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Shuffle: A Songwriting Competition That's About More than Music

Amanda Rabinowitz
Cleveland high school freshman Justine Guerra (left) practices lyrics with singer-songwriter Diana Chittester

An annual songwriting competition places Cleveland musicians in classrooms to help kids address issues of hate, racism and bigotry. It's a partnership between the Cleveland non-profit Roots of American Music, Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Nine high schools and six middle schools in Cuyahoga and Lorain counties were selected to participate in the "Stop The Hate: Youth Sing Out". A local musician comes to their classroom, brainstorms ideas, and helps them write a song that confronts issues including racism and discrimination. 

Cleveland singer-songwriter Diana Chittester worked with a class of about 20 students at Facing History New Tech High School in Cleveland's Old Brooklyn neighborhood. 

A different audience
Chittester is used to commanding an audience. But at the first songwriting session just before Thanksgiving break, it was tough to get the attention of these ninth graders, many of whom have never played music. Chittester’s first goal is to get them feeling comfortable expressing themselves. 

"I talked about my relationship with my wife because I feel like even them knowing that I’m in a same-gender relationship just makes it more relatable," She said. "I rapped for them. It’s not my strong point. I come from a folk background, and that’s not really a cool music right now in high schools."

Chittester then asked the students to show off their rap skills, and freshman Justine Guerra, who was resting her head on her folded arms, perked up and silenced the room with her freestyle. 

'Even I get treated bad because my skin tone is darker than some other people'

Crafting a message 
It was the starting point for their song to come together. The topic the kids decided on was equal rights. Chittester wrote the melody and chorus, and the students came up with lyrics. Guerra started jotting some words in her journal.

"I wrote about how people get hurt because how people treat them. Even I get treated bad because my skin tone is darker than some other people. I get dirty looks. I get attitude from other people."

On the other side of the classroom, a group of mostly boys worked on rap verses. Freshman Miciah Daniel led the students in coming up with the message.

"If somebody comes in and talks about somebody getting bullied people are going to take it seriously but not as serious as it is if one of their favorite rappers talks about it," he said. "It gets stuck in your head and you start repeating it over and over and over. You actually feel what they’re talking about."

History lesson included
Their teacher, Ashley Chorba, says the songwriting competition offers a different approach to learning, because the program includes a field trip to the Maltz Museum.

"When we learn, for example, about the Holocaust in class, they know it’s bad. But the whole self-reflection and, 'My tiny choices add up to big things' is really hard for a ninth grader to comprehend.”

'Hearing...what kids as young as sixth grade to seniors are dealing with, it really changes how you think'

By the final second songwriting session, Chittester and the class came up with four verses, and then joined in a circle for a final run through. Chittester says the experience is life-changing.

"There’s a reality check. I know what my world is. Hearing other people's stories in classrooms, what kids as young as sixth grade to seniors are dealing with, it really changes how you think."

This week, the students recorded their songs in a studio. They’ll perform them next Wednesday at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The winning class gets $5,000 for their school.

The other component to the Stop The Hate program is an essay contest open to kids in 12 Northeast Ohio counties. The grand prize is a $40,000 scholarship. 

Editor's Note: Facing History New Tech High School is a public high school that is part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. 

Amanda Rabinowitz is the host of “All Things Considered” on Ideastream Public Media.