The author's students pose with a Michael Jackson impersonator, the rapper Lucky Lou, and their finished book.
Since Katrina hit New Orleans, I’ve been teaching English after school in some truly forsaken public schools. In the past, I’ve helped kids from kindergarten to eighth grade hone their writing schools by composing and recording original rap songs. This year, however, I was placed in a language immersion school with writing-oriented students, so we attempted a more challenging project: a book of their writing and artwork about music from their hometown of New Orleans and elsewhere. Five months in, as we were editing the book and digitizing it, all of their handwritten work was stolen from my car by some jerk who just wanted my laptop. Sure that the kids would have no interest in redoing all of that work, I took a few days off school to lay in bed and moan and wonder how I’d break it to them.
But the next Monday the kids were entranced by my true crime story. To my surprise they got right back to work. (Also, I promised them a lot of candy.) During the last two months of school they rallied and in the end published a 46-page, full-color book. Though the final book consists of first drafts from the last two months (the stolen writing had gone through one or two rewrites), the kids’ intelligence and humor is nonetheless readily apparent, and the book succeeds in providing some insight into how children feel about music, musicians, talent, and fame.
For the book’s first section, the students listened to albums by unique local musicians, described the music, and told the reader whether or not to buy the records. They were asked to describe instrumentation, the vocals, the production, and the mood of the music, among other traits. Along the way they learned the difference between facts and opinions, and how to apply both to a piece of writing. The book features reviews the kids had published earlier in a New Orleans zine, plus a few new ones, like this critique of longtime local reggae and dancehall DJ T-Roy:
It sounds like New Orleans is playing funny stuff on one album. It has all of the instruments. Like piano and saxophone and Hawaii. The second song sounds the same as the first except more like a rockstar. It sounds like paintings walking around. A guy walks on stage and plays the drum. And it’s funny. It’s fast and loud. It’s soft then it’s loud. It sounds like the movie “The Yellow Submarine.” It sounds like people playing music on the street. It sounds like piano and drums. It sounds like rockstars playing New Orleans style. It sounds like everybody is running away from something. It sounds different. Like people dancing. Good music with rockstars taking over the planet with weird hair. Music everywhere. It’s real fast and soft. And good. And long. Aliens taking over the planet with lasers. And there’s electric guitars. –Byron
For the benefit of their parents, the students then compiled facts and opinions about their favorite famous musicians, and then turned those lists into essays. So that these wouldn’t just be gushing fan letters, they were encouraged to also criticize their favorite artists and give them career advice. The section opens with this dope pencil drawing of Nicki Minaj by Starr:
My fifth graders wrote in praise of mostly adult-oriented music, including several pieces on Lil Wayne:
Hi did you know about Lil Wayne? Lil Wayne is from New Orleans. He gets his stage name from his father. Wayne says he doesn’t like his father. Because of that he decided to drop the D from his name. His music sounds like a girl/boy. Lil Wayne is the current CEO of YMCMB. He divorced my god sister, Toya Wright. He has a lot of tattoos. He should not have so many tattoos. He is a former Hot Boy, a group consisting of six people: Lil Wayne, Turk, B.G., Birdman and Ronald “Slim” Williams, Birdman’s brother. Wayne is the son of Birdman, because he says that. He records numerous tracks with Birdman. He doesn’t like NOLA, but he is an avid Lakers fan. He should come back and live in NOLA. –Brian
Lil Wayne is a rap artist. He loves fame, money and girls. When he was 11 years old his mom left him home and he saw a gun and accidentally shot himself close to his heart. Five days later he went to school and everyone was asking, “Can I see your chest because I’m going to be a doctor.” I think he’s cool because he’s a rapper. He is really funny. He’s not an ordinary rapper he’s a crazy artist. He has a child, a little girl named Rejaney. My favorite song from him is “Love Me.” Some people say he is a bad artist. Some people say he just wants to make money. –Wayne
The third-grade ladies focused on more age-appropriate music:
Do you know who is my favorite music artist? Mine is Katy Perry. She was in a movie called “Katy Perry.” She used to have a husband called Russell Brand. I read her book called “Katy Perry’s Life.” I have read all of them. The three things I don’t like about her are that she put whip cream on her chest and the second is that she left Russell Brand. And bad words in her music. She is 20 years old. She wears a blue wig. And wears wacky outfits. –Alyx
My favorite artist is (drumroll please) Justin Beiber! Justin B. is so cute his hair is too. My favorite song by him is “Maria” because in the beginning it sounds like he is on an interview and they are asking about a girl named Maria H. His voice sounds like a girl and I wish it sounded more like a boy. He sings pop mostly. He is from Ontario, Canada. The first song I listened to by him is “Baby.” He once dated Selena Gomez. I wish his head was smaller and that he was taller. Thank you for listening. Have a nice day. Hope you enjoyed this. Hope you learned a lot. –Claire
Jacklyn, another third-grade girl, not only surprised me with her choice—the house artist Deadmau5—she turned her essay into a fictional TV report:
Reporter: We asked local kids what they think about Deadmau5 and they said this!
Kid 1: My favorite song is “Ghosts and Stuff” because it is digital.
Kid 2: I love his mask because it glows, it’s cool.
Kid 3: I love his song “Some Chords.”
Reporter: Then we saw his manager.
Manager: Well, first, he doesn’t write enough songs. Second, he needs more concerts. And third...oh no, time is up!
Reporter: So we will now go see Deadmau5, OK!
Deadmau5: Well, I will tell you most about me. I was born in Ontario Canada.
Reporter: Well, let me stop you, I have a question. I’ve never heard a song of yours before, may you explain them to me?
Deadmau5: Well, they don’t have words so I don’t want to bring your expectations up. They just sound digital, no words unless it’s a remix. I use DJ equipment.
