“While the pursuit of musical excellence and understanding it is an important aspect of our work, a student’s ability to take musical risks and to experience vulnerability through the creative process while developing confidence in their ability from these experiences is equally important.”
Coming out of Oakland, Ensemble Mik Nawooj are one of the most groundbreaking musical acts going today. Their combination of a classical orchestra with conscious hip-hop is wholly unique, bending boundaries and forging a product that is at once fluid and brilliant.
I recently spoke with Ensemble Mik Nawooj’s composer JooWan Kim, rapper MC Sandman, and the Boston Music Project’s Executive Director Christopher Schroeder about how this collaboration came to be, the origins of both the orchestra and the nonprofit, conducting workshops on Zoom, and what each of them hopes students and people take away from this experience.
How did this collaboration between Ensemble Mik Nawooj and the Boston Music Project come together? Who reached out to who first?
Christopher Schroeder: I reached out to them on Instagram, they got back to me within a day and we started a conversation about what this could be. I have been following Ensemble Mik Nawooj in just my own teaching practices and a lot of the work I’ve been doing has been working with inner-city and urban youth on trying to create music from the resources that are available. Part of that was trying to empower a group of students that might have a trombone, a trumpet, a clarinet, a bucket, some sort of triangle thing and make music out of those instruments. It also gives them the tools to be able to create original content, so in that pursuit we were looking for examples of innovative and creative ensembles that were breaking the boundaries on what an ensemble could be. We were looking at bands like Snarky Puppy and a couple other contemporary groups and we settled on Ensemble Mik Nawooj because we really think they have a cool concept.
You got a pianist, two MCs, a lyric soprano, clarinet, flute, violin, cello, and the list goes on with JooWan on piano. It’s such a cool sound that you don’t usually hear in traditional music education systems and communities. We used them as a basis for inspiration that you could be an ensemble and it doesn’t matter who’s in the room but together there are artists who are being creative. Then we started to write music.
JooWan and Sandman, when it comes to the origins of Ensemble Mik Nawooj, what came first, the classical orchestra or the hip-hop MC? How were you able to meld these worlds together?
JooWan Kim: It actually started as me protesting against concert music because at the time I was pursuing my master’s degree at a conservatory in San Francisco and I felt like the kind of studies I was doing were about aesthetics. Writing a certain way, using certain techniques to be avant-garde and I felt like it was really weird that I had to be prescribed in a way to write avant-garde when it actually goes against the whole idea of it. Secondly, I thought the things I was doing at school and the more I studied, the more it was alienating to people. There’s this subterranean idea that pushes composers that are trained at the master’s level, which is that we must invent new musical language. This musical language is always top down; imagine a couple guys come together and invent pig latin while expecting everybody to speak it, and if you don’t speak it then you’ll be branded as a stupid person.
I just didn’t buy it at all. If you think of it as a language like Esperanto, which is totally invented, and you went to the second or third generation of practitioners of the language you would be so far apart from the initial model that you can’t communicate. Language is evolving and it evolves through the practice of people. I always felt that it must be something that’s bottom up and I found my answer in hip-hop. When I was in school I didn’t know anything about hip-hop and that was a long time ago.
I came to the United States when I was 20 years old from South Korea and I didn’t really get it at first but I knew that my teachers hated it so I wanted to use hip-hop to piss them off. I had this proto sort of piece with very similar instrumentation and then at the end there was an MC coming in for this departmental composition show that took place once a semester at the conservatory. It was a big deal and I basically gave them a gigantic middle finger to tell them that I was out of it. My goal was to piss them off, which I achieved, and I think the surprise for me was that there was a full page writeup on it in a pretty significant newspaper and everybody loved it. The non-classical people loved this stuff and then I got into hip-hop, I started listening to it very intently and I began to respect it as if I was listening to contemporary music that I didn’t understand.
