Arts festival gets a good rap

Jean McLeish tunes into an inspiring month-long project on street poetry, song, music and dance

Jean McLeish

Ten-year-old Taylor Lumsden is slightly apprehensive about performing her first rap. "Do I have to do it in a rappy voice?" she asks with a nervous giggle.

She needn't worry - the voice comes effortlessly.

"I go to Fishermoss School. And it is really cool. And all the girls rule. I say hip hop we rock. Raise your hands up to the top," says Taylor, who's in Primary 6.

Taylor is one of nearly 100 children from three primary schools spending their Saturday at a performing arts festival run by Aberdeenshire Council at Portlethen Academy. It is the finale of a month-long project on street poetry, song, music and dance funded by the Youth Music Initiative.

It all looks pretty "cool" for anything to do with school - students are in casual weekend clothes, enjoying DJing, songwriting, dance and skipping workshops. There is even a session on graffiti art in which they create displays for an evening performance of Imagine Dat - The Hip-Hopera, when the younger children will join a cast of teenagers and young people.

"The Youth Music Initiative's intention is to give every P6 child in Scotland an opportunity to do a year's free music," explains David Atherton, arts education officer for Aberdeenshire Council.

"In Aberdeenshire, the bulk of it is based around the Kodaly singing and music programme. But we have extra intervention-type projects based on more unusual music forms that young people perhaps don't have an opportunity to get involved in."

So, as well as today's festival, which is open to children from P2 upwards in three Portlethen cluster schools, there's also a Sonic Postcards venture introducing them to sound recording, sound engineering and composition, along with projects for children with special educational needs.

Today's workshops are for Fishermoss, Newtonhill and Portlethen primaries and are being led by hip-hop artist and musician M.C., of Millennium Child Entertainments, along with tutors from Hip-Hop School Scotland.

Tonight's play has been performed before in theatres in the North East and at the Aberdeen International Youth Festival. "It's written almost like a musical, so there's no spoken words - everything in the play is in the form of rap or street poetry," says M.C. during a quick break between workshops.

Even usually reluctant boys are up for the kind of dance sessions taking place this afternoon. "We have a number of dance projects running in Aberdeenshire and there's quite a lot of very good private dance classes as well. But it's only this kind of hip-hop activity that encourages young boys to get involved," Mr Atherton says.

Elsewhere, artist Penny Downes is working with 10-year-old Murray Sinclair and his classmates from Fishermoss Primary. "This is so young people can have the opportunity to try some different workshops and to create things," Penny says.

And in a nearby Skip Hop workshop, Portlethen Academy student Megan McKenzie is teaching 10-year-old Lauren Macintyre from Newtonhill Primary to skip. The two are using one rope between them: "We're doing skipping together so after one, two, three, go ..." Megan says.

M.C. has been working on music and street poetry on the theme of respect and identity with P6 children from these Portlethen schools for the past four weeks and says he has noticed a growing confidence among children such as Taylor and her classmates.

"Even just this past few weeks we've had a lot of people say, 'I feel more confident now - I speak to people more and I feel more enthusiastic,'" M.C. says.


Encouraging children to write about what's important to them helps their writing and gives them an outlet for their feelings, according to hip-hop artist and musician M.C., who has been working with primary children on themes of respect and identity, promoting confidence and citizenship, in line with Curriculum for Excellence.

"They had to write about what respect means to them in schools. Some children hadn't thought about that. Everybody knows the word 'respect' - but ask them to really tell you what it means and they have to really think about it," he says.

"We've been working on poetry and music and then putting it together and performing it in their schools," he adds.

M.C. believes his music and song-writing workshops help to enhance the children's creativity. "A lot of kids, when they write, don't understand that it could be so much easier if they write about stuff that matters to them.

"With rap or hip-hop - because hip-hop is a form of expression - and whether you're dancing, singing, DJing or rapping, it all comes out and it's almost like a weight off your shoulders sometimes. It's almost like, 'Ah, I can breathe - I feel free again.'

"It's almost like it's a way to express yourself and I think in conjunction with the traditional stuff it works better. I think that's why a lot of schools are open to us coming into their schools and working with them, because we're not coming in to take over - we're working with them."

M.C. is a former artist-in-residence in Aberdeenshire schools. One of the young people he worked with eight years ago in Brechin is working with him on today's project at Portlethen Academy.

"He's a sound engineer now," says arts education officer David Atherton, "so he is doing some sound engineering with the primary pupils. It's nice to see that kind of continuity."

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Jean McLeish

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