, keep your essence…the power is in the people and politics we address”

“It's been a long, a long time coming…but I know a change gon' come, oh yes it will”


These lyrics from three different artists helped to shape me into the man I am today. Are we providing an inspirational musical soundtrack to our children? Let’s give them a voice.


My name is Ahmen and I’m known as the Batman of Social Impact, as a nonprofit leader by day and a hip-hop artist by night. I’ve worked in low-income communities across the country and led groundbreaking initiatives in early childhood education, afterschool, foster care, juvenile justice, and more. As a hip-hop artist, I use music to help people to find their passion, discover their potential for change, and take steps to bring that vision to reality.


In this project, my music will be a tool for children to advance their wellbeing and ability to become changemakers. We will focus on two of my new songs:

“Our Time”

A song about the urgency of this moment in 2016 and how we can tap our passion to enact powerful change and defy the naysayers.

“We Choose Love”

A song about a major choice we face – do we deal with difficult situations with hate and divisiveness or with empathy and love? 


This project will give children the opportunity to immerse themselves in the lyrics through designed curriculum, to create their own projects that represent what the songs mean to them, and to share their creations with the world. It is a powerful opportunity to innovatively promote children’s wellbeing, and the vision is 100% possible. For instance, my organization recently ran a program called Project Citizen with groups of middle school students. Through the course of a month, they identified issues of local importance, researched the problems, developed recommendations, and implemented solutions. Their issues of choice were thoughtful and compelling, including an end to gun violence and policy brutality and expanding clean drinking water. The projects made it clear that a) youth deserve the opportunity to exercise their voices and b) when you engage youth in creative ways, they can shake established systems and improve both their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of the communities that surround them.


The project will follow these steps:

1) Kick off

I will work with Ashoka's team to identify potential schools and educators who can facilitate the project. While Ashoka's network of Changemaker schools provide an immediate and efficient opportunity, I would be open to a wide variety of potential partners.

2) Immersion

Children will engage in the music through curriculum that I will design in collaboration with partners and my colleagues in the field of social-emotional development. They will be prompted to:

  • Dissect the lyrics to understand their meaning
  • Apply the lyrics to their own lives, e.g. why should you pursue your passion?
  • Apply the lyrics to major issues in society, e.g. why is empathy important after the incident in Orlando?


3) Application

Children will be able to translate their reflections and learning into their own recreations of "Our Time" and "We Choose Love." I will provide frameworks for various forms of application, such as:

  • Creating their own music videos for the songs
  • Writing their own lyrics or poetry with themes of "Our Time" or "We Choose Love"
  • Launching service projects that convey the themes
  • Creating other works of art or expression that help the children to embody the themes


At this point I would collect metrics on the success of the project, such as # of participating children, # of participating schools, and # of application projects. As the project progresses from its pilot phase, I would partner with experts in the field to evaluate the opportunity to implement a reliable pre-/post-project survey to assess social-emotional growth, 21st century skills growth, and other relevant competencies for children.

4) Sustainability and scale

There are two primary objectives in this step: enabling sharing and expanding access. With a grant from this challenge, I would develop a web presence where children and educators can share their "Our Time" and "We Choose Love" application projects.


Additionally, the web presence would serve to help the project expand to new participants, from creating a network of changemaker musicians to bringing new schools and partners into the effort. I hope to offer the curriculum and tools for application for free through the website, thereby maximizing the potential reach and impact of this innovative project.


I will also share successes from the project to:

  • Shed light on the power of positive hip-hop music to energize children
  • Reframe the global conversation regarding the power of children to dictate their own future and wellbeing
  • Engage new partners in the effort to promote children’s wellbeing through a greater sense of self, belonging, and purpose


After the initial phase with "Our Time" and "We Choose Love," we will add new music to the portfolio and expand the curriculum. Irrespective of the genre, the goal will be consistent: utilizing inspirational and authentic music in a sophisticated way to galvanize the next generation of changemakers.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • No, not explicitly

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Child and Family Services
  • Criminal Justice
  • Education

Year Founded

2013

Project Stage

  • Growth (the pilot has already launched and is starting to expand)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

At frank 2016, a conference of changemakers from across the United States, I premiered “Our Time.” The response told me that people are hungry for music that inspires change. One person said, “I don’t listen to hip-hop music, but you just set the tone for this entire event.” Another person came to me with tears trickling down her cheeks, saying, “You helped me to discover the urgency of this moment like never before.”

Since then, “Our Time” has grown into a true anthem for achieving your dreams. Nonprofits from Boston to D.C. are using “Our Time” as a soundtrack for their marketing and community vitalization efforts. ESPN is using the song as the official anthem for Sportscenter’s NFL Training Camp coverage.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

I’ve impacted tens of thousands as the Chief Development Officer of a leading NYC social impact organization. My leadership fueled the growth of our Early Childhood Education program, which serves 1,400 children a year and over 90% meet or exceed developmental standards. I’ve partnered with leaders to implement a range of transformative interventions for youth in juvenile justice, foster care, and more.