There’s a bunch of stuff that’s actually not that great but it’s packaged really well so you have to listen to it, subjugate yourself like a masochist, hit yourself and maybe you’ll like it. I did the same thing, I didn’t understand hip-hop at first and I would listen to it twice or three times. I would write down why I didn’t like it and why I did like it and then I would move on to the next piece. The piece that really changed me and converted me was N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police.” I felt like I was dipped into the river of hip-hop and totally reborn as a free musician.
That was a journey of me seriously looking at hip-hop, the structure of it and trying to build concert music. Lets face it, it’s not hip-hop music that needs help, it’s classical music because no one listens to it. I had a conversation with a colleague recently and they told me how classical music is so much of a white thing and it’s honestly not even that. I know a lot of white Americans who hate classical music but it’s just really European stuff. We have this rich history of pop music coming out of blues, turning into jazz and all this stuff is happening here and it’s coming from the black community.
MC Sandman: Along the way, JooWan and I met. Coincidentally the first song we ever did together was called “First Song” and I thought that it was something interesting. I’ve always liked performing with live instrumentation and being involved in an acoustic classical ensemble at the time piqued my interest. The first song was in four, which was a time signature I wasn’t used to writing in so I just took it as a challenge. At the time, we actually had two other MCs involved and we were called The Attic but as time went on one individual fell off and we just kept going because we thought the music was good, it’s an interesting project and it’s challenging. Challenging in the way that I got to do things that I had never done before in the context of writing.
Case in point, in a song we have called “Hope Springs Eternal” where the verse goes from 5/4 to 2/4 to 3/4 back to 4/4, I had to call JooWan up about the changes when I first started writing to them to see if he meant to do it that way. I thought it was really weird at first and then I decided to do my best to write lyrics to it and it came out to be one of my favorite pieces. I think from that point on it’s what really made me want to continue doing this and here we are.
It’s a really interesting project and I love the inventiveness and boundary pushing that goes on musically with each song. It’s the melding of two styles that you never thought could meld together but when they do it’s a beautiful thing. Christopher, what’s the story behind the Boston Music Project and how did you get involved? Do you have an extensive career in youth music education and this gravitated you to the organization?
CS: Boston Music Project is a nonprofit that supports Boston public schools by providing resources for music education to under resourced schools that otherwise wouldn’t have it available to their students. Our mission is committed to ensuring long-term social, emotional and musical success of the children that we work with. Part of that is really unpacking musical excellence, social emotional development, civic engagement and creative self-expression. This project seats right in the middle of the latter two while enabling us to figure out opportunities for kids to have agency in their own work, to be able to collaborate with artists at the level of Ensemble Mik Nawooj and produce something that the public can enjoy. The whole journey of pursuing musical excellence, developing those social skills, talking about social issues and then having opportunities to exercise their creative energy in public facing projects is something that we strive for.
The story behind the organization is that for the last nine years it started out of one school that wanted music education and it has since expanded. When I came on board as the Executive Director, we had 150 students and 17 teaching artists that I was overseeing. Over the last two and a half years, the majority of my time has been navigating the Boston Music Project during the COVID-19 pandemic and we now have over 230 students, 62 of which are special education students, with a team of 27 teaching artists and seven college interns. The last three years has seen an increase, which has also included community engagement. We went from three concerts a year before I came into the organization to having 36 events that we did pretty regularly around the city prior to the pandemic.
During my first year we were performing for the mayor’s state of the city address in Symphony Hall with a 40 piece elementary school orchestra. We performed at the State House for Aaron Michlewitz through his invitation, who is a State Representative. We were also putting concerts on at the Boston Public Library that were organized and performed by the students, so in that space they were the experts in these authentic performances that they helped to curate and prepare for. When the pandemic hit, obviously we were trying to figure out how we could move forward. Our short response was in four days we launched weekday morning music programs so the students we were working with at the time received five days of music instruction from 8-9am starting on March 18th of last year.
