“Our lives begin to end the day that we become silent about things that matter.”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous rallying cry takes on an all-new, heart-wrenching call to action as it’s woven throughout “Things That Matter,” the title track on the newest album from the students in the music technology program at Hill-Freedman World Academy.
The fourth album from Hill-Freedman Music Group, the high school’s record label in partnership with World Cafe Live (WCL), it was produced against the backdrop of the pandemic, protests, and ongoing unrest.
“Hearing the album reassures me, again, of the beautiful hope and possibility that is in our youth and in our high schoolers here in the city,” says Ezechial Thurman, the school’s revered music technology teacher, who oversees the program with support from WCL teaching artists Andrew Lipke, Chill Moody and Kristal “Tytewriter” Oliver, as well as ArtistYear fellow Justin Jaramillo and teaching artist Ikeya Sade.
“It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of resources to be able to create a safe space for students to step in and really express their ideas, like they’ve done in this album. And I’m just thankful to be part of a community that cares enough to do that, a school that makes room for it as part of the curriculum,” Thurman says.
Thurman is also grateful to WCL’s Producing Director of Arts and Learning, David Bradley, and its President and CEO, Hal Real—who, despite the financial hit venues like WCL have faced during pandemic closures, have continued to support the program.
Thurman says that when the School District of Philadelphia and the city went into quarantine, he and his colleagues were nervous about, but committed to, keeping the initiative going, albeit via Zoom.
School principal Anthony Majewski helped Thurman create four “backpack studios”— bags full of $3,000 worth of recording equipment—that Thurman would drop off and pick on the front steps of students’ homes, meticulously sanitizing them before delivering them to the next student.
His team sent microphones from Amazon to other students, to attach to their computers. All of the students made the best of their bedroom environments, draping sweatshirts over closet doors for better acoustics, maximizing whatever technology and instruments were at their disposal.
“Hearing the album reassures me, again, of the beautiful hope and possibility that is in our youth and in our high schoolers here in the city,”
But not every Zoom was about making music.
“There were entire sessions where we just listened and even cried and just allowed students to open up their hearts and talk,” Thurman says. “None of us really had answers except to say let’s hold fast to Hill-Freedman Records’ mission to promote positive change in the world.” The International Baccalaureate (IB) Design program, of which the music technology program is a part, is about solving problems, meeting needs, “bringing change in our world in any way that we’re able to.”
There were harrowing moments throughout the process of putting the album together, as when the school’s secretary, Judith Pope-Gray, tragically died of Covid-19 in June, that made leadership question their decisions.
“At times we worried: Is this crazy?” Thurman concedes.
But students say that seeing the album to completion provided them an outlet, a safe space in which to process and be there for each other.
“My favorite part about it was how people were able to be vulnerable,” says Camya Bradley [no relation to David], a senior with a searingly beautiful voice who’s been part of the program since ninth grade. “Through Hill-Freedman Music Group, I’ve actually gained what feels like another family. It’s helped me grow globally and express myself and open up in ways I probably wouldn’t have done before,” she says.
She recalls one session when a teaching artist broke down crying. “We supported that because we felt that on a deeper level,” she says. “It was really touching. It felt like therapy.”
Listening to the album, which debuted last week and is imbued with raw emotion, is therapeutic as well.
The 20-track production opens with “Show Me,” a song that begins with a young male voice saying: Black Lives Matter … Rest in Peace, George Floyd; it has echoes of Fugees, Childish Gambino.
The title track, the second song on the album, was written and performed by Jehmir Nixon, now a tenth grader; it’s at once catchy and soulful, calling to mind Common, John Legend, even Stevie Wonder. Thurman says that, astonishingly, Nixon created 100 percent of the music and lyrics on his own, without any formal coaching.
“When you bring in someone like Chill Moody to talk about hip-hop, you get a different level of leaning in.”
