The Education of Santina Protopapa
She wants to bring hip-hop to every school district and every college campus on the planet. And not just hip-hop music ó with Snoop Dogg shilling for Chrysler and Elmo rapping on Sesame Street, it's obvious the music's just about everywhere.
No, Protopapa wants to bring the "aesthetics" and the "ideals" of hip-hop into the schools ó which really means hip-hop artists teaching kids how to work turntables and spin on their heads and coax paint lines of varying widths out of aerosol cans.
And could she have any less street cred? She's a 29-year-old white woman who grew up in Valley View and played flute in the junior high marching band. Yet, as the executive director of Progressive Arts Alliance, she's figured out how to use hip-hop to teach language arts, history, even math.
Maybe Santina Protopapa is out of her mind. Or maybe, just maybe, she's the smartest arts educator Cleveland's ever seen.
At Hathaway Brown School, some students are sitting at a hefty wooden table in a classroom with a fireplace, a grandfather clock, even a china cabinet. Some buttoned-up, tweed-suited teacher could be leading a spirited discussion on Whitman or Shakespeare.
But Protopapa isn't the tweedy type. She wears an outfit you might find in the closet of one of her teenage students: an ankle-length blue skirt, a stretchy white top and chunky black sandals. Protopapa's classic features ó big dark eyes, expressive brows, full cheeks ó evoke some female figure from the ancient world, but it's clear from the words "Grandmaster Flash," written on the marker board, that her cultural interests are much more recent.
"Does anyone know where hip-hop started?" she asks.
"The Bronx," a student answers.
Protopapa smiles. He's the first one to get it right. For all the hip-hop kids hear today, many are surprised to learn it started long before bling-bling and gangstas. Poor kids with turntables started hip-hop, not the marketing strategists on Madison Avenue.
That's just one thing Protopapa teaches at RHAPSODY Hip-Hop Summer Arts Camp, held this year at HB during the first two weeks of August. Here's another: Much of what the campers already know about hip-hop is a distortion by the commercial music industry. Sex sells. Violence sells. Shock sells. So that's why you hear so much sex, violence and shock value in hip-hop songs.
The names Tupac and Ludacris don't come up in Protopapa's lecture. Instead she talks about pioneers DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. "Music and arts programs [in the '70s] got cut in New York because of financial problems," Protopapa tells the campers. "So they took arts and creativity to the streets."
Kool Herc's friends ran extension cords from apartments to jams on street corners and parks. People danced most to the percussion part of the music, called the "break," so Kool Herc played that section over and over on turntables. He called the people who danced to the break "b-boys" and "b-girls." Before long, MCs were giving directions to the dancers. Then MCs became rappers. The rappers got music contracts. Hip-hop moved from the street to the radio.
The hip-hop campers can identify with the tough times Kool Herc and his crew experienced in the 1970s. Many are from Cleveland and East Cleveland public schools, where need is the norm. One of the challenges Protopapa faces is how to educate kids about the positive elements of the music, when they're more familiar with the negative.
"We can't act like that music doesn't exist," she says. "But we can give them the tools to think critically about what the music industry does. ... We show them what else is out there." Hip-hop can be a positive vehicle for self-expression, she says. It can teach children to think critically and progressively.
"Once people see what hip-hop actually is and see how positive it is and how self-confidence building it is, they never turn back," she says.
Hip-hop wasn't Protopapa's first musical interest. Like many kids in Valley View, where she grew up the daughter of blue-collar parents and the oldest of four, she experienced a puppy love for pop. When she got to college, she fell in love, in real love, with jazz. Say the names Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and she leans forward a little more in her chair, starts talking a little faster.
Protopapa's musical inclination probably came from her mother, who played piano and made her start taking lessons in kindergarten. In fifth grade, she started playing the flute. While in the junior high marching band, she discovered the bells and wanted to play them too. Her band director let her borrow a set from the school and learn the flute parts on them. Before long, she was pestering her mother for xylophone lessons.
"My mother told me, ëIf you can find a xylophone teacher, you can take lessons,' " she says. "I called every music store in the phone book that had lessons, and finally I found a student from the University of Akron."
While attending Cuyahoga Heights High School, she spent Saturday mornings taking lessons at the Cleveland Institute of Music. She also played in the Cleveland Youth Wind Symphony. And with her career sights were set on music journalism or public relations, the symphony's conductor encouraged her to attend Case Western Reserve University, which has a joint program with CIM. But she got started on the museum track early, snagging a summer job giving tours at the Steamship William G. Mather Museum, then moving to an internship with Cleveland Museum of Art and eventually to one at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. In 1998, she was still an undergraduate at Case working toward a double major in music and communications when former Rock Hall director Bob Santelli plucked her from the intern ranks, hired her and put her in charge of a major hip-hop conference.
