Hip-hop, rap and videography might not fit the mold of traditional high school music and arts programs. But thanks to a librarian’s belief in an implausible dream, at Tulsa’s McLain High School for Science and Technology, 4929 N. Peoria Ave., these courses dance alongside offerings like band and choir.
In late 2019, McLain librarian Michelle Stevenson partnered with local rapper Steph Simon to create a music studio at the school called Titans Records after the McLain mascot.
For Stevenson, the project was about expanding opportunities for students and increasing school pride. “I want kids to be excited about their school,” she says. “I want the community to say, ‘Oh, our school’s amazing because they have this program and that program.’
“I want kids to have access to something they wouldn’t have ordinarily, I want them to be able to pursue their interests. If it’s music, great, if it’s producing, great; I want them to find their niche.”
But when Stevenson and Simon decided to try to build a music studio and teach classes on hip-hop, videography and other related subjects, they faced serious obstacles.
Descending oil prices from 2014-2018 resulted in financial turmoil in Oklahoma and colossal budget cuts across the state. Public schools felt the brunt of the financial crisis with deep slashes, especially in elective classes.
Oklahoma Policy Institute reported 1,110 fine arts classes were cut in the 2017-18 school year. Over 28% of Oklahoma students had no fine arts classes at all.
The impact was felt most deeply among economically disadvantaged urban and rural schools. Cuts to fine arts programming caused many school districts to look beyond state funding to support their students and their artistic endeavors.
Stevenson says because of these barriers, the idea seemed implausible at first.
“Toward the beginning of the year (2019) I mentioned to someone in passing about wanting to do a studio, but it was a big dream — a one-day type of thing, like if I win the lottery,” Stevenson says. “I just didn’t think much of it. I had a plan for trying to get equipment, but it was a far-off plan.”
A fellow teacher suggested the partnership because Stevenson and Simon went to school together. The pair met at Hawthorne Elementary school as students and both went to Carver Middle School.
She and Simon set to work, and through the generosity of McLain alumni donations as well as technology grants the school receives, Simon and Stevenson were able to fully fund their endeavor.
For now, the studio can be accessed during students’ free time, but Stevenson and Simon are trying to get a curriculum approved by the state so they can provide students with a class and credit toward graduation.
Though this might have seemed impossible just some years back, Simon says, “It’s time for hip-hop to be taught just like Black Wall Street is finally being taught in the curriculum. It’s time for hip-hop to finally be implemented as an extracurricular activity just as much as the debate club.”
As a key player in the Oklahoma hip-hop scene, Simon has pioneered the World Culture Music Festival, the largest hip-hop festival in the state, which is held in Tulsa, and he hopes to incorporate his knowledge of hip-hop and entrepreneurial experience into the coursework.
“I feel like with this one course I can (help) change the whole landscape of the school because I feel like I did that with my music in the city,” Simon says. “If I can do that in a school that is supposedly ‘bad’ and make it where kids want to go, that’s my goal.”
Tyree Brooks, an 18-year-old senior and co-host of McLain news show “4929 News,” views the studio as an extension of his interest in media and believes it will be a platform for students to share their art.
“I think it’s exciting because as a student some people say McLain isn’t the best, but we have a slogan our principal says, ‘Let’s make McLain great.’ We don’t see ourselves in the past, we see what the future holds for us.”