Soul Genesis hopes to reengergize hip-hop by lending it a life-affirming purpose.
Officially, Ewell, Grayson and Green--all educators who grew up on hip-hop--started Soul Genesis in January in response to the media's bombardment of negative images and their impact on youth.
Green, 31, tells a story of running an after-school tutoring program, and "seeing how much the images students were receiving from the media were literally combating our attempts," he says. "It wasn't cool to go to school, let alone some after-school tutoring program. It's not cool to be smart. It's not cool to learn to read well. It was to the point where we developed a module about self-esteem building, telling the young ladies you're not just a B or a ho, but there's something more to you."
The impact crystallized with the hit song "Laffy Taffy."
Green remembers being at a wedding in 2005. When the song came on, a flower girl jumped on the dance floor and started gyrating like a stripper in training, encouraged by the crowd.
"I'm watching the scene unfold, and I'm seeing a little girl who in her unknowingness is seeing images of objectification, of 'you're valuable by what your body can do,'" he says. "It seems like such an innocent scene, but multiply that by thousands of little girls who are receiving this image over and over and over. That's one of the most destructive ways for a person to grow up."
Simultaneously, Green says, the industry released two amazing albums: Little Brother's The Minstrel Show and De La Soul's The Grind Date, albums the Soul Genesis founders all shared and still love, that they say should've been contenders for hip-hop album of the year, but were getting no mainstream play. On the website they describe the slight as "criminal, unacceptable, unforgivable, a travesty."
"These other albums had all kinds of much more balanced images, more positive images and just great music," says Green, "but meanwhile this girl knows 'Laffy Taffy.' What we kind of converged around is that there's a problem in our media that needs our immediate attention."
For Ewell, 36, director of the Baeo/Gates Small Schools Project, the realization was more personal when he came across his then-15-year-old son's rhyme book.
"I'm looking at it, 'Nigga I'll murk you,' and I'll do all this, and I'm like, word? Like where are you, at Martha's Vineyard every summer, is that where you're gonna do it? At your basketball camp and your sheltered life?"
Ewell says he grew up poor in the heart of the ghetto to a single mother and a father addicted to heroin. He says he and his wife, a psychiatrist at the Baltimore police department's central booking, along with his son's mother, work hard to "provide him this lifestyle that I totally didn't have," he says.
"But what that did for me," he says of his son's rhymes, "along with the work that I do in these schools, I saw that for young people, young black males in particular, it's so not cool to be smart. School is to emulate your favorite rapper, talk slick and disrespect sistas. I realized that we need new images. We need a greater balance of images we're feeding our people."
At a recent SoulGen focus group, where about 10 people gather in Ewell's Mt. Airy living room over pizza, Grayson, a 27-year-old former radio personality and network television producer who now works as a youth development program director at a Philadelphia nonprofit, explains his goal for creating SoulGen is to make conscious cool.
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He tells the group about his trip to the barbershop before the meeting, where hip-hop videos played nonstop on the TV.
"And this song 'A Bay Bay'--do y'all know it?" which draws a collective moan. "And people were like, 'That's my joint.' Sitting there, I had an 'I have a dream' moment," he says, garnering a laugh from the group. "What if we could get to the point where instead they played 20 artists like Talib Kweli in a row?
"These days it's actually a dilemma," he continues. "People have a conundrum: Should I be conscious or unconscious? We want to bring it to the point where people realize there are alternatives for them, and then we wanna take the 'alternative' off to the point where these things are the norm."
Over the past several months Soul Genesis has held focus groups throughout the country, and in addition to music, participants brought up concerns about social issues like crime, education, prison reform and even global warming. They wanted to do more--something meaningful--but didn't know what, how or when.
It was through those discussions that SoulGenLife took shape. The site defines it as "doing what you can where you are." The link features discussion groups on the day's news, featured issues and action members can take.
PW's Summer Guide 2015