[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #1 in August 2005]
by Bonnie Fortune
“If we the people protest for the people, the reflex will be lethal! We can make a change!” says sixteen-year-old fm Supreme, as she hops off the Summer Fest Hip-Hop Arena stage in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Using her mc-ing name, fm Supreme tells me that participation in one of Kuumba Lynx ‘s After School Matters programs have been instrumental in the development of her political voice. Now, the young poet says, thanks to the lessons she learned from the hip-hop influenced program, she writes letters to her alderman, speaks out in poetry slams, and generally stays aware of what is going on in her community and around the world.
Who and what is Kuumba Lynx, and how are they able to influence Chicago’s youth? A love of hip-hop brings the women of Kuumba Lynx together. Kuumba Lynx, or kl, is named for both the Swahili word for ‘creativity’, and for the fierce lynx cat (‘Lynx’ also refers to ‘linking’ together members of a community). Kuumba Lynx is an organization that works to nurture kids’ creativity, encourage their appreciation of schoolwork, and ultimately teach them how to build a more expressive, peaceful, and socially just world. With the motto “We are here with a Mighty Roar!” Kuumba Lynx has brought spoken word poetry, graffiti art, and breakdancing to many Chicago area kids for nearly ten years now.’
Founded in 1996, Kuumba Lynx grew out of the efforts of three artists and community activists who grew up together as Chicago Public Schools (cps) students in Chicago’s predominantly immigrant Uptown neighborhood. Having gone on from high school to continue studying art, theater, and dance in college, Jaquanda Villegas, Jacinda Bullie, and Leida Garcia could not sit by and watch as the cps arts programs that had served them were cut-leaving children without access to affordable arts programming anywhere. At the time, Villegas, Bullie, and Garcia were working as tutors with Respect Awareness, an extracurricular program for “at-risk” students at Stockton School in Uptown. With the support of the Stockton principal, the three friends began using the school auditorium for a free performance and poetry program stressing success in education, and Kuumba Lynx was born.’
Jaquanda, Jacinda, and Leida soon organized Kuumba Lynx with a mission statement and nonprofit status. The kl mission statement was created around the five elements of hip-hop. The first four elements of hip-hop refer to the historically urban art forms that Kuumba Lynx brings to Chicago Public Schools and to Chicago area communities: mc-ing, dj-ing, breakdancing (b-girl/bboying), and graffiti. The fifth element, often described as knowledge and culture, is for Jacinda, “whole heartedly embraced by kl, as the essence of this art and social movement Hip- Hop, universal freedom, that is TRUTH, wisdom, understanding, social consciousness, inner peace, healthy hearts, minds & bodies living in strong communities thriving with love.” For Kuumba Lynx, the fifth element infuses the first four with meaning. With these five elements, kl provides what its leaders call “edutainment,” a concept taken from the famous krs-one album of the same name. Using hip-hop as a framework for their pedagogical approach, kl teachers facilitate discussions about political, environmental, health, and social justice issues–giving students the space to talk about how they feel, to tell stories about their everyday lives, and to explore the relationship between the personal and the political. Students talk about the war in Iraq, violence in the community, young love, family, and the aids crisis, among other issues, as they use hip-hop to define their knowledge.’
The founding members of Kuumba Lynx would eventually join with Chicago-based poet Soyini Strong, and Young Women’s Leadership Charter School humanities teacher Sonja Moore, to round out their roster of teachers and to become a non-profit in 1997. A loving and family-based vibe organizes and unites the women in their passion for their work. They bring their children (all but García and Moore are mothers) to Kuumba Lynx rehearsals and events. The Kuumba Lynx mission statement works with the idea of “positive energy” and “linking” back. They teach by asking the students to speak for themselves and to look within to find the answers they already know. By empowering them this way and giving them the chance to say, “I read this, I write this, I think this,” the teachers at Kuumba Lynx instill their students with the belief that they can do something, that they have agency in their community, and that the solutions to community issues will come from them. Supporting the idea of “linking back,” KL involves community members of all ages in their projects as part of their ongoing effort to create a supportive community where all members can learn from one another. As another part of their effort to build community, Kuumba Lynx often collaborates with other Chicago organizations like Young Chicago Authors, Co-Op Image Group, Connect Force, Street- Level Youth Media, Southwest Youth Collaborative, Chicago Women’s Health Center, the University of Hip-Hop, After School Matters, Girl Talk, and the Chicago Park District, among others.
Kuumba Lynx makes their home base in the Uptown neighborhood as a Clarendon Park Arts Partner in Residence. From Clarendon Park, kl provides both after-school and summer programming. kl works with the youth and their families from ages eight up, and most kids keep coming back again and again to participate in the different workshops and programming kl offers. Some parents become frustrated because their children are spending so much time with “those ladies,” says Strong, but as soon as they see the performances the kids have created, most change their minds.
