April 16, 2018

Meet the Alphabet Rockers

Inspiring youth with Hip-Hop’s powerful potential

By OMCA Staff

As a long-time Friday Nights @ OMCA favorite, Oakland’s Grammy-nominated Alphabet Rockers hold a special place in our heart. Kaitlin McGraw and Tommy Shepherd, Jr. of the Hip-Hop group have been performing their moving, uplifting music since 2008. Come check them out on Friday, April 20, during our Friday Nights @ OMCA Block Party at 5:30 pm! 

How would you say that Hip-Hop music promotes social change? 

Kaitlin McGraw (KMG): There are a million stories—and we see thousands of moments every week. Recently I heard one of our kids was chanting “I will stand up for you” at the top of their lungs before school, like a rally call. And another child, at age 10, took the mic to stand up in front of her school to talk about ending gun violence. 

When kids see people who look like them and who also represent peace and outspoken solutions in ways they understand (like music, dance, with visuals), they know they can use their voices— through art, dance, spoken word, and community work.

Tommy Shepherd, Jr. (TS): I’ve seen the culture of Hip-Hop turn the voiceless into singers and poets. After Alphabet Rockers come through, you [in the audience] might be the unseen person who now not only wants to be seen, but shines in the process. 

When I meet a kid whose father or mother is a DJ, graffiti writer, or B-boy/B-girl, I see the pride and connection they feel in stating it. That’s gold to me. When a kid shows me their breakin’ moves or wants to show that they can rap? Gold. When a teacher really gets it and understands that it’s not necessarily what you bring, but how you bring it? Nuggets. I’m rich!

W. Kamau Bell described your music as the “soundtrack for the lives of the future people that we want in the world.” How does Hip-Hop help us get there?

KMG: We lean into the bravery of artists and activists whose truths and narratives reveal the world as it is—and the world as it can be; we use this as a model for how we create with and for our youngest. In the world we describe, you are a rockstar and shine in your own way, reflective of the many cultures, identities, and modalities of your being. We are a community that receives you and learns from all that you stand for so that we can create equitable community. In that future I envision reparations, healing, and listening. Hip-Hop is that Afrofuturism. It is that loud voice of truth. It is that being that holds this diverse community.

What do you love about living and working in Oakland as Hip-Hop lovers and musicians?

KMG: This is a town of clarity of voice for the people. Of Black power and excellence. Of leadership for current resistance and envisioning what and how we should be.

TS: I love being in a place known for its power through movement of the people. There has always been a hint of resistance and civil disobedience in the ether of the town. It keeps me honest, and it keeps me agitated enough to unapologetically speak truth to cause/to make change in my community and yours.

What would you say to someone who isn’t familiar with Hip-Hop? 
TS: I would say that Hip-Hop is a culture. It’s a community that knows no bounds. Hip-Hop is the art of making a whole lot of something out of little or nothing. I would say Hip-Hop music and dance are full of a plethora of styles, emotions, and reflections. Hip-Hop is an aesthetic, a way of life. It’s a way of life that saved mine.
KMG: This used to be the way most venues would talk to us. “Is your performance going to be ok for children?”—even though we are children’s artists. People’s misconceptions about Hip-Hop are connected to the existing cultural bias against Black people and the lapse of recognition of Black excellence and knowledge. It’s baked into this country. 

And Hip-Hop is a freedom space to access another way of being. It’s a platform and space to do the work on yourself and to show up authentically, whether that be to listen and pay the money for artists to shine center stage or to take the mic and share your story. We have the honor of creating this freedom culture at Alphabet Rockers shows. I cannot even describe the powerful feeling of presenting in the Bay Area. Families feel a sense of power at our shows—you can come, and be exactly who you are.

Video courtesy of Alphabet Rockers and Stablished Projects.