David Ellis, the founder of High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, walked into the lunchroom fashionably late, chomping on a bag of Doritos as he surveyed the crowd. Two students had just started rapping. By the time the chorus hit, a mob of fans rushed the stage for a chance to freestyle a verse.
"Do you see the joy in these kids?" Ellis says. "They've got relief up there. Music is saving their lives."
Ellis wandered through the rows of tables, greeting students with handshakes and hugs.
"When politicians talk about the achievement gap, they are talking about these kids," Ellis says. "They're pushing them out of traditional schools to better their numbers, and here we are just trying to prove these kids deserve an education. You're not closing the gap; you're hiding it."
Ellis started his own private recording studio in downtown St. Paul in 1994. A former Paisley Park Studio producer, Ellis split off on his own when Prince broke his contract with Warner Brothers.
Teens started hanging out in the skyway near his studio during the week, bugging him for time to record.
"Shouldn't you be in school?" Ellis would ask.
"Nah man, we don't go to school anymore," came the inevitable response. "We just want to rap."
When Ellis finally gave the kids a chance to perform, he was shocked: They had raw musical talent.
So Ellis founded the school. He envisioned a place for students who had dropped out or been kicked out of traditional schools.
"I saw a need in the community," Ellis says. "These students had been pushed out, suppressed, and depressed. They needed positive relationships with adults."
High School for Recording Arts has morphed into a project-based charter school where students take traditional classes and work on independent assignments to earn their high school credits. The reward for finishing early is access to two professional studios to record their original music.
The school's 225-student population represents a hodgepodge of problems. School administrators call them "overage and under-credited," but that doesn't begin to account for all that they are up against. Ellis says the school represents "every child left behind."
Nine in 10 of its students live in poverty. They typically arrive at 17 years old and at least one year behind in credits. Their academic ability is usually at least two years below grade level in basic skills; many possess only elementary-level knowledge in at least one subject.
By the time they get to Hip-Hop High, 39 percent have been kicked out of their previous school and nearly two-thirds have been involved in the criminal justice system. Half don't live with a parent or legal guardian and more than 70 percent are involved in gangs. About 20 percent of the female students are teen moms and nearly half of the male students are already fathers.
"We're dealing with kids no one else is engaging right now," says Paula Anderson, the school's education director and English teacher.
Yet the Minnesota Department of Education is blind to those challenges. The school is judged on its four-year on-time graduation rate, which last year was below 20 percent, one of the worst in the state.
Anderson says it would be impossible for the school to achieve a high on-time graduation rate with students who are so far behind.
"Traditional schools push their 'bad' students out to schools like us," Anderson says. "What would have been a 'drop' is now a 'transfer' on their record."
Tony Simmons, the school's director of development, watches students come in as hardened, uninterested teens, but they light up when they see the studios, he says. Before long, the students are engaged in their core courses and getting back on track to graduate.
"What traditional schools don't realize is that creativity is important to academics," he says. "We take the core essence of who they are, and their energy in school is fed around their creativity."
Phil Winden, the school's studio director, says he watches students turn their lives around through the freedom to be creative through music.
"These studios allow them to express themselves and not act it out in a violent or physical way," Winden says. "They want a chance to be in the spotlight and be heard, and once they know they are being heard, that reinforces their purpose to think about their future."
DOMINIQUE FARRAR entered the school's dance studio crooning like Chris Brown and moon-walking past the mirror. Another student plunked away at the piano while a girl sang along with her iPod.
Once everyone had arrived, the school's media manager tried to focus them on recording a commercial for the weekly "Pick-Me-Up" Friday performance.
Farrar, better known as Dominoe, quickly became the No. 1 distraction. He sent the room into giggles once the camera was rolling.
"Can you put all the lights on me?" Dominoe asked.
"Why?" asked another student.
"Because I'm a star!"
Dominoe had a lot of practice getting a room's attention. When he was an infant, his mother put him and his older brother into foster care. They bounced through seven homes in the first 12 months.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Simmons arrived just in time to settle the students down and get them focused before leaving the school.
"We're going there to handle big business," he said. "If there is any time for us to be serious, this is it."
While the other students goofed off in the State Farm parking lot, Savage kept a straight face.
"It's just really cool we get to do stuff like this," Savage said. "This school has helped me grow into a young man."
Savage is now in his sophomore year, but is a semester ahead in credits. He's planning on applying to Harvard his senior year, but hopes his music becomes a career. He wants to be a major-label rapper by the time he hits 21.
"I don't want to just be another one of my mom's sons that graduate," Savage says. "I want to be that one that takes my family to the top."