One recent Kuumba Lynx performance was an extensive multi-phased arts project with the Uptown community, called El Barrio Clock Our Beatz and Rhymez. The successful program involved the crossneighborhood participation of The University of Hip Hop, a non-profit arts program based out of the Southwest Youth Collaborative on Chicago’s South side, Connect Force, “an arts collective serving at risk youth,” and Clarendon Park youth from Uptown. Jacinda describes El Barrio as, “an attempt at preserving community history and individual story through the various artistic elements of Hip-Hop.” The project broke down into phases, with the first phase of El Barrio Clocks Our Beatz n Rhymez going from door to door in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. kl sent youth out to speak to elders about the various historical incidents that have shaped Uptown. Students spent time talking to Uptown residents and community activists, while studying the art forms of “graff and muralism.” The stories the students collected eventually served all phases of the El Barrio project. The first phase was the creation of a collaborative mural made with The University of Hip-Hop and Connect Force. The mural, located in a Malden St. alley in Uptown, is painted on six panels of a neighborhood garage. It shows stories collected by the youth, woven with poetry and bold graffiti-inspired images into a striking anti-gentrification message that urges Chicagoans to remember “diversity is our strength.” The idea for the elaborate mural phase of the El Barrio project, officially entitled Alley Art, was inspired by a Kuumba Lynx trip to California, where their visit to San Francisco’s Mission community inspired a group revelation: “The Mission community had transformed their alleys into a documented history of the people through creating murals on garages and walls. We were like whaaaat?! Man, we gotta do this!!!”
The final phase of El Barrio Clocks Our Beatz and Rhymez was the creation of a play. Jacinda described it as an ” interdisciplinary hip-hop production,” saying that “the play was based on a community story, and was an attempt at preserving the root elements of hip-hop while sharing a well-known (in the Uptown community) story of a young man’s life that was taken too soon by violence.” kl members Eddie, age 17, and Corrie, age 21, were EL Barrio participants, both on the mural phase and the play phase. Corrie described “Granny Survive,” the narrator of the EL Barrio play performed at Truman College, as “the mother of everybody–coming from a time when if you did wrong, the whole block would whip your butt!” The young men, longtime Uptown residents, felt that the EL Barrio project was a tribute to their community, because it describes a community where people help each other out. The students say they will most definitely continue “learning from the women of kl!” Kuumba Lynx works through collaboration and outreach in many Chicago neighborhoods outside of their Uptown homebase. Working as kl West and kl South, as well as Native Lynx-a branch that works with Native American students-they have been successful in sharing their message around Chicago.
With After School Matters, a popular work-study program, Kuumba Lynx is able to bring their message and their creative structure to cps classrooms. Two members of kl West, Linda, age18, and Sean, age 17, speak about their kl experience: “They bring it!” says the pair, who met while participating in an asm program at Westinghouse High School. Linda and Sean created the spoken word duet that they performed at the Summer Fest Hip- Hop arena while participating in the poetry- based program run by kl member Soyini Strong. They brought the message to “Be yourself” to Uptown audience members. “So many things to get out through one line,” says Linda as she goes on to explain how her kl experience has helped her focus her ability as a writer and develop her confidence as a public speaker.
Kuumba Lynx also partners with Girl Talk, a nonprofit organization that reaches out to incarcerated young women by giving them a place to talk. Girl Talk was founded by Wenona Thompson, herself convicted as a young woman. Soyini Strong brings the kl organization and pedagogy to Thompson’s program, working with girls who have been at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center for anywhere between one day and several weeks. Soyini reminds the girls of what they are missing. She says, “I didn’t see any of you. I was on my way here and I didn’t see any of you at the store running errands for your mother or shopping for some new shoes. I didn’t see any of you where you belong.” Guards tell her going in that these are the “worst kids,” angry and ready to fight. Soyini approaches the girls’ tough attitudes with the remark, “Well, if you want to be tough and want to be an adult, then you need to present yourself like one.” Soyini approaches the girls like a mother, and then gives them the space to vent, to yell, to complain, and express themselves.
The Chicago Transit Authority (cta) partnered with Girl Talk to bring the work created by the women of Girl Talk to the city at large. The poems created by the young women are now displayed on cta buses and trains, giving the city the opportunity to hear the voices of the young women they have dubbed “at risk and the worst.” The words coming out of the young women’s minds speak to desires for beauty, peace, and freedom a place to grow up and do well. The women of kl feel that the display of these poems on cta buses and trains spreads the kl message of “positivity”. In their work as educators, Jacinda tells me kl constantly works to combat the pervasive message of most advertising and public commercial displays, which is a “bling-bling, party and bullsh*t” attitude quickly absorbed by the youth they teach. She and the women of kl see the Girl Talk displays as a way to spread a different message, one that is less flashy, but is truer to the real lives led by the young men and women they teach, and in the end a positive way to deal with that life. It speaks to what happens on the block: Are we on the corner? Are we missing from the corner? Who stands on the corner, and what will grow there?
The women of Kuumba Lynx, are mothers, artists, and warriors. At HotHouse, Chicago’s international music performance venue, Jaquanda, Jacinda, and Leida recently received the ‘Womyn In Hip-Hop’ award for their work with youth and their communities. They are working quietly and steadily for change and keeping the stories of their communities alive as they live their lives and raise their families. Throughout the school year you can visit Clarendon Park on the first Friday of every month for Open Mindz poetry slam-and of course there will always be some new project cooking for you to get involved with.