“The typical ‘bad kids’ in school aren’t actually ‘bad.’ They really just want a teacher who can relate to them.”
Meet Josh “Rowdy” Rowsey. Indy Week sales agent by day. Hip-hop mentor by night. The title of his rap? Black Superman.
Josh sees himself in students afraid to take the stage. So he raps about photosynthesis. Turns up the theatrics. Risks some bad rhymes. Lets himself “get rowdy” and look foolish. Once he’s spitting fire, the magic is underway. The kids sit still and listen. Soon enough, they want their turn. He’ll do anything to fire them up because he feels a responsibility to invest in his community, he said.
“Change happens through entertainment. Through ‘edu-tainment.’ Hip-hop is my way of educating and getting through to the next generation.”
As a kid, Josh showed signs of the dynamic wordsmith he is today. An energetic jokester, he was known as a natural comedian at the Duke School for Children. Then, he entered his teens as the only black student at Cary Academy. A successful student-athlete, he enjoyed being fluent in Mandarin Chinese from two summers abroad. “I was supposed to go to the Ivy Leagues,” he said, referring to his swimming career. But he didn’t. He was accepted early to the UNC Business School – where Josh stopped swimming and felt…lost. “When you swim, it’s everything you do,” he said. “I thought, ‘What do I do now?’”
That’s when Josh found poetry. He joined spoken word and improv clubs, where he came alive. He’d always wanted to be onstage. When hip-hop finally entered his life in his junior year, “everything just snapped together for me.” He formed a collective on campus, and the group started gaining national recognition. “We looked around at each other and said, ‘We could actually do this. We could do hip-hop.’”
Senior year, Josh landed a job in New York at an insurance agency. His family and friends were so proud. He was paying off his student debt. He was doing well. Then, he met with a client, Broadcast Music, Inc., and saw that individual artists could succeed in the industry. Inspired, he decided that hip-hop could really happen for him. So he quit his job. “Something was calling me back to Durham,” he said. “To cultivate something.”
Josh’s parents didn’t understand at first, but let him move back home. He initiated The UNC Cypher, a “jam session” space for freestyle rap. Soon, he started to see student interest across racial and cultural divides on campus. He was amazed at how many students found sanctuary in hip-hop. He had created a space where anyone would feel welcome. A platform for free expression. A time of “organic flow” between rap, song, or poetry. A time to train in freestyle. “To practice telling your truth,” he said. “To be who you are.”
Telling your truth is hard when your black friends tell you that your voice is “too white” to rap, Josh said. “You start out wanting that approval,” he mused. “But then you learn to become comfortable with you.” He struggled with his identity when he went to New York. But New York was where he went on a journey with God and learned to embrace his voice as an artist. He learned that to connect with people, you have to recognize that no matter how different you are, you share common experiences. “Everyone is a reflection of you,” he said. “But no one comes from the same place.”
For Josh, hip-hop is “an art form to relate to the unrelatable.” A hammer to “smash the boxes” that often define students of color before they ever find the words to say who they are. He’s committed to helping youth “find their God-voice.” And his methods are as creative as it gets.
“Here’s your word,” he says, dictionary in hand. “Are you ready?” He’s grinning as their wordplay unfolds in faltering, soon flowing, freestyle. “Wow, okay, that was great. Now pick a character, any character!” He hands them a comic book emblazoned with superheroes of color. “Embody their voice.” By training his students in the voices of fictional heroes, Josh hopes they’ll realize, one day, “That character – that hero – could be me.”
You can see Josh in action on Thursday nights at Blackspace. Located in the heart of downtown Durham, Blackspace is a youth center and digital maker-space celebrating Pan-African culture and imagination. It’s a home base, a safe space, offering free workshops for local teens to creatively express themselves. Through rapping and beat-making, Josh loves helping his students build the confidence to “tell their truth.”
Interested in a Blackspace workshop? Know a kid with a story to tell, but doesn’t know how? Connect with Blackspace on Facebook or [email protected]!
For more information on Josh Rowsey and his music, jump over to the Nine to Five website.
STORY LESSON: SPEAK THEIR HEART LANGUAGE
Josh’s passion for hip-hop inspired us from the start. He’s all about using his voice to amplify student voices. To help students wrestle with the rhythm of life… and transform the beat of their hearts into art. In reality, Josh is just one of many superheroes in the room.
This dance between co-creation and empowerment dovetails with our own approach to storytelling. At StoryDriven, we deeply value authenticity and service. Going into pre-production, we asked, “How could we best serve Josh and authentically represent him in this piece?”
The answer, funnily enough, was to smash our own boxes…and experiment! My teammate Chelsey and I threw our routine interview out the window and started dreaming. What would it sound/look/feel like, we asked, to tell a story using our story subject’s heart-language? How can we co-create with our story subject?
Put another way: Why stitch together a speech about the power of hip-hop, when Josh can literally show its power through his own rapping? What better way to experience someone’s rhythm of life, than to let them sing, groove, dance? It’s the art of “Show, not tell.” So from the get-go, we decided to embrace co-creation as an opportunity to let the artist and art form speak for themselves.
This happened in two ways: the first planned, the second unplanned!
- We invited Josh to write an original rap capturing his heart for his students, 45 seconds tops. We asked him to loop in key themes he had expressed in our pre-interview conversations, i.e. phrases like “find your God voice” and “everyone is a reflection of you.” The boss that he is, Josh basically wrote “Black Superman” overnight. (Rowdy, if you’re reading this, HIGH FIVE.)
- Upon reviewing the edit though, something felt missing. The visual pacing felt unanchored, like a balloon in the wind. And then it hit me: We need a beat! This stylistic oversight then opened the door to a beautiful collaboration we hadn’t foreseen: co-creation with Josh’s students. Lourdes Pietri, featured in the pink shirt, is a beatmaker with clear talent. While filming B-roll of her during Josh’s workshop, I couldn’t have predicted that her tracks would rhythmically match the cadence of Josh’s rap. With her original beats, I created the instrumental track you now hear in the video. Some gifts, you just can’t plan for.
In the end, the experimental team spirit of the cypher really defined our process. The parallels are amazing! Just as a cypher loops multiple voices into an unfolding story, this video portrait is a proud product of many people’s pixel-prints. And just as Josh trains his students for “game day” slams, this video definitely stretched our imaginations for “game day” client projects.
How have you been challenged to “freestyle” with others? Let us know in the comments!