From there we’ve been just trying to ideate on which innovative and creative approaches in music education that we could deliver virtually. One of those projects that came to be was a focus on digital music composition and that really opened up this creative language for us. Having students learn about the various elements of the music through loops and whatnot and then learning about orchestration, learning how to create their own arrangements of these loops and then thinking about how to add acoustic instruments to it and spoken word. The project that really solidified our creative thinking around this was “Caged Bird”, which is a music album that we released with 25 eighth graders from Boston Public Schools at the Quincy Upper School. It challenged the students to reflect on what freedom meant to them and how to persevere in those times when you feel caged.
The poem that we used as a source of inspiration for this is Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” which talks about this juxtaposition of the free bird versus the caged bird and how one claims the sky their own while the other is unheard on a distant hill. Using that analogy, it gave us an opportunity to dig into the real issues that students are dealing with and begin that conversation of how do we heal? How do we cope with the challenges that we’re experiencing during the pandemic along with the multiple epidemics that our society is experiencing right now? It created this beautiful project for us to showcase student work and I sent it to Ensemble Mik Nawooj to see if they were interested in doing something like this with youth. I showed them an example of what we produced to see what we could do together.
It’s a great story and this whole workshop concept is amazing, I’m really astounded by it. Speaking of the workshops, COVID-19 is still around and affecting our everyday lives so obviously these workshops are going to be done virtually. How do you plan on presenting and conveying them? Will they be done through Zoom or will they be conducted through a different platform?
CS: The format will be delivered via Zoom, there’s a registration with a pay what you can type of thing and there’s a suggested donation of $10. The idea is just coming on Zoom and being able to connect with Ensemble Mik Nawooj in a more intimate capacity.
JK: The first workshop is The History Of hip-hop & The Craft Of Rhyming. Oftentimes, when hip-hop is presented it’s presented as a cultural thing, which makes me wonder why Kendrick Lamar got a Pulitzer Prize. Is it because it’s culture and it’s a thing where we just give it to him like a consolation prize or is there something that’s underlying that anybody can learn to replicate it? Then it becomes like a craft.
MCS: To add to that, especially since we’re talking about the history of hip-hop, I first fell in love with the music when I was 14 years old. Having heard it on the radio before, it was usually on a pop station that you hear hip-hop music on. I never was able to differentiate hip-hop music from pop music for that reason, it was pretty much what were the pop songs of the time. I grew up listening to MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, this was who I was hearing.
Early ‘90s Top 40 hip-hop.
MCS: Right. I really fell in love with it when I got a chance to listen to a radio show called “The Wake Up”, which was on the locally syndicated radio station but it only came on from 10pm – 1am on Fridays into Saturday morning. You would hear all types of different hip-hop and people doing different things with different sounds while introducing different techniques that you had never heard before. Then from there I realized that you could do anything you want with it, you could play around. While diving into hip-hop and its history, you find that there’s this art form that came out organically with people coming to one space and bringing whatever talent they had and expressing it.
In the context of being an MC, an MC in the beginning of hip-hop was really just a host. They were a host who was about getting the party going with the b-boys, b-girls and so forth and so on. Then the introduction of rhyme to it came from them kind of competing, you could be a better host because you could rhyme and all that. Part of the presentation centers on what happened in terms of rhyming in hip-hop because hip-hop did not invent rhyme. There’s notating, language, iambic pentameter and MCs at the time weren’t thinking about any of these but they were using them within the context of music.
They were also advancing the art form so I want to create something and bring something forward where I’m really talking about hip-hop from a technical standpoint. When we think of hip-hop, or at least in how it’s presented, we present it as an art form without technique. It might not be something that they’re formally trained in but they’re actually executing a technique to be able to bring this music to you in this way. That’s the jist of what we’re bringing forward in the actual presentation of the workshop.
It must be really cool to go into the science of hip-hop and examine it from that standpoint rather than seeing it as just a cultural thing when it’s a technical art.