As a hip-hop artist, I inspire people to discover their voice and take action, with events including INBOUND, frank, MCON, Embark, and more. I also partner with organizations to use music to advance important causes, such as ending solitary confinement and inspiring civic engagement. “Our Time” and “We Choose Love” have been featured in dozens of blogs covering music and social innovation. It’s a cultural entrepreneurship approach that channels music and messages to catalyze progress.

Organization Type

  • hybrid

Annual Budget

  • $10k - $50k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

I plan to utilize multiple avenues:
• Social innovation investments: Funders who are specifically interested in supporting innovative efforts to advance social change, particularly among younger populations.
• Corporate partnerships: Corporations who are interested in cobranded campaigns to promote civic engagement and youth wellbeing.
• My new album: I plan to utilize a portion of proceeds to pay for travel and marketing the project.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

There are several music education organizations. However, they don’t specifically focus on youth empowerment and social change, or utilize inspirational musical assets. This project innovates by giving children the tools they need to become confident, positive changemakers. “Our Time” has already received acclaim, and unlike mainstream songs, it will be made accessible to youth. The song, along with “We Choose Love,” will guide a curriculum that drives youth to find their voice and advocate for the changes they want to see. We are shaking the status quo through music and empowerment.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

The advances in musical and social-emotional learning have been tremendous. I am especially encouraged by the heightening focus on empathy, thanks in part to Ashoka. There isn’t a greater ingredient to individual and collective success than empathy, and there’s where my songs are focused. “Our Time” is titled that way for a reason, and not “My Time.” “We Choose Love” holds everyone accountable, and not just yourself. I’m excited to share this music with children and leaders everywhere, and together, our impact will be unprecedented.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Word of mouth

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka, who was it? (the answer will not be public)

Rebecca Prince

Program Design Clarity

A) Ages 6+, focusing on children in poverty. They are disadvantaged by systems of inequity, resulting in lost wellbeing.
B) Consider this line from “Our Time”:

I’m never old, I’m younger, I’m feelin bold I’m gonna, cut my teeth on dreams, so I can feed my hunger

Questions to children could include “what does it mean to be bold?” or “what are your dreams?” applications could include creating a remix of the song or a service project about the song’s message.
C) Schools and community centers, run across four sessions.
D) In the pilot phase, I would travel to the schools and centers.

Community Leadership

This project gives a voice to marginalized children. In the low-income communities where I work, children face inequity as a result of subpar education, low expectations, and poor relationships with adults. “Our Time” and “We Choose Love” gives power to the listener and help children to discover voices by working in tandem with me, educators, and other community leaders. The project would evolve vis a vis feedback from children and adults.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 6 - 12
  • 12+

Spread Strategies

The web presence I discussed earlier is a key element. Also, I actively promote my music and work, with examples including appearances at changemaker conferences, placement on major outlets like ESPN and HipHopDX, and collaborating with other social impact leaders. I’m excited to expand my network with additional artists and organizations to scale both this project and the vision of advancing wellbeing through positive, active empowerment.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

The past few years have shed light on the impact of grit, empowerment, and creative expression. Children’s emotional wellbeing is correlated to these characteristics, which aren’t prioritized in traditional education. This project creates a long-term impact by helping children to foster perseverance, discover courage to initiate personal and collective change, and drive their vision to the finish line and find achievement.

Leadership Story

Back in 2008, I reached a major crossroads moment: accept a promotion with P&G to join Tide, or become a Marketing Director for Teach For America. My choice came down to this: where can I make the biggest difference? I chose TFA and never looked back. Since then, I’ve worked to transform the lives of tens of thousands of people through music, education, civic engagement, and systems reform. My fire for social change has turned into an inferno!

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

-OUR TIME is the official theme song for ESPN’s NFL Training Camp coverage
-I was selected as a “40 Under 40” Rising Star in the NY nonprofit community by NYN Media
-WE CHOOSE LOVE was premiered by HipHopDX, the world’s largest hip hop website

Organization's Twitter Handle

@iamahmen

Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)

http://www.facebook.com/iamahmen

Leader's LinkedIn Profile (URL)

https://www.linkedin.com/in/msivaloganathan

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Photo of Kaitlyn Allen
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Wonderful job with your videos and photos. I feel that, especially for you, it is critical to add those. You really add power to your words. I do recommend scrapping what you have for your founding story. Don't tell the readers to imagine, make them imagine. Tell a true story of a young girl singing her own version of a Maya Angelou poem. A group of young men perform an original song about rising from poverty. Parents and community leaders cheering and shedding tears. Tell readers your initiative has that power. Don't ask them to pretend you do.

Love the steps you added in. It does make your profile really strong. You do have one of the longer profiles. Reflect on making it a little shorter. Sometimes shorter profiles have more power because the reader is immersed, they do not skim. It seems conflicting to have less information, but I like to think of it as a revising of words. Have each word count for more. One powerful statement can have a stronger impact than a paragraph.

Last thought- I do enjoy the answer you provided for the problem question, however I feel that you need to be careful with this answer. Telling the problem can give your work a lot of merit. Especially since the arts is not always seen as important (Which is a problem! The arts is really important to a child's development.) Rethink how you can tell readers the problem, make the problem obvious and try to squeeze a positive in for every negative you put. The negatives being the problem, the positives being the work you do. Statistics are always powerful when used correctly!