Back then, Protopapa knew little about hip-hop, so she started researching it with the help of Mary Davis, an associate professor of music at Case. Protopapa contacted local hip-hop musicians and MCs, put together an advisory board and attended Vibe magazine's conference in New York. Once Protopapa felt she understood the genre, she imagined what she would do if she were running a conference on jazz, then did the hip-hop equivalent.
It was "the most complex, most risky public program the Rock Hall has done to this day," says Santelli, now artistic director of the Experience Music Project in Seattle. And he gives Protopapa much of the credit for organizing it. The largest hip-hop conference of its kind "should have been a job for the most experienced programmer," but Protopapa's passion and confidence earned her the gig.
The conference lasted three days, hosted 100 panelists from around the world and drew 1,000 people. Panelists and performers included Kurtis Blow, Nelson George, KRS-1, Chuck D of Public Enemy ó even Kool Herc. There were B-boy competitions, poetry slams, discussions and, of course, parties.
Graffiti artist Daze says Protopapa succeeded in pulling together artists who had never met before. He doubts it's something anyone could have pulled off in New York.
"People recognize she has a real commitment to it," he says. "So her integrity isn't questioned."
One thing about hip-hop: It isn't about the individual. "It's about you and me, connecting one to one," Kool Herc writes in the introduction to "Can't Stop Won't Stop" by Jeff Chang. "It has given young people a way to understand their world, whether they are from the suburbs or the city or wherever."
Perhaps Protopapa ingratiated herself with the hip-hop pioneers because she understood this. She did every job, pulled every string, worked out every kink for the benefit of the artists and the attendees. A few months later, an acclaimed graffiti artist, Skeme, presented her with skeleton keys to the New York subway ó the ones he used to get into the trains in the early days. She says he first gave her the keys in private, then took them back so he could give them to her in public, at another Rock Hall hip-hop event.
"People were out of their seats," she recalls. "They were wanting to touch them."
Protopapa still meets people who remember her from the conference. There are times, especially when she's in New York, that she gets the "Who are you and what are you doing here?" look. But those awkward moments don't last long. Someone always speaks up for her: She's Santina from the conference.
"It changed my life," Protopapa says. It also taught her about hip-hop's power to reach children in ways traditional education programming cannot. Artist-educators from PAA use hip-hop to teach everything from history to poetry. The rappers are masters at rhyme scheme, for instance, and their music can be used to help students understand simile and metaphor.
"We've used hip-hop to teach English language arts, math, social studies," Protopapa says. "We'll take a Robert Frost poem and say it to them as a rap and the kids think that's cool. ... Rappers are using devices even Shakespeare used."
Kids learn rappers need to be smart. Robert Crump, 17, this year's "outstanding camper," says he's been reading the dictionary to learn new words.
"With MC-ing [rapping], the words come to you, but the same words get tiring," says Crump, who attends East Cleveland's Shaw High School. "You've got to better your vocabulary."
That adults don't always get hip-hop, let alone hip-hop as a learning tool, isn't surprising, says Santelli, who says he faced the same sort of resistance when trying to build educational programs around rock music a generation ago. "That kind of education program isn't intended for you," he says. "But for the kids it's designed to reach, it makes all the sense in the world."
Take the kids Andy Kenen teaches at Kenston High School. Kenen, a language arts teacher and musician, met Protopapa when she was still an intern at the Rock Hall, where he works on the education committee. He didn't like hip-hop back in 1999, but he attended the conference because his students ó both white kids from Bainbridge and black kids from Chagrin Falls Park in Auburn Township ó love it.
The conference taught him about the hip-hop he didn't know, the one Protopapa resurrects in her lessons. So Kenen started a Hip-Hop Day at the high school, where Protopapa lined up people to teach graffiti art, breakdancing, DJing and rapping.
"She's the organizer," Kenen says. "She's the one who keeps everyone legit."
Even when the Bainbridge police chief sent him a letter equating anything made
with an aerosol can to vandalism, "it didn't stop us from continuing," he says. They just reinforced the message that graffiti is art and "you don't go painting up the town."
After three years and a change of administration, Hip-Hop Day ended at Kenston High. Kenen still shows students in his "Literature of Popular Music" class important films about the genre.
