High School for Recording Arts gives students chance at hip-hop career

Founder David Ellis says school represents 'every child left behind'

When he met Toya Farrar in Maplewood, his life became considerably more stable. She adopted Dominoe and his brother while she continued to take in more foster kids. Sometimes the home would be packed with 10 children at once.

By kindergarten, Dominoe was rapping about school hot dogs, tetherball, and being a Twinkie hustler. His idol was Pigeon John, a Christian gospel artist. When his sister went to Pigeon John's concert, she came home with an autograph signed to "Dominoe Jones." The name stuck.

Dominoe managed to keep up academically until middle school. His mother homeschooled him to help him refocus, but by the time he started at Agricultural and Food Sciences Academy in Vadnais Heights, he had completely lost interest in going to class. He failed freshman and sophomore years, and seemed doomed to drop out as a junior.

Tony Simmons, the school's director of development, says students open up when they connect through music
Nick Vlcek
Tony Simmons, the school's director of development, says students open up when they connect through music
School spirit: Savage, Lil' C, and Dominoe
Nick Vlcek
School spirit: Savage, Lil' C, and Dominoe

He had all the material possessions and family trips he could want, but his mom didn't have enough attention to go around. New foster children had been cycling through the home since he was an infant. One argument with his mother became so heated that the police showed up on a report of yelling at the residence. Dominoe decided to take a walk to cool off. When he came back, the fight erupted again, this time even worse than before.

The verbal argument escalated into a shoving match, and Dominoe pushed his mother over a pile of clothes. She called the police and Dominoe was thrown in the St. Paul juvenile detention facility.

He spent three weeks in juvie, but it felt like three years. He ended up with a misdemeanor for domestic dispute.

The day he was released, Dominoe ran into a friend in his neighborhood.

"You know your girlfriend's pregnant?" his friend asked.

Now that Dominoe had to care for someone besides himself, he knew he had to turn his life around.

Soon after, Dominoe performed at his high school's talent show. When he left the stage, his principal pulled him aside.

"You've really got some talent," she said. "I think I know of a school that might be better suited for you."

The principal told Dominoe about what High School for Recording Arts had to offer: professional studios, independent study, and musically inclined students.

Dominoe was sold, but his mother was skeptical. She didn't want to send Dominoe into an urban school when he was already struggling academically.

But she agreed to take him to the school for a visit. When Dominoe walked in, his eyes lit up.

"When I came to this school, it changed my whole direction; I wasn't going anywhere," Dominoe says. "Now I know I want to be part of the music industry."

His daughter, Danasia, was born in July. Dominoe doesn't date Danasia's mother anymore, but he goes to visit his daughter several times a week. He started working weekends at Arby's to help support her. He is on track to graduate this June.

Dominoe hopes his music will get him somewhere, but he plans to take courses at a nearby community college just in case.

"I have to hit big, and quick," he says. "I have to pull myself together so I can take care of my daughter."


CASSANDRA SHERRY-ROJAS, better known as Lil C, sat hunched over the computer keyboard in the school's recording studio. Sporting sweatpants, a baggy T-shirt, and Air Jordans, she stood up and started pacing the room.

Lil C had a serious deadline to meet.

Ellen Degeneres had seen the school's music video in support of Haiti—as had 300,000 viewers on YouTube—and invited the students on her show. The producers asked for covers of popular songs, but Lil C insisted on doing an original. That meant she had to write a new song and set it to a beat before she went home. The lyrics flowed as quickly as she could type them into her cell phone:

Tell me what you see when you look at me

I'm not the ordinary person you want me to be

I've been through the struggle but I still survive

Even through all the pain I still get my pride

I came from the bottom now I'm rising to the top

I hit the ground running with no intention to stop

Lil C grew up on St. Paul's east side with her mom and older brother. Her dad has been in and out of jail for numerous drug offenses.

When Lil C was four years old, her mother started dating a man who became very abusive. He moved into their home and destroyed her mom's finances. The family eventually lost their home and had to bounce between drug houses around town.

At eight years old, Lil C watched one argument spiral into a physical altercation. She was accustomed to the screaming, but froze when she saw the man go for her mom's neck. He started choking her, and Lil C stood in the background feeling helpless. Her mother collapsed to the ground, unconscious. Lil C thought she was dead.

She came to. She would live, and the man would stay in her life.

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