On Monday, only about 12 hours after he headlined Summer Jam a few miles west, Kendrick Lamar arrived at High Tech High School in North Bergen, New Jersey, for a day of listening to poetry, freestyling with teenagers and leading a forward-thinking assembly that even had its own official hashtag.
In March, High Tech teacher and poetry club organizer Brian Mooney had written a blog post about using the rapper’s critically acclaimed recent album To Pimp a Butterfly to analyze Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The next month, he posted a follow-up featuring responses written by his freshman English students. Both posts went viral, eventually reaching Lamar, who asked his manager to reach out to Mooney and set up a visit.
“I was intrigued that somebody other than myself can articulate and break down the concepts of To Pimp a Butterfly almost better than I can,” Lamar explained during a break, referring to Mooney’s original blog post. “That let me know he’s a true lover of music.”
He was even more impressed by the students. “I didn’t think I made [To Pimp a Butterfly] for 16-year-olds,” he continued. “I always get, like, my parents or an adult saying, ‘This is great, you have a message, you have themes, you have different genres of music.’ But to get a kid actually telling me this, it’s a different type of feeling, ’cause it lets me know that their thought process is just as advanced as mine, even if I’m 10, 15 years older.”
Lamar’s day began in Mooney’s classroom, where the teacher’s poetry club and English class met their guest and displayed some of their work. The first student read a poem about the struggles he faces as a dark-skinned South Asian, and two others followed with a joint piece called “What the Media Taught Us.” Lamar laughed when they reached the line “You chose the wrong butterfly to pimp” and big-upped both works. “They got heart, they got intellect, they got punchlines,” he said, visibly moved.
After another performance, Lamar took questions from the class, the students asking about topics as specific the evolution of the rapper’s storytelling and as deep as his collaborations with jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington. Lamar spoke to the connections between different forms of storytelling and recalled his years as the quiet kid in the back desk: In elementary school, he was the first kid his teacher had ever heard use the word “audacity,” and at that point she predicted he would someday become a writer. Up front, the kids formed a circle and began to rhyme over a beat playing off Mooney’s cell phone.
Although the afternoon revolved around the chart-topping guest, Lamar never lectured, and inspiration passed in both directions. This was Mooney’s intention when he set the schedule, but he didn’t have to explain anything to the 27-year-old, who arrived at the school expecting exactly that. “Something for me even bigger than mentoring is really listening,” the rapper told reporters while the rest of the school waited in the field house. “When I do that we have a little bit bigger connection than me being Kendrick Lamar and you being the student. It’s almost like we’re friends. . .I’ve met kids that told me my own flaws, and I had to sit back and check myself and reroute certain ventures that I was heading to.”
Inside the fieldhouse, Mooney introduced Lamar to the rest of the student body, retelling the backstory (the students roared when he mentioned going viral) and explaining that “hip-hop ed” is a way to help students critically engage with texts, with the world and even with hip-hop. More cheers.
Poetry club member Aaleah Oliver brought her peers to their feet with her poem “Out of Many, One.” From there, a panel — Lamar; education activist Jamila Lyiscott; hip-hop education advocate and Teachers College, Columbia University professor Christopher Emdin; the school’s assistant principal Allyson Krone; and a recent High Tech alum — held short conversations inspired by more student work.
Ben Vock read a poem inspired by Lamar’s “Mortal Man,” interrogating the subconscious fears and judgments he was taught to make as a white teenager. “The hardest thing for an artist to is look in the mirror,” the rapper told him. “That’s what I was trying to do with To Pimp a Butterfly.” Lamar was equally impressed by Sade Ford’s “It Takes a Village to Raise a Butterfly,” which relocated “These Walls” in northern New Jersey. “You just remixed the whole joint!” he exclaimed.
After an essay and a dance routine, Lamar and Mooney returned to the stage, teasing the possibility of an unexpected finale. “I know he just performed at Summer Jam, so I guess it depends on how bad you want to hear him,” the teacher said. Lamar smiled and shrugged as screams filled the building. He asked the students to shout the name of the song they wanted, but the noise was still too much. A few minutes passed before the DJ settled on a fitting track, “Alright,” and the school day ended with a packed field house repeating the chorus: “We gon’ be alright.”