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

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

Lil C used music as her escape. When the pent-up anger became unbearable, she used hip hop to express herself. She created a persona that allowed her to be invincible.

But school was another story. When teachers gave up on her and expected her to fail, she gave up on herself. One comment from her physical education teacher stuck with her. The class was playing softball and she decided to sit out because she wasn't feeling well.

"You are never going to amount to anything," the gym teacher told her. "People like you never make it."

High School for Recording Arts, located in St. Paul, serves 225 students using a combination of classroom instruction and independent projects
Nick Vlcek
High School for Recording Arts, located in St. Paul, serves 225 students using a combination of classroom instruction and independent projects
David Ellis, High School for Recording Arts founder, freestyles in one of the school's professional recording studios
Nick Vlcek
David Ellis, High School for Recording Arts founder, freestyles in one of the school's professional recording studios

A family friend mentioned High School for Recording Arts, and Lil C couldn't resist an opportunity to record her music and escape her high school drama. She started at the school in September 2008.

"I was lost and didn't know who I was," she says. "I just needed something new."

In March 2009, Simmons invited her on a school trip to Los Angeles to perform with 12 other students. She had never been outside of the state, and this would be her first time rapping in public. When she came back from the trip, Lil C had a newfound appreciation for school and was determined to make a career in music.

Lil C is finishing her junior year, but is just eight credits away from graduation. She hopes to take post-secondary courses next year and graduate in 2011.

"I do music because I want to get somewhere and prove I am better than what everyone thought," she says. "I know I can do anything if I put my mind to it."

WHEN SILK LESURE isn't behind the studio mic, he's a quiet teen in a hardened shell. Walking tough through the halls with a serious face, the 16-year-old talks in a soft-spoken voice and keeps to himself.

The moment he closes the studio door and puts on the headphones, he comes alive as "Savage." His rap persona dominates the studio space, booming back through the stereos.

Today he was at the mic to record the bumpers for the school's weekly radio show. The pre-recorded 30-minute broadcast airs Sunday mornings on 96.3 NOW.

"What up Twin Cities! This is your host Savage. Today we...." He pauses, rolling his eyes as he trips over the script's wording. "Ugh!"

After a couple of deep breaths, he starts over from the top. Each time he slips up, he sees the small crowd of students slouching in the studio laugh, but can't hear them through the soundproof glass. He smirks, rolling his eyes again and crumpling the script.

Since he learned to talk, Savage used music as his distraction from the chaos around him. But he could only ignore so much. Some of the memories come back before he can stop them.

Savage grew up in his grandparents' home on St. Paul's east side. His grandparents would get high as he watched TV. Nearly every week, there would be a drive-by shooting.

When his grandpa died in 1999, Savage and his four siblings moved out with their mother, who was finally ready to take care of them on her own. The home quickly filled up when his uncle and his four children joined them.

In junior high, Savage took his anger out on other students. The fights were so routine that they've all blended together. By the end of middle school, Savage figured it was easier to just skip class.

Then he found the High School for Recording Arts. Savage started at the high school in February 2009 as a 15-year-old and performed the first week he arrived. When he got up on the stage and rapped, he felt a connection to the crowd and fell in love with performing.

As he watched friends and family members being sent to prison or killed on the streets, Savage realized music provided a better future.

"You don't have to be a thug in the 'hood to be cool," Savage says. "There are other ways to get the females and hang with the homies."

Classmates and staff members became a surrogate family for Savage. He started staying late and came in on weekends—anything to avoid the streets.

Last summer, Savage decided to take on a more serious task: writing a grant for the school so students could create a campaign against teenage distracted driving. For the first time in his life, his teachers trusted him to do a major project with a $100,000 payoff. He had to write a formal grant request to State Farm Insurance laying out exactly what the school planned to do with the money. The process involved trips to the Mendota Heights headquarters to interact with adults living in what felt like an alien world.

Last month, Savage and a small group of students gathered at the school on their day off. Dressed in a collared shirt and dark pants, Savage was part of a small group of students heading out to State Farm HQ to accept the $100,000 check they'd earned.

Before leaving school, the students were up to their normal shenanigans. Savage took the stage, plugged in a mic, and started freestyling as other students finished lunch.

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