There’s “Coronacation,” a clever and sprawling track with vocals, horns, and percussion, that samples clips from local news reports in March announcing school closures, and repeats the lyrics we’ve all been thinking: Please get me out of coronacation—please get me out, please get me out!
On “Fake News,” Bradley sings: Everybody is so confused, they don’t know whether they should believe in the news; it’s like it’s the end of the world, people going crazy since the disease unfurled…”
Senior Christian Harrison, a drummer who’s been involved in the program since eighth grade, sees the album as somewhat of a snapshot in time. “This is an album that gives you the insight of children stuck in a situation never seen before by our generation,” he says. “It’s very interesting to see how people interact when they can’t leave their house, and how the inner thoughts of someone’s mind really come out when there’s nothing else to do. I feel like this album sums up what it’s like to be in a country where, for the safety of you and everybody around you, it’s not okay to go outside, and it’s not okay to be together.”
Thurman is quick to shrug off praise, but talk to any of his students, and it’s apparent that he’s a mentor and inspiration to each of them.
Bradley credits Thurman with putting her on a path to a career in music therapy; she’s already been accepted to two college programs. “Mr. Thurman opened my mind to the possibility of doing something in music and being successful,” Bradley says.
Thurman says he strives to expose his students to music experts of all walks.
“I know that there are certain things, musically, that need the right voice to really bring a depth of authenticity,” he says. “I’ve learned as an educator to be a jack-of-all-trades, but I’m a white guy who’s almost 50 years old and has a background in opera, and one of the reasons we’ve gotten things done at Hill-Freedman is that I don’t try to be the know-it-all teacher who says yes I know all about this hip-hop stuff, I’m going to teach you everything I know! The kids [would] smile and listen—they’ve been taught to be respectful—but when you bring in someone like Chill Moody to talk about hip-hop, you get a different level of leaning in.”
And WCL, Thurman says, has set the bar in the arts community in Philadelphia for hiring and compensating these kinds of top-tier teaching artists, enabling them to spend meaningful time with students.
“It’s amazing to me how articulate and how aware and capable of having a very meaningful conversation our teenagers really are.
“We’ve gotten to meet a lot of big people who really understand the music business and are good at breaking it down so that we understand what it takes,” Harrison says. “They don’t sugarcoat it; they give it to you straight and that made me work a lot harder.” After high school, Harrison plans to tour with his band, BlackxNoise, and pursue music producing and engineering.
“Mr. Thurman has really expanded my mind, not only as a musician, but as a student in general,” he says. He feels that music is the purest form of communication. “The emotion that somebody gets from listening to my music, the place they enter when they close their eyes and listen to a song that I have—or anybody has—created, is a transcendent feeling that offers a vantage point on what somebody is really saying.”
And for all that has been said about 2020, the students at Hill-Freedman World Academy, well, they just say it more poignantly, more beautifully, more thoughtfully.
“It’s amazing to me how articulate and how aware and capable of having a very meaningful conversation our teenagers really are. A lot of that ended up birthing the songs that landed on the album,” Thurman says.
In that way, the album is a time capsule, a look at a distinct moment that will forever evoke 2020; in other ways, it’s timeless, a haunting reminder of the ongoing, cyclical problems plaguing our city and our world.
But unlike that more cynical, world-weary adult view, “Things That Matter” ends with a track called “Testament of Time,” in which students including Bradley as well as Mitchell Brown, Jaelynn Pearson, and Samuel Smith sing—wisely, reassuringly—We can’t make the clock rewind/We gotta read between the lines/Cause everything will just be fine.
And then there are the final lines of “Things That Matter,” with Nixon singing:
Unless you say something nothing’s gonna shift or change.
If I don’t speak up, who else gonna do it?
If I don’t speak out, who else gonna do it?
You can complain or you can make improvements.
You can sit around or stand up and start a movement.
Starting a movement. Hm. With their music and their passion and their hopes and dreams and plans, the students at Hill-Freedman World Academy, and the adults who nurture them, already have.