Hip hop on the mountain top.
James Andrews is a shy guy. Which is odd considering his stage name is “Scorpio. He made a name for himself as a hip-hop artist and emcee in the late 1980s — because there was just something about the stage, about taking a mic in his hand and blasting out his own rhymes. When the lights went on and the amplifier fired up, James Andrew turned into Scorpio and there was no holding him back.
Because it’s showtime.
2:00 pm. September 15. The music classroom at Crotched Mountain School.
Scorpio is in the house.
That is, he’s back in the house, returning for a second stretch of artist-in-residency programming. It’s the first time he’s been in Greenfield since 2009 and, though many of the students are different (and his son Jaevon has essentially doubled in height), he brings with him the same passion for music and the mission that has driven him since his early years as a young emcee from the streets of Springfield, MA: giving a voice to the voiceless. For James/Scorpio that is what makes hip-hop so special, why it has been a force of pop culture since its inception.
“Hip-hop is knowledge,” he says. “It’s a movement, forever present. It was born from the gutter but it reaches to the dust of the moon.” (Spoken like a true word-slinger.)
When Jaevon was born in 2000, Scorpio’s priorities shifted. Determined to stay close his family, he set up his own company, Stinger Style Productions, which allowed him to still pursue his own music while staying put in Springfield. But, as he would discover, Stinger Style would serve a greater purpose than Scorpio’s own artistic pursuits.
He became involved in education, eventually becoming a teacher at a local music school. But it was on the road where he found his true purpose. For the last 17 years, Scorpio has been working with at-risk kids, many of whom are incarcerated. He does hip-hop workshops, encouraging positivity in the lyrics (no disrespecting women, no gang shout-outs), showing these kids that there is hope beyond their lock-ups.
He’s expanded his workshop tour since then, bringing this message of music-as-a-unifier to other, disparate audiences (including a group of elderly Chinese women with zero English skills who came together to drop their own unique beats).
And then, in 2009 he found Crotched Mountain School and was blown away. He had never worked with students with disabilities before and once was not enough. He knew that he had to get back. Because if anyone perfectly embodies what the power of music could do—how hip-hop can provide a voice to those who are literally voiceless—it’s the incredible, invigorating, indelible student population at Crotched Mountain.
“As I’ve done this over the last 17 years, I learned to meet people where they are,” he said. “Wherever you are, we’ll start there and build.”
For Crotched Mountain students each starting point is different; some have scripted eloquent raps, others are able to offer only a few words or utterances to go with the accompaniment, and a few contribute with their speaking device. They all have one thing in common, however — they are connected by music.
“Go Evan! Go Evan! Go Evan! Go Evan!”
With a pulsating bass riff in the background and microphones strategically placed throughout the room, students from Matt and Judy’s classrooms are belting out the background vocals for a new, original piece of Crotched Mountain hip-hop.
Evan positions himself in front of a dedicated mic and proceeds to unleash his own ad-libbed rhyme about chilling in music class and, well, how bad he is (note, that is the urban vernacular “bad,” as in someone who looks extremely good).
Scorpio and his crew (his wife Joy, his son and Jason, a friend from Springfield) are recording all the vocalizations. They immediately spin it back to the group. The smiles are a mile-wide. One of the students jabs at this speaking device in delight (“Jewish holiday, Jewish holiday,” the device repeats for some reason, but whatever!). And then Emcee Evan kicks in.
“I did awesome,” he says when the recording is over. Not as a question, but as a statement. Oh, yes, definitely as a statement.
“When you play that recording and you see that wide smile or hear that squeal of delight, you’re experiencing the power of music.”
Over the course of five full days at Crotched Mountain, Scorpio and company will take all the classrooms on a similar musical voyage. Each slice of music is as different as the students participating in its creation. But in the end, they will have all played a role in bringing something new and crazy and awesome into the world.
“As a teacher you come in with a Plan A or B or C, but here you end up with Plan Z,” Scorpio says. “You will adapt to what works and what doesn’t work, but I’ll tell you this—we’re going to make it work, we’re going to come up with a song recording. And when you play that recording and you see that wide smile or hear that squeal of delight, you’re experiencing the power of music.”
When Evan’s done, Mike steps up. He’s written his own lyrics, a collection of honest ruminations, reflecting on a tough life and the challenges he’s overcome. He puts the mammoth headphones on and waits for the cue from Jason. Scorpio is in the back encouraging the other students to give it their all, to sing out in any way they can in support of their classmate.
“Go Mike! Go Mike! Go Mike!”
Scorpio points to him and Mike takes a deep breath and steps forward.