“I believe that children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.”
Despite these popularized lyrics that ring true, we live in a society in which there is a general disconnect as it relates to students’ involvement in school. Disconnected and uninspired students often feel separated from learning, curriculum, peers and teachers; oftentimes because of a lack of relatability, paired with an outdated curriculum. Sadly, this disconnection prohibits student engagement and success.
Enter Legends Do Live; a Houston-based non-profit organization comprised of millennials focused on equipping and funding disadvantaged youth and communities through workshop programs and community engagement.
Founded as a multimedia company in 2013 by co-founders Douglas Johnson and Jarren Small, the organization initially focused on interviewing talented artists and individuals who are deemed “Legendary” through their leadership and service to the community. Johnson and Small met at their alma mater, Prairie View A&M University. Through a shared interest in community restoration and repair, the two, along with several other classmates and friends formed the Legends Do Live organization.
Legends Do Live organized its first major event with the premiere of its Senior Fest at the historic Jack Yates High School in 2013. The intent was to celebrate and prepare high school seniors for graduation and college entrance. The fest, which is modeled as a South By Southwest (SXSW) festival for local high school seniors, is a 2-day experience which includes a basketball game between select schools, relevant panels and a star-studded concert. Students are also awarded scholarships throughout the festival. With the help of Legends Do Live’s most consistent sponsor, H-E-B Texas Grocery, the organization produced its largest Senior Fest in 2017 at Small’s alma mater, Hightower High School in Fort Bend Independent School District.
Though the organization places an extensive focus on enriching students, Legends Do Live also understands the importance of motivating and celebrating the teachers who guide the students in classrooms all throughout Houston and its surrounding areas. So much so, that the collective organized its first ever TAW (Teachers Appreciation Weekend) in January of 2018. A play on the Houston Appreciation Weekend (HAW), created by recording artist Drake and his OVO crew, TAW is a 3-day celebration of local educators. Teachers are incentivized to visit and spend money with select Black businesses who offer discounted signature goods in support of TAW. Educators may also apply for a brunch, sponsored by HEB, which concludes the weekend.
Aside from the major success of Legends Do Live’s events for students and educators alike, both Johnson and Small witnessed firsthand that literacy was a major issue in schools. Small recalls his and Johnson’s first jobs out of college: “Doug and I worked as substitute teachers right out of college and we assessed the problems in the classroom there. The environment wasn’t inspiring or relatable for the students.”
Perhaps the Legends Do Live co-founders’ own stories of redemption as youth further ignited their passion to improve literacy and social skills for students. A gifted basketball player, Jarren Small admitted that an inability to pass standardized testing prohibited him from accepting various college offers. Small recalls committing to a personal decision to shift his mentality which led him to eventually pass the standardized test and go on to become the Prairie View A&M University Student Government Association President and land remarkable internships with the city and Black Entertainment Television (BET) Networks. Douglas Johnson, a Brooklyn, New York native had a troubled, gang-affiliated youth and eventually moved to Dallas, Texas with his father before attending Prairie View A&M University and becoming a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., while also creating the first student-run FM radio show at the university.
In an effort to inspire and uplift youth through rap lyrics, literacy and technology, in August of 2018, the two, in conjunction with Legends Do Live created, arguably, the most popular and effective educational program in the city of Houston; Reading With A Rapper (RWAR). Small explained that seeing hip-hop group, the Migos reading Dr. Seuss books inspired him to implement rap lyrics into the improvement of literacy in schools. Johnson added that the two then sat down with two English teachers to craft a curriculum that combines education and entertainment.
RWAR is comprised of co-founders Douglas Johnson and Jarren Small; President and Public Relations Officer, Jordan Lee Harris; Vice President, Music Research and Fort Bend ISD educator, Lauren Poledore; Finance and Accounting, Peter Goudeau; Legal Affairs, Traci Gibson; Music Research, Chelsea Watts; Alief ISD educators Jeremy Gant and Gabrielle Gardiner; KIPP educator, Rodney Alexander and Colby Mullen (DJ Yobi Yobz).
The educators within RWAR serve as specialists who train teachers at various schools in the 8-week curriculum designed to involve students in an interactive learning experience with relatable innovative tools and metrics.
When asked why schools and youth programs should adopt its curriculum, RWAR literature lists the hard facts. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Education, 32 million adults cannot read and write. 85% of all children in the Juvenile Court System are functionally illiterate. There is a clear disconnect between learning and wanting to learn to read. RWAR strives to bridge that gap through its curriculum, which encompasses standard English Language Arts (ELA) metrics including figurative language and sentence structure, infused with the words of popular artists that the student is familiar with.
The RWAR mission firmly believes that if you change the environment, you change the student. Therefore, the program provides students with a unique form of educational escapism. Utilizing glowing wireless noise canceling headphones and rap lyrics accompanied by colorful up lighting to set the tone, students are able to quietly listen to the music that is being studied and focus on every lyric presented. Through its partnership with Microsoft, RWAR also employs Microsoft’s Surface Pro Tablets, where students dissect the content of clean-edited rap lyrics.
Led by Legends Do Live, RWAR has already toured the City of Houston with a series of pop-ups and installations, demonstrating the effectiveness of its curriculum which was created by certified educators. Each stop included a dynamic condensed demonstration for youth and adults. In just one year, the program has twice visited Houston’s City Hall with Mayor Sylvester Turner, (Once, involving the Mayor and City Council in the student demonstration program); partnered with the Microsoft Store Galleria and the Microsoft Corporate Office for numerous demonstrations; and has brought its program to several schools in the Houston ISD, Fort Bend ISD, Alief ISD and Aldine ISD, reaching over 10,000 elementary, middle and high school students.
Deemed “innovative and new” by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, the icing on the cake of the RWAR program is that the organization partners with both national and local artists by having the students study the artists’ music and arranging a surprise visit from the studied partner artist at the end of the eight-week program. The artist engages with the students and provides an intimate conversation about the literacy behind their music and lyrics. To date, RWAR has worked with AJ McQueen, Delorean, Young Deji, Marqus Clae, RCA/Roc Nation artist and Houston-native, Maxo Kream; and Atlantic recording artist Meek Mill.
During Meek Mill’s visit, sponsored by Atlantic Records, Puma and Microsoft, RWAR partnered with the youth members of My Brothers Keeper Houston (MBK), a prison redirect program initiative under President Obama. This special RWAR was in conjunction with Meek Mill’s prison REFORM Alliance, touching numerous youth from MBK and encouraging them to strive to stay out of the prison system.
Alief’s Maxo Kream, who is the latest hip-hop sensation to partner with RWAR had this to say:
“This has been on my to-do list for when I come back to Houston. I’ve seen them working. I saw the one with Meek Mill and I just knew this was something to do to connect with the youth. They see us on TV every day. They see us on YouTube every day. It’s better when we can come out here and see them face to face and give them that inspiration. It’s important because they are the future.”
Within one year, RWAR has undoubtedly become the forefront of the Legends Do Live initiative. The goal is a global impact of connecting literacy and hip-hop through innovation and culture.
Small believes RWAR’s purpose also affects communities in a holistic manner that ties both education and business together. He explains:
“Gentrification begins with schools first. They drain resources from the schools and as a parent, you’re going to do one of two things. Either move your child from the school or move altogether. If you move your kid from a school and schools get funding based on enrollment and attendance, the funding is lowered and eventually drained. Then the property value is lowered because people are moving and no one is spending money in that area. So we want to creatively stop that cycle, while still having fun and educating the youth through good business.”
Find out more about RWAR at www.readingwitharapper.com.
Connect with Legends Do Live at www.legendsdolive.com.