When Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Soulati Shepherd founded the performance collective Alphabet Toggles, the longtime friends wanted to inspire kids to make social changes. Hip hop seemed like the perfect medium.
“When you watch hip hop, it’s an invitation to be exactly who you are,” McGaw said. “There’s also a lot of puns, so it’s absolutely rooted in fun conversation, speaking, bravado, listening, all those things that teachers try to create.”
But Shepherd said they quickly realized something was missing. “What drove us was that we had to do it with – versus for – children,” he said.
So they added three: Kali de Jesus, Tommy Shepherd III and Maya Fleming, all now teenagers. It worked. The Oakland, Calif.-based collective went on to earn two Grammy nominations for Best Children’s Music Album for their infectious, clever songs that appeal to kids and adults alike.
Now they’ve released a new album, “The Movement,” which features upbeat tracks about restorative justice, Juneteenth, and how to build community by supporting each other.
“Every time they put out a new video or a new song, we play it for our staff because it’s so uplifting,” said Christy Estrovitz, director of youth services at the San Francisco Public Library, who has hosted the Rockers on several occasions over the past decade. “They have a cross-generational appeal.”
On a recent Wednesday afternoon after school, the collective was in their Oakland studio, and the teenagers were tossing verses back and forth at each other.
“I love the riffs,” said 13-year-old Rockers member Maya. She joined the group after her dance teacher suggested she check it out. Like the three teenagers, she sings and writes songs for the new album. “I just do whatever comes to mind that goes with the song.”
Fellow 14-year-old Tommy III is Shepherd’s son and has been with the band all his life; you can see him in the early Rockers videos when he was a kid. He said he joined the group in kindergarten because he felt good about it.
“It wasn’t like I was automatically in the band just because he was my dad,” Tommy III said.
Kali, 13, also joined the group in kindergarten; he and Tommy III are best friends. ” Shit ! I have known him for more than half of my life! Kali said.
Both boys enjoy making hoops and goofing around outside the studio during breaks. But they have a serious side; the songs they contributed to the new album take an unflinching look at systems of oppression.
“I want to inspire kids to be who they want to be in the world without having to think ‘I don’t want to be like a lawyer because I feel like it’s only for white people’ or whatever. thing like that,” Tommy III said of his song “The Change Up.”
“My song, ‘Games’, is about the same thing,” Kali said. “It targets everyone. It really shows the systems that the government is imposing on people in everyday life for who they are.”
The third young member of the group, Maya, said that she originally only thought of herself as a dancer, but being part of the collective has helped her develop other artistic talents. Recently, she performed her song “Our Turn,” about dealing with the chaos of life under COVID-19, during the Rockers’ recent set at a block party hosted by the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture. in Washington, D.C.
“The message they use is one that resonates within the museum,” said Leslie Walker, who oversees social justice and academic programs there. “How they define hip hop as freedom of culture, freedom of expression and use it as a way for young people to talk about social issues and social justice.”
The Rockers perform nationwide, but when they’re at home in the Bay Area, they keep busy with social justice-focused concerts and workshops for children at libraries and schools.
Estrovitz of the San Francisco Public Library said the teenage members are particularly inspiring to his young patrons.
“What’s really cool [is] in recent years they have really seen their young artists [become] ambassadors and role models,” Estrovitz said. “So now I see younger kids looking up, not just to Tommy and Kaitlin, but to the young people.”
The collective hopes ‘The Movement’ will earn them a third Grammy nomination this year for Best Children’s Music Album – this time it might even be a win.
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