JK: Now, the second workshop is about method sampling, which is the underlying principle that we all operate on and how we come up with this kind of weird music. What it is is the idea that you can actually sample or borrow different rationales by reframing them and coming up with a new system. hip-hop is the most explicit form of it, especially production wise where you take material and you chop it up or extend it and you flip it to make a new song. Our idea is that you can actually do this with concepts and rationales, so what does that mean? It means that as I’m classically trained, I know how to do these certain things but I want to only use these things to make hip-hop music.
I don’t have any reference point of what producers are doing so when I’m trying to successfully recreate that, I fail. What I do end up with though is something new and figuring this out my moment of realizing how other styles like jazz developed. Not many early jazz musicians were trained in classical piano, they were hearing it and when they were hearing it they rearranged it in a way of method sampling to create a new kind of language. This actually exists in a lot of different fields and I’ve seen the pattern everywhere. For instance, the obvious thing would be something like a guy from Missouri or Mississippi who is famous for barbeque going to France to learn a bunch of French techniques and coming back to use them while opening up a restaurant.
Is it French cuisine or is it a new kind of barbecue? What is it? We don’t know yet but he ended up making something new which is very interesting to me now. At this point, it is very useful because we don’t have to actually say to people what makes us different, we just have to come together while acknowledging what our differences are and make something new. By doing this, you’re forced to method sample and in the end the result can be claimed as yours. The old adage in America is “e pluribus unum”, which is “out of many, one”, and I think it’s very necessary for method sampling in this case. It really falls into that and also this way it’s not some sort of singular cultural thing, if you do it right the world will follow because we need new things.
That’s a great point and analogy to make. For the kids attending and participating in these workshops, what is the primary thing each of you want for them to get out of it from an educational standpoint?
JK: We’re in a loop right now, nothing is new anymore and it’s an age of decadence. The way to get out of it is to either have a disagreement about it and prove the other person wrong or innovate out of it and create something. In general, history has never really progressed into a new ideal by being warlike or pious. It never works that way and I think that it’s better to make something new, bring people together, make some money and make the world a better place.
I totally agree with that.
JK: That’s my hope through exposing this principle of method sampling. There’s this whole sense of if you look a certain way you must be on a scale of bad from here to there and we’re totally rejecting that. One thing that has to be understood in method sampling is that identity is not destiny, it’s actually destined to be transformed. I think we should open up to it, ask tough questions and move forward.
MCS: One of the things that I want to specifically convey through educating people about the history of hip-hop is how this all came about from people using whatever they had around them and which resources they had. It was interesting when I learned that breakdancers derived a lot of their moves from kung fu movies. During that time in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the only theaters that would show kung fu movies were in urban neighborhoods. You would pay $2 and you would go into the theater to see a blaxploitation flick followed by a kung fu movie. From there you would have these breakdancers deriving moves from those mediums.
What we call “the snake” now in the United States was first seen in a kung fu movie, somebody just tried to emulate it and then it became “the snake”. I think that’s a big part of the history, the method sampling or just the sampling came from the resources people had and there were techniques developed out of it. That’s what I want people to understand with hip-hop as an art form because people always want to address the cultural aesthetics of it but not the art of it. What I want people to take away from this is that hip-hop isn’t what the music industry has made it to be because the music industry is about selling something that’s sensationalized just like any big action flick that has violence, misogyny and whatever thrown against the wall so they can charge you for it. That doesn’t define hip-hop music or hip-hop as a whole, the art contained within is what defines it.
CS: I think for the Boston Music Project, the art of music creation is fundamental to our work. Students take part in active listening before literacy and composition and sonic exploration before correctness. While the pursuit of musical excellence and understanding it is an important aspect of our work, a student’s ability to take musical risks and to experience vulnerability through the creative process while developing confidence in their ability from these experiences is equally important. We believe that students should be empowered to write their own music and be inspired by their own experiences and emotions. I hope that the takeaway for the larger field of any music educators and practitioners that are taking part in this is that they see a clear example of student-driven practice and artistic disruption while taking something away that they’ll be able to implement in their work in the coming months and years.