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‘What’s Going on Now’: Engaging Young People Through Music, Media, Messages

May 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Part of a project produced by the Kennedy Center and singer-songwriter John Legend called What's Going On Now, young people across the country are using media, music and inspiration from Marvin Gaye to address issues in their lives and communities such as the economy, wars and the environment. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, reaching young people through music, media, and a social message.

STUDENT (through translator): Living with the facts the few that, I know I start to wonder where did the blue skies go? How can I move forward in a cycle of fear?

JEFFREY BROWN: On a recent spring afternoon, these Cleveland students were rapping the problems of their city and in many cases, their own lives.

STUDENT (through translator): I stood up for change, but no one’s there, looking into the sky, hoping God hears.

JEFFREY BROWN: They’re part of the 10-year-old Progressive Arts Alliance, one of a dozen groups around the country that’s teaming up with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., for a project called What’s Going on Now.

The reference, of course, is to the famous song and album released by Marvin Gaye 40 years ago that brought social problems of the day, poverty, drug abuse, Vietnam, pollution, and more, into popular music.

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The Kennedy Center wanted to challenge young people now to harness today’s technology to address today’s problems. The responses, many featured on the website whatsgoingonnow.org include photography, poetry, video and music.

A contemporary music star, John Legend, is helping lead the national effort.

JOHN LEGEND, musician: I think there’s a lot of frustration out there, particularly among young people who are graduating from college and can’t find a job, and have all these massive student loans to pay back.

And they sense that the American dream is in jeopardy, to some degree. Their sense of fairness and equal opportunity that they thought America promised, it feels like it’s kind of slipping away.

MAN: We discussed trying to pull in elements of the timeline with the media, and then with Marvin’s music.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the Cleveland students, the project meant getting together after school, sometimes into the night, to craft their message.

High school junior Diandre Byfield says that, without artistic outlets in his life, he may have headed in the wrong direction himself. Now he wants to help redirect other young people.

DIANDRE BYFIELD, Progressive Arts Alliance: We’re like a broken down city. It’s not just the economy that is causing Cleveland the problem right now. It’s the attitude. It’s the struggle of just seeing your mom on drugs or seeing your father locked up in jail.

We need to make a change. We need to stand up and say, okay, I’m not going to just sit down and watch TV on my couch. I’m going to go out to Cleveland and go help out some people. That’s what I’m expecting people to hear in our music.

JEFFREY BROWN: Daniel Gray-Kontar, an artist and educator working with the students, says the project is also intended to help them learn about the messages that bombard them daily.

DANIEL GRAY-KONTAR, Progressive Arts Alliance: It’s a critical media literacy piece. So what young people are learning is, number one, what media is teaching them that they may not recognize on the surface, but how to look deeper into all sorts of media.

And then, once they’re able to do that, then they produce media. Right? So we like to say that it’s really counter-hegemonic, which, broken down, means that it’s empowering, instead of disempowering, for them. They gain agency from it. So when they look at how they are able to create, it’s inspiring for them and they believe that they can make change.

JEFFREY BROWN: At another Cleveland school, Orchard Stem Middle school, students are also participating in the project as part of their class curriculum.

After spontaneously warming up with song in the school hallway, they packed flip-cams to document some of what goes on in the public housing complex where many in the group live. They interviewed people in the neighborhood, including the head of a social service agency that feeds the poor and homeless. Several talked to us about problems they hope to share and fix.

ANTHONY DONNER, Orchard Stem Middle School: People are getting laid off and they really don’t have that much, but the people that — like that, they do try. I think we should help people.

ERIKA WILLIAMS, Orchard Stem Middle School: People are getting like thrown out on the streets and then their house is just getting abandoned and boarded up.

JORGE GONZALEZ, Orchard Stem Middle School: If there’s abandoned houses, then there’s going to be more people in the streets trying to steal stuff, and then there is going to be people trying to steal their stuff from their house.

JEFFREY BROWN: The founder and executive director of the Progressive Arts Alliance, Santina Protopapa, said students jumped at the opportunity to use Marvin Gaye’s songs, in particular one titled “Inner City Blues,” as a way to talk about their own stories.

SANTINA PROTOPAPA, founder and executive director, Progressive Arts Alliance: This is the perfect opportunity for our students to have a greater voice from here in Cleveland.

Our philosophy is always to keep art-making and arts engagement relevant, and using something like hip-hop is very relevant to students. But it also can be very artistically rich, which a lot of people don’t associate hip-hop with. There is a very specific discipline to all the art forms of hip-hop.

JEFFREY BROWN: Back at the evening hip-hop session, Diandre Byfield ran through a song the students had written called “Think Cleveland.”

DIANDRE BYFIELD: No time to fly high, no friends in the sky, because all I see is drug dealers and drive-bys and people getting high. Stevie, where’s the ribbon in the sky? All I see is white lies and pride.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this week, there he was in Washington, D.C., on a Kennedy Center stage, one of more than 50 students from around the country brought in to share their work and talk about very current issues, including bullying and the Trayvon Martin case.

STUDENT: Like I said in my lyric, I say, I’m trying to get paid. Plus, I’m trying to graduate. You know what I’m saying? It’s definitely hard to be a student. You have to pay all these loans.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last night, the students were in the audience for a concert by John Legend, soul singer Sharon Jones, and the National Symphony Orchestra as they reprised the Marvin Gaye original.

The Kennedy Center’s online What’s Going On Now project will continue to be updated with new works through the end of July. You can link to the site by going to ours. Also on our website, you will find my extended interview with singer John Legend about this project and much more.