Between the Vocal Folds S1.E5: Hip Hop in Inspiring Youth

Image of Kaitie Sly and Kia Kadiri
Join Kaitie and hip hop artist, Kia Kadiri, as they discuss how the genre of hip hop can help youth to claim their cultural identities and develop self-confidence.

Welcome to the fifth Episode of the Between the Vocal Folds podcast. Every episode features a new guest from the music industry to discuss any and all topics related to singing and the voice. This week’s guest is Kia Kadiri, who is a professional hip hop artist and songwriting instructor, who is helping to transform communities in Vancouver and beyond with her community service through music. We are really excited to have Kia on the podcast and look forward to sharing her work touring hundreds of schools, performing for and inspiring youth.

On Working with Your Community

When did this work of yours first start and what was your first experience like of this?

Kia Kadiri:
I have been teaching probably for just over 20 years. That sounds crazy when I think about it but I’m like, “Okay, yeah, I know.” I started rapping, I started music when I was about 19 and I’m 45 now, so yeah. But like I said, over 20 years of that has been teaching. My very first experience was actually a colleague of mine, a DJ, had developed some software for turntables at UBC. He’d started like a hip hop club, and he said, “Hey, would you be willing to teach freestyling?” And I was like, “I don’t know. I’ve never really taught freestyling to anybody before but I guess I’m like sure.” I sort of thought of a way, how would I explain, because I had taught myself and been shown some techniques, that to somebody else. And I kind of combined it with the same sort of approach that I had for teaching myself music theory, which was learning how to count bars and how to transform my poetry into time.

And so I kind of combined it into my first lesson and we went from there and it ended up becoming a thing, where I was like, “Oh, I can teach people how to rap. This is kind of cool.” And probably about 10 years after that I started doing it for lots of different nonprofits and organizations, where we were going to schools. We learned how to make it into workshops and then that proceeded to kind of the work I do now, which is working for different nonprofits and at the youth jail. We were like, let’s take the workshop into the marginalized communities. Let’s take it into remote communities where they are not getting any access to this kind of work and do what I’ve done the whole time, which is really teach songwriting, give kids an ability to use their words, and combine it with music, and roll in with a portable studio and go from there.

But you’re also working in schools now, right? And that was my next question for you: what are you doing in schools now? Is there like a workshop that you do or how does that look?

Kia Kadiri:
We decided that we can go into those communities and actually take gear and record the songs that the kids make and take them through the full process of creating a song from those little seeds of, this is how we count bars, and this is what improvising and freestyling is. And these are what the four elements are, right? Deejaying, graffiti, writing rap, and breakdancing. This is what this looks like in your community and how it brings people together with a message. And so that would be essentially what workshops I have done entailed. It was like teaching the core values of the culture, the roots, and the musical technique that goes along with it.

You would get to go into a school with your project for eight or 10 sessions and then create content out of the time. So you get to know the kids on a better level. You get to spend some time. You get to nurture them and pull them out of their shells and really create content that’s around a particular theme. Some of the themes that I have really looked at are looking at identity with kids, looking at their cultures. I had one year where I think there was six different languages that the kids in the schools rapped, so I’m like, “All right.” We had some French rap, and some Russian rap, and some Mandarin. I don’t know what the kids are singing but man, their parents… I remember this one Russian lady came up to me after and she was so happy because her daughter had this rap that was highlighted in the middle of a song and she is rapping in Russian. Surely only her mother in this entire school understood but she was so proud.

That’s the connection in this work that I love: reconnecting people, giving them a voice, making them feel that confidence. And I’ve had that be the feedback I’ve received from so many of these kids is like, thanks for helping me with my public speaking, or thanks for making poetry cool.. on different days. English poetry on its own – metaphors and similes might not be that exciting but when you learn that it can be a cool song that makes everybody think that you are the bomb then it’s fun to see kids… And teachers, and other artists feel like, oh yeah.

Amplifying Young Voices

What are you doing specifically with singing that is aimed at empowering youth?