Reporter: My daughter first saw you on the internet.
Deadmau5: Well, about me again, my birthday is January 5.
Reporter: Well Deadmau5, life review is over!
To break up their regular writing sessions, we would take a day here and there to jam on the drum machine and write some raps. Most of these two-couplet rhymes simply but humorously described their authors:
My name is Nya and I like guitar
It’s so cool that I hang on the monkeybars
I have two dogs that I love
the one Sachel’s so cute it’s like he’s from above
I love chickens dead or alive
When I was in kindergarten I was five
I like to be silly with all of my friends
In my chess class there’s not lots of men
My mom and dad play music on the streets
My Birthday’s on Halloween I give out treats
Everything’s delicious, but I love meat
But every time I eat, I don’t eat neat
My name is Kamri, just like the car
And I shine, just like a star
I’m from the hood and my house is made of wood
Can I just quit? Do you think that I should?
I also put my students to work helping me a bit with NOizeFest, a small festival of nontraditional music that I help host each May in Bywater. This year my students participated in a contest to help design the NOizeFest 2013 T-shirt. Valiant won first place and his family received NOizeFest T-shirts featuring his drawing:
The students’ favorite assignment invited local artists to the school to perform and hold a press conference. While the artists played, the students wrote down five insights and opinions about the performance, and also five questions. The students then got to interview the artists. One of their favorites was Ratty Scurvics, who, along with fronting several rock bands, also plays the keyboards with his hands while pounding the bass and snare drums with his feet in his ferocious one-man band, Singularity. The kids were lucky enough to witness this amazing feat, and even got the chance to play Ratty’s strange musical setup themselves after this round of serious questioning:
Q: What is your favorite food?
Ratty Scurvics: I am a big fan of sushi. I also like steak tartare. Which is raw red meat with spices in it.
Q: How did you start playing music?
RS: My dad’s a musician. He’s a working professional musician. So I grew up in a household where... That’s where my birthday presents came from, from his playing shows. But I taught myself to play, mostly. I always wrote my own songs. The instrument I started on was the drums.
Q: What do you like better, the keyboards or the drums?
RS: My favorite instrument is keyboards because you have so much potential. So many notes you can play at the same time.
Q: How do you play two instruments at the same time?
RS: Well, as a drummer you have to play four things simultaneously, and try to put it all together. Whenever I started doing the one-man-band thing it felt pretty natural.
Q: Why do you have a [mannequin head] inside your bass drum?
RS: Oh, Lucile! Lucile serves a purpose, because with a bass drum, you want to have something in there to dampen the sound a little bit. Some people use a pillow but I thought it would be funny if I put in a mannequin head. Her hair is stuck and I can’t take her out.
Q: Do you know how to play other instruments?
RS: I play several different instruments. I do a lot of solo records where I go into the studio and I just overlay instrument on top of instrument on the songs that require a full band. So I play cello, flute, drums of course, piano.
Q: All at the same time?
RS: Not all together. That’s kind of hard to do. The first one-man band that I saw was at a state fair and was playing an organ, and he had drums on his back, and somehow he had a fiddle that was shot through his side that he played with his elbow. That was pretty cool.
Q: How did you start doing the one-man band?
RS: I was in a circus band and we were on tour, touring the country, and everybody in the band quit. I was the musical director, composing all the music, and I had to figure out how to play all those instruments and be a circus band myself for one show. The pressure was on and I learned how to do it.
Q: Did you ever mess up?
RS: Absolutely! Mistakes happen all the time. The trick is to be able to push through the mistakes and catch yourself. That’s where the art is.
Q: What is it like when you play the drums and the piano at the same time?
RS: How about you find out in a minute?
Ratty Scurvics performing for the kids
The book closes with the students imagining themselves in the future as rich, famous, and (most importantly) talented musicians. They created stage names for themselves and listed their genre, their instrument of choice, and what they would wear while performing. They discussed their biggest hit song, and gave some sample lyrics. After letting their imaginations run wild verbally, the kids then drew pictures of their famous selves performing on stage, LIVE!
My name is the “Jewish Saint.” I am in the band “Leo the Tiger” with John “Game Master” and Lail “Super Bassist.” I am the singer, guitarist, and sometimes drummer. While John is main guitarist and Lail is the bassist and sometimes drummer. Our genre is pop rock. On stage I wear a blue shirt and white pants. –Hudi
Hey my real name is Jose Cairo. Everyone knows me as DJ From the West. I love to rap and that’s why it’s my genre. I use a very, very high amount of auto-tune. My inspiration comes from my very close friend Clarence Henry aka “Frogman.” I love to be shirtless sometimes. Wear a very distinct pair of shorts, very brilliant and bright Jordans, long socks and Miami Heat snapbacks. My biggest song is “I Love My People.” This is the chorus: “I love my people and they love me so I show them hospitality with the money cause I on one (?).” My favorite city to perform in is Miami because of the beautiful beaches and restaurants. One of my fans gave me a good review, he says, “It has a lot of people and very electrifying.” I love to give the fans a concert. –Brian
On May 28, each student who participated received a copy of the finished book. They were as excited as their teacher hoped they would be. Their book release party featured miniature cupcakes and a performance by family-friendly rapper and dancer Lucky Lou, who’d earlier in the year performed and held a press conference for the kids. Lou so looks the part of the rapper in his snapback hat and indoor sunglasses that the students had lined up for autographs even before he performed that first time. This time Lou brought his killer dance troupe to the book party, which included the impressive young Michael Jackson impersonator MJ of NOLA. My student Alex, who wrote the book’s essay on Michael Jackson, nearly lost his mind.
If you want to buy the book my kids made, you can do so here.
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, Salon, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.
Previously: On the Death of a Dog I Should Have Loved Better