It wasn’t what some might assume is a typical afternoon at Hillel Academy.
First, the high school boys gathered for afternoon prayers.
Then, they heard a presentation on the history and philosophy of hip-hop music.
As part of the Lunchtime Lecture Series, a 2-year-old program that hosts a variety of professionals to the school to broaden the horizons of high school students, Hillel hosted Luqman Abdus-Salaam and Amos Levy from the Arts Greenhouse to talk about “Dispelling Hip-Hop Myths and Understanding Hip-Hop as a Multicultural Practice.”
The Arts Greenhouse is a free program offered through Carnegie Mellon University where Pittsburgh teenagers can learn about the music, technology and history of hip-hop.
For around 45 minutes Wednesday, Oct. 21, Levy and Abdus-Salaam took the students on a quick slideshow tour of the Bronx in the 1970s that lead to regular people of many backgrounds coming together around a new cultural form called hip-hop.
They explained how the music came together, with disc jockeys creating new songs by samplings bits and pieces of existing recordings, and they showed the ancillary elements of the culture, from break dancing to graffiti to the rapid fire rhyming called rapping.
“I feel like it’s one of the most misunderstood musical genres,” Levy told the students, adding, “It’s usually thought of as a black thing. It’s actually a multicultural thing.”
That multiculturalism explains Hillel’s interest in the Arts Greenhouse, according to Adam Reinherz, director of student affairs at Hillel.
He said Levy and Abdus-Salaam showed the students another side to hip-hop music, a side removed from the violence and misogyny often associated with hip-hop culture. This other side promotes coexistence and community, and allows different groups to share their experiences with the world.
Reinherz said that message went “hand in hand” with the values Hillel tries to teach its students, like learning how to share the Jewish cultural heritage with the world.
The lecture series has brought transplant surgeons, talent scouts and robotics experts to Hillel, but this presentation proved to be the most popular so far among students.
“They thought it was one of the best programs we’ve run,” Reinherz said.
The program came about because several students showed an interest in hip-hop, Reinherz said, either as fans of the music or as budding musicians curious about the form.
The school wanted to provide an outlet for students to explore those interests.
While the Arts Greenhouse allows teenagers to record performances, its workshops fall on Saturday, which didn’t work for the Orthodox day school. Reinherz said the school leadership decided: “Let’s not let this thing go. Let’s invite them to Hillel.”
Now, Reinherz said, he hopes to be able to bring the Arts Greenhouse back to the school to incorporate elements of lyricism into English classes, or to create opportunities for musically inclined students to learn the ins and outs of the studio process to create tracks.
“We’ve committed to working with the Arts Greenhouse,” he said.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at email@example.com or 412-687-1006.)