Beasley Best Community of Caring

J Dilla

VH1’s Save The Music Foundation has been working to keep music education in public schools for twenty-two years. The organization started in 1997, when MTV President John Sykes participated in a “Principal For A Day” program at a school in Brooklyn, New York, and realized that the school’s music program was at risk. In the decades since Save The Music has worked to invest in music programs in schools (donating instruments, technology, and other equipment), they’ve supported teachers with professional development and advocated for music education at the local, state and national levels.

But in the years that the organization has been in existence, music has changed. Hip-hop and dance music are more mainstream now than they were in 1997, and that has led to a greater acceptance of the technology that creates that music. So, while Save The Music still encourages guitars, saxophones and drums, it also encourages turntables, samplers and drum machines.

With that in mind, Save The Music has just announced the J Dilla Music Tech Grant via a press release, and it will be mentioned during tonight’s MTV Video Music Awards. “Developed in partnership with Pharrell Williams’ creative collective at I AM OTHER and Arizona State University, the J Dilla Music Tech Grant delivers the future of music education through innovative tech tools and curriculum. This September, Save The Music will kick off this revolutionary program with technology grants in seven high schools across the country.”

J Dilla, known to many as Jay Dee, was one-third of Detroit’s acclaimed hip-hop group Slum Village. The rapper and producer who’s been called “The Mozart of Hip-Hop” was one of the music industry’s most influential hip-hop artists. He worked with artists such as De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Janet Jackson, Erykah Badu, Common, The Roots, Madlib, and the Pharcyde, among others. Lauded by many of his former peers, the artist (who passed at the age of 32 in 2006 due to a lupus-related illness) has a legacy that transcends hip-hop.

In an exclusive Community Of Caring interview, VH1 Save The Music Executive Director Henry Donahue, discussed the J Dilla Music Tech Grant, how Save The Music works to get music into the schools, and how your school can apply for a grant. Save The Music used to focus mostly on donating instruments, but today, the team spends time talking with educators, to determine the different requirements of different districts.

“We want to engage with the communities and the people that we work with all around the country and the school districts. We really don’t come to a specific community with a fixed idea of how people should be making music.” Donahue says, “And in doing that, as we traveled around the country we got a lot of feedback from people at schools that they wanted to see a music education program that reflected the way people make hip-hop and pop. Two and a half years ago, we started workshopping this idea that we should have a music technology grant and that we could partner with high schools to put that grant into place around electronic music-making, music production, audio engineering, beat making and DJing.”

They’re also working with an educator: “We partnered with a professor at Arizona State University, a guy named Evan Tobias, who runs the Center for Innovation in Music Education. And we said, ‘If we were to have a curriculum and a grant package that we do the same way we do any other grant, but it was around electronic music-making, beat making, DJing, and production, what would that be, and how would we roll that out?'”

They piloted the program last year at four high schools, in Newark, Brooklyn, and Miami, as well as Philadelphia, where they got help from Wyclef Jean.

“We had an amazing response from the pilot. It was apparent that we really had hit on something there. Then, we were talking to our partners at Pharrell’s agency, I Am Other: ‘How do we really brand this and market it in a way that gives it the potential for a truly national rollout?’ Their idea was that you need to have a ‘patron saint’ of the program. I remember their example was ESPN’s Jimmy V Foundation fundraiser every year, where you immediately have a sense of what that program is all about. And then once we started talking about people who could be the ‘patron saint’ of this program, it was clear that J Dilla was the one, just in terms of his influence on music, his musical genius, and the creativity and innovation and musicality that he really brought to hip-hop production. He was the clear and obvious candidate.”

“And then we reached out to his mom, Ma Dukes, and started talking to her about it. That’s how it came together.”

He notes that students who play traditional instruments are interested in the program, as well as students who don’t. “You have kids who are really excellent musicians and are very into music, and this gives them an extra level of exposure to different career pathways in music and the production and recording and engineering thing. And it also engages an entire population of students who might not have come through those traditional tracks. So we really see that this program engages both sets. There’s always a ton of great musician kids who are doing amazing stuff, even before we get there, and they’re excited to engage with this program. And then there are students who don’t connect to the traditional track and are looking for something that’s more hip-hop based.”

How can your school take adavantage of the resources that Save The Music offers? “Folks just need to go to the site and then fill out the form and get in contact with our program team.” You can see their “Guide To Building Your School Music Program” here and learn more about their grant program here.  Donahue notes, “We only work at the school district level, because we require the district to bring a certified teacher on board and teach a certain number of hours a week in a dedicated room in the classroom and a variety of other grant requirements. But we work with people all over the country in almost every state, and the way to connect with us is through the website and then start generating interest with their school district in bringing the program onboard.”

Not every school has the infrastructure to be eligible for Save The Music programs, but part of the organization’s mission is advocacy: they want to make sure that every school is funded to have a certified teacher, and dedicated rooms for music classes. “The sort of running joke is always that the obstacles to getting this accomplished are money and time. They need to have a budget for the teacher; they need to have the space inside the school; and they need to have time on the schedule. And all those things are very, very tight. We really make two arguments. One is that making music — and this applies more broadly to the arts –is an essential part of every kid’s well-rounded education.  About 80% of American schools do have this: they have music and art as part of the school day. We’re talking about the 20% of American schools in cities and rural areas where somebody decided at some point that that was okay to cut those programs. And so our main argument is: ‘This is the right of every student, to have music and art as part of their well-rounded education, as part of their experience, as part of their school, as part of their community. And so this is the right thing to do.'”

But their argument goes beyond just saying “Do the right thing.” “The second point is, we know from research that music has a slew of benefits related to things like social-emotional learning. ‘How do I express myself in a creative and productive way?’ ‘How do I listen to people?’ ‘How do I work in teams and ensembles?’ “How do I have the discipline and the rigor to accomplish what I want to accomplish?’ Music is a really incredible tool to accomplish all those things that people are trying to measure and achieve when they’re thinking about what makes a good school.”

Further, he says that music and arts education also helps to prevent at-risk students from dropping out. “There’s a lot of solid research these days around attendance and chronic absenteeism. I just saw a report making a direct correlation between having a quality music and arts program in your school and whether or not kids show up for school.”

“And so yeah, it’s tough. But by and large, we’re seeing–and this may be a function of the economy — a real uptick in interest from people, particularly with the music technology stuff and also in the early childhood music education. So we have a program that serves students in pre-K through third grade, and it’s about movement and rhythm and what people used to call ‘general music skills.’ And we’ve seen that program grow to twenty school grants this year. I think we did thirteen last year, and we maybe did like five the year before. So that’s our fastest growing program. So we’re seeing a turning of the tide a little bit towards a well-rounded education, including music and the arts, that considers social-emotional learning, all of those things.”

Learn more about the J. Dilla Music Tech Grant at Save The Music’s website, and reach out to save The Music about the grant here.

Additional reporting by Glennisha Morgan