Talking about hip-hop in an educational setting "qualifies the music [the students] are listening to," he says. They learn to express their likes and dislikes more clearly. "We have a rule," he says. "You can't say something ësucks.' ... Don't tell me you don't like it. Say why you don't like it."
After the success of the hip-hop conference, Protopapa, as education coordinator, tried to build more programs around hip-hop. But Santelli left for the Experience Music Project in 2000, and her programs at the Rock Hall kept getting cut. She had envisioned starting Progressive Arts Alliance in 2001, but couldn't move forward while working full time.
So she quit her Rock Hall job and moved from her University Circle apartment into her parents' house to save money.
"When I was working at the Rock Hall, everyone was real proud of me," she says. "[My parents] still think I'm crazy for leaving a secure job to start Progressive Arts Alliance."
Although she had worked at several nonprofits, she knew little about how to start her own. It was a learning curve maybe even greater than the hip-hop conference. Protopapa looked up "how-to" information on the Internet, took lessons at the Foundation Center and even enlisted the help of students from the Case law clinic. Her first major program was the hip-hop camp, which attracted media attention and funding. She also started "Music of My Mind: Creating Musical Biographies," a film camp where students work with the residents of Judson at University Circle making documentaries about their lives using the music of their generation as the focus.
Progressive Arts Alliance was incorporated in 2002. Last spring, Protopapa brought Daze and Mode 2, internationally known graffiti artists, to Shaw High School to help vocational students learn how to make art out of aerosol. (They also did a mural with Max Hayes students at Cleveland Public Theatre while they were in town.) Daze oversaw the mural for the public safety program. It was designed on boards that would be erected in the new school building that's being built.
While a half-dozen students hovered over the outline of the mural, a teacher explained that the school was having some trouble with "tagging," kids marring steps and walls with graffiti. She hoped Daze and Mode 2 would help show the kids the difference between destructive tagging and real graffiti art. One student, Kevin Martin, then 17, said nonchalantly that he had tagged light poles and garbage cans in the past. But he seemed to take real pride in the mural he was helping make for the school ó a portrait of police officers, firemen and their vehicles.
"It's a part of life for me," he says of graffiti. "It's art to me."
More and more it seems, Protopapa's name is popping up in conversations about up-and-comers in the arts. She's thrilled that in the first six months of 2005, PAA brought in $70,878 ó more revenue than in all of 2004. The George Gund Foundation, the Cleveland Browns Foundation and Key Bank were among those that have supported the organization. (Total revenue for 2004 was $62,333, she says. In 2003, PAA ended the year owing Protopapa $4,724, a loan she had given it before it was incorporated.)
PAA is doing more programs and making more appearances than ever, including at the Ingenuity Festival this September, where students from hip-hop camp performed. But Protopapa still earns about $7,000 less than she did when she was a Rock Hall staffer. In fact, this was the first year she could start paying herself a salary. She doesn't have office space or health insurance. And until she got in a wreck in late September, her friends often saw her driving around with speakers and other equipment in her 1994 Mazda ProtÈgÈ.
"This is the clearest labor of love I've ever seen," says Mary Davis, a PAA board member.
"Santina's made serious sacrifices to make sure it works," PAA artist-educator David McCullough adds. "She would do all the work and take none of the pay so more students could go to camp, so artists were paid."
Santelli says she once confided in him that she had considered going to New York and trying to make it as a musician. While moving to New York is "the ongoing jazz musician's dream," Protopapa says she's committed to PAA. She keeps her jazz chops up by playing the vibraphone with a jazz-funk band, the Aphrodesiatics.
Protopapa seems less driven by ego than many musicians. Much less. She even lobbied to make this story focus on her organization instead of her. With everyone trying to cash in on hip-hop, Protopapa's selfless love for the culture resonates well with kids and hip-hop's founders.
"It must be because she's authentic," Davis says. "There's no gain in it for her. That must be how she gets to them."
Protopapa circles the table at hip-hop camp, seemingly oblivious to her hair unraveling from its chopstick-bun. By the end of the class, the students have learned plenty of hip-hop-related things ó what New York was like in the '70s, that tight jeans were in fashion before baggy ones, the terms "looping" and "electrofunk." Some students have even danced in their seats to the "break" in a James Brown song.
Crump says Protopapa's hip-hop history lesson made a huge impression on him. When his group was deciding what to paint for its graffiti project at camp, he wanted to make it meaningful. He argued against the "In Da Club" theme the majority wanted because he thought the image of a bunch of kids having fun inside a club wasn't true enough to hip-hop's roots.
"The culture's not in the club," he says. "The culture's outside." n
12:00 AM EST
October 25, 2005