The sound of 36 kids clapping once loudly in unison reverberates through the small program room at Madison’s Central Library on Saturday afternoon.
Michael Ford, a Madison College professor and architect, stands at the front of the room imploring all in attendance to clap once if they hear him. Then, assured that he had the entire room’s attention, he tells everyone to clap twice if they still hear him.
Ford is addressing a group of predominantly minority kids and their parents about a topic that perhaps doesn’t get much airtime in such communities: Architecture.
Saturday marked the first of four “Hip Hop Architecture” camps for middle and high school students that Ford will host at the Madison Public Library featuring architecture, urban planning and plenty of music. The ideas the kids come up with will be incorporated into the comprehensive plans of the City of Madison and the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission.
“My whole idea is to use hip hop to get kids excited about architecture,” Ford says. “Each Saturday this month we’re going to do a camp. It will be sessions similar to this. Then Rob Franklin, who is working with a group of these kids, is going to turn the projects they’ve done into a rap song.”
The projects the children did during this first session were a combination of music lesson and sociology. They listened to different songs from the history of hip hop and focused on the lyrics, looking for threads referring to the environment around the stories in the songs.
The first project was to envision themselves 20 years from now. What did they want to become in 20 years and what would that look like? More importantly, what things in their community now would help or hinder them from achieving those goals?
“No more Donald Trump!” a boy shouts. Everyone is asked to put ideas on posters about what things could stop them from having the kind of community they wanted. While one poster was being read out loud to the group, the word Racism came up, prompting a boy to shout against the current President.
He is not alone. On every single poster under the section of things deemed hindrances to their community, President Trump loomed large. Trump, Republicans, ugly people, racism, sexism, liars, tax evaders, police in schools, guns and gangs were the top ten things kids say could stop them from achieving the goals of what they wanted their community to look like in 20 years.
Benches for homeless and disabled people, animal shelters, community centers, more love and less fighting are the things kids most wanted as part of these future environments. Still, the shift to a political tone didn’t go unnoticed.
“It’s amazing,” said Rafeeq Asad, a volunteer watching off to the side. “Kids are watching and listening more than we know.”
Asad is an architect who has been working with Ford for years trying to spark interest in the craft. He pointed out how most of the kids wanted to be famous athletes or the normal fireman, police officers and doctors kids dream of being. But few are looking at being an architect.
Indeed, fewer than 5,000 of the 107,000 architects in the United States are African-American, according to a 2015 study by the National Council of Architectural Registration. Mike Ford said despite his best efforts he has been unable to put a dent in those numbers.
But perhaps Ford’s efforts are paying off more than he knows. Mila Madofs, a girl at the camp, says that architecture would be her profession of choice, however. She says architects build homes and bridges which helps people have a place to live.
At the conclusion of the four week camp, the kids are going to put together all of their ideas in a physical 3-D representation of what they want their community to look like while a smaller group, under Franklin’s direction, will put the ideas into a song and video. Franklin, who is better known as Rob Dz, says he thinks whatever song they end up doing will project this generation’s voice loudly and proudly.
“I think it will be a newer perspective on old challenges,” Franklin says. “What you’re seeing on the boards is the voices of the kids and what they are seeing on an everyday basis.”
Such a song will bring Ford full circle to what started his idea in the first place. Perhaps the greatest hip hop song of all time, “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, resonated in Ford’s mind not just as a great musical achievement but also a story about the architecture of where people lived.
Broken glass everywhere, urine on the steps, wanton violence, abject poverty, dying in jail and an inability to escape any of it (because a man with a tow truck repossessed your car) are tales all too familiar to many in the African-American community, both then and now, that are pounded home in “The Message”.
“’The Message’ just talks about the reality of living in a black neighborhood,” Ford said. “People may have done their best and had good intentions and desires in our communities but ‘The Message’ tells us that their intentions did not come out good, did not result in good architecture.”
Ford’s eyes are darting around the room as he’s saying this, making sure everyone’s project is being done to the best of their ability. Satisfied that it’s time to move on to the next, Ford goes back to the front of the room. Everyone claps once to show they hear him. Everyone claps twice to show they still hear him.
It’s time for him and the students to get back to work on their collaboration on the greatest remix of all time.