Kia Kadiri:
Well, one of the most important skills that I have seen over the years is really just giving youth their voice. I don’t sensor. When I go into a workshop with a bunch of kids at the jail, I’m not the person that comes in like their teachers and says, “All right. There’s no swearing. You can’t rap about that.” That’s the one thing I don’t do. It’s kind of like, I am going to let you tell your stories. And part of that comes from my own understanding because when I grew up I hated hip hop. My little brother was completely into hip hop. I was listening to classical music. I was a figure skater. I wanted nothing to do with. I thought it was ridiculous. It was the same beat over and over. And I’ve said this so many times, but once I understood that gangster rap of the early ’90s was really people just telling the story of what was happening in their neighborhoods. It became commercialized and became this other thing that was glorified much further down the road.

In essence, even the beginning as hip hop in the Bronx and in New York in the ’70s, this was just a way for the people to talk about what was happening and to draw light to their experiences, and if those experiences included drugs and violence, well, that was what was happening. So you can’t take away a person’s truth. And I found that with youth, if you come in as this giant figure that tells them, “Well, you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s got to be done like this, and you can’t sing that,” then you’re putting up a bunch of obstacles for them just having expression, which is really what we are trying to get to. So it gives me an outlet to face the things that I’m dealing with through my words. The power of the pen and the words and the body kind of all ties together in this holistic approach to making music. And it’s a very powerful tool. I always say to people, I’ve kept everything I write.

On the Hip Hop Genre

What is it about the genre of hip hop that supports youth in finding themselves and dealing with issues? Is there something special about hip hop in particular that is geared towards this type of work that you’re doing?

Kia Kadiri:
When we talk about hip hop and rap, there is kind of like this beauty that exists between it being like the common people’s kind of language. It’s kind of like, and I always say this, and I make a joke about it with people, everyone says, “Oh, I can’t rap.” I’m like, “Well, if you can count to four and you can talk, then you can rap,” because it’s just about understanding how to subdivide beats and put syllables to it. And if you break it down to the most basic elements… And then you also say to somebody, just so you know, when you first pick up a piano or first pick up an instrument, you sounded probably not very good when you played it. Well, it’s the same with rap. It takes practice. It takes time to understand the nuances of the language. But that being said, you can still rap usually right out the gate within a few minutes, whereas you can’t necessarily just sit down at a piano and all of a sudden be playing something that people can listen to, and so there’s a very quick turnaround with rap.

What is it that you would most like our listeners to know about or to understand about hip hop?

Kia Kadiri:
Well, I think the number one thing is to be open-minded. As I mentioned earlier, I was not open-minded to hip hop at all. I had written it off. And it is this entire genre of music on its own which has so many different benefits if you can look in on. And that’s kind of the thread and theme that I wish to carry for most people, is like you have to look deeper with hip hop to really get it. And until you do that, until you take the time to train your ears to hear what lyrics are said, you miss what’s being told. What the stories are like. What it’s like for these people in these marginalized communities. What it’s like to be a black artist that struggles with gender or struggles with sexuality.

All of these conversations are happening within the music and the artwork of today. If you really want to know about hip hop, then you are listening to the underground artists. You are listening to the people on the street. You’re listening to the people that you are never going to hear on the radio. You’re never going to hear their music… or going to see a music video with Cardi B and them talking more like… Prolific or ground-changing, or that moves you on a deeper level to make change.

I have a piece that I will share. I did choose a couple of pieces. One of them in particular, like what’s been happening this last week here in Canada is really talking about the residential school survivors and the young children that were discovered at this mass grave. And unfortunately it’s not just 215 kids, it’s hundreds and thousands of kids over the entire country that this is their story. I want to say about a year ago, a woman named Sandy Scofield, an amazing indigenous artist, had asked me to write a piece about the strength of the women. Because, again, through hip hop this is another thing is that women have been portrayed in a particular way, and there are not a lot of female MCs that have messages to carry that are strong but the ones that do really do carry an important message.

So I wrote this for Sandy, and it really fits in with our indigenous women today. It was called Planting Salvation. And it says:

We are the mothers, protectors of waters. The aunties, the sisters, the two spirit daughters. And we burn tobacco and we burn the sage, turning away from the pain and the rage. And we are the weavers of baskets with cedar, turning our children with doubt to believers. And comforting sisters who struggle with trauma, supporting the elders who deal with the drama. And we are the sowers of buttons on dresses, who carry the seeds of our ancestral wishes. Passing along to the next generation, medicine needed for cleansing salvation.

And that’s the thread of real hip hop, is about this cleansing, taking it back to these roots, really looking at and respecting cultural diversity and trying to make change.

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