Arts Greenhouse concert gives local high school musicians the stage

The voices of young Pittsburgh artists rang out over the College of Fine Arts lawn this past Saturday in a combination of rap and hip-hop songs. They belonged to the participants of Arts Greenhouse, a hip-hop education program for Pittsburgh teenagers that is affiliated with Carnegie Mellon. The students come to campus every Saturday from September to April to practice making music and to record their songs in CFA’s basement recording studios.

During the performance, students in Arts Greenhouse showcased their work from this semester. There was also a cookout with free food for anyone who came to watch. The soundcheck took a few minutes, and the Arts Greenhouse students wandered around the CFA steps, sometimes participating in the soundcheck, but mainly talking and joking with each other.

One of the goals of the program is to foster community between the high school students themselves, and it seems to have succeeded in that goal. Khalil Sellers, a senior at The Neighborhood Academy, said “[Being in Arts Greenhouse] definitely impacted my life. These guys are my best friends. We’re always hanging out, making music. I’m always collabing with these guys.” Sellers goes by the stage name K.I.P. and plans to pursue music as a full-time career, though he plans to move to Denver after graduating high school to work in design.

Other students concurred with Sellers’s sentiments. Naomi Dowden, a sophomore at the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies, said, “I really like the atmosphere. All these people have the same passion, music.... It’s an open environment that I can escape to.” Dowden occasionally sings, but her main focus is songwriting. She stated that being in Arts Greenhouse helped her discover her talents. “It made me realize the talent I have inside me. It made me realize I always want writing to be a part of my life,” she said. After high school, Dowden plans to attend college in New York City and pursue a career in acting.

After the soundcheck ended, the performances began. The first two songs, “Groovin” and “AG’s Diner,” featured many different students collaborating together. “Groovin” showcased Dowden, Sellers, Sovren Gray, and Imani Jai Chisom, while “AG’s Diner” featured Dowden, Chisom, Gray, and Arthur King. The students were all talented, and the two songs started off the performances well because they both had good rhythms.

Though the group songs were quite good, the individually performed songs that followed were even better. Sellers was up first, performing an original song called “Love Jones.” Sellers had good stage presence and got his audience to sing along with him, keeping them engaged and entertained.

Next up was Obama Academy sophomore Imani Jai Chisom. She also performed an original song, called “Mr. Cigarette.” As Chisom walked up to the microphone, she said, “This song is called ‘Mr. Cigarette.’ I don’t support cigarettes, though.” Only a few seconds into her song, the wind that had been blowing through the crowd pushed her skirt up. Chisom was clearly flustered, but recovered gracefully as her Arts Greenhouse peers encouraged her to sit down and keep singing. So she sat on the stone CFA steps and restarted her song. She had a truly enchanting voice that stood out even among her talented peers, and even though she may not personally endorse cigarettes, she sang about them with a lovely kind of longing.

Another standout performance followed Chisom’s, given by City Charter High School sophomore Montell Frazier. Frazier is a rapper and producer and goes by the stage name Cargo FL. He performed his latest single, called “Bad Guys.” He rapped with a soulful intensity, occasionally stretching his arms out to the crowd. “Bad Guys,” among some of Frazier’s other work, is available to listen to on SoundCloud.

After the last individual performance — Sovren Gray performing a song called “FUBU” — the show returned to a more collaborative format, with four to five students up on the steps at any given time. All the while, the students who were not performing stood before the steps in a tight knot, smiling and calling encouragement to their friends. When performers entreated them to put their hands in the air or sing along, they did so with more enthusiasm than anyone else watching. They filmed each other with their phones and took pictures to immortalize the moment. Eventually, the scheduled songs came to an end, but the students performed more pieces, including a rap battle.

“These kids are like every other teenager,” said Arts Greenhouse co-founder Riccardo Schulz, an assistant teaching professor in the School of Music. “Except — they’re polite. They don’t say ‘like’ after ever other word. They relate well to adults, and they’re not self-conscious about that. They are also very supportive of each other.”

Schulz co-founded Arts Greenhouse with history professor Judith Schachter 12 years ago. Schulz said that he wanted to fulfill a community need. “I decided it would be a good thing to share with the community. There are a lot of young folks who have talent, but no place to record.”

Schulz also stated that he wanted to give Carnegie Mellon engineers the opportunity to interact with people from the greater Pittsburgh community, as well as inspire local teens to pursue higher education. “I wanted to help teenagers find their identity and give them the idea that college is not out of their reach. Yes, you can apply to college. You could go to college,” he said. He spoke of senior business administration major Kai Roberts, a former participant and current mentor of Arts Greenhouse, as an example of an Arts Greenhouse student who decided to pursue higher education at Carnegie Mellon.

Roberts isn’t the only current Carnegie Mellon student involved in Arts Greenhouse. Several students from history professor Nico Slate’s Sustainable Social Change class have become involved with the program this past semester. These students include sophomore global studies and human-computer interaction double major Lucy Pei, junior global studies and professional writing double major Alexandria Hernandez, sophomore economics and statistics, and global studies double major Jillian Ward, junior architecture and global studies double major Andrea Saloman, and senior global studies major Christian Manoli. Pei and Saloman work on student profiles and publicizing the organization, while Hernandez teaches spoken-word poetry.

“The kids are really passionate in a way that’s beyond their years,” Hernandez said. “It’s inspiring to work with them, not for them. They really teach alongside me.” Manoli shared this sentiment, saying, “I like Arts Greenhouse because it transcends the traditional classroom. The students are the teachers, and we’re the students. We talk about a plethora of issues, from politics to music.... The passion is really what draws me.”

This environment of passion drew many Arts Greenhouse students, and many of the students spoke about how Arts Greenhouse has made them feel safe and free to explore their natural talents. Malaisha Thompson, a sophomore at Obama Academy, said, “I like the freedom that we have. Every song is just ours. Well, it’s AG’s, but it’s ours.” Another Obama Academy sophomore, Jada Lowe, said “It’s a cool environment. There’s no judgment here; you’re here to just be free.”

Feeling safe is an important part of a healthy teenage experience, and that comfort is especially important for artistic pursuits. Arts Greenhouse gives talented local teens the space and the means to expand their abilities — sometimes abilities that they didn’t even know they had — while simultaneously allowing Carnegie Mellon students to interact with Pittsburgh residents in a more intimate way. Next spring semester, take a break from finals preparation and check out an amazing community collaboration that produces some quality music.