At a fifth-grade dance at PS 72 in Throgs Neck, Randy Mason stood quietly at the back of the cafeteria and watched as the bright lights flickered and kids jumped up and down to the music. Too shy to join, Randy held up the wall – until the DJ played a hip hop song that captured his ears.
“It was ‘Killing Me Softly’ by The Fugees,” recalled Mason. “Everything stopped and I just felt the music. The bass, the drums, their voices, the way the song impacted the room, it moved me. I knew I wanted to be a part of recreating that feeling.”
Today, Bronx native Mason is a hip hop artist and educator, including at the Bronx Charter School of the Arts in Hunts Point. He is the founder of R.H.Y.M.E. (Rap, Helps Young Minds Excel), a rap mentorship program with the nonprofit Thrive Collective, which aims to help students empower themselves through the elements of hip hop.
As a teenager, Mason would often get in trouble at school for writing raps, drawing graffiti and freestyling in the back of the classroom with his friends. “I was interested in the art form and the culture but there wasn’t really an outlet for me to explore that within the school setting,” said Mason.
Mason found his outlet in the streets, taking part in rap battles and cyphers in neighborhoods around the city. “That’s where I would get the praise, affirmation, and confidence. Where I felt like I had something to contribute, and I had some value,” he said. “But there were also a lot of other activities happening that were not beneficial for me.”
When he became a father, Mason wanted to instill the importance of hip hop education in children and make sure they did not feel the need to search for validation in the streets.
“Hip hop has been a great teacher for me. In terms of social interaction, public speaking, and gaining empowerment,” said Mason. “I wanted to provide kids with a space where they could learn in that way. Where they can explore their talents and communicate through music.”
R.H.Y.M.E. sessions are conducted in school classrooms and local community centers around the city. Students from kindergarten to 12th grade are taught how to write, record, and perform music projects under the mentorship of hip hop educators who encourage musical expression and uplift their creative spirits.
Hip hop was created almost 50 years ago by Black and Hispanic youth in the South Bronx. Through rapping, one of hip hop’s elements, they could verbally express themselves, explore their identities, and depict their realities in a safe and creative way. Rap music is now one of the most popular genres in the world, yet its importance is rarely taught in s
“These sessions are a safe place for the students to be able to use art as an outlet to deal with any issues that they are dealing with,” said Kevin Toledo, lead teaching artist and program manager at R.H.Y.M.E. “We pride ourselves on teaching in a way that not only helps you find your voice, but also lets you be heard.”
And their voices can be heard loud and clear on the songs that R.H.Y.M.E has recorded and released.
On the song created from their collaboration with youth organization Bronx Connect, “Still Achieve,” teen students rap about how they will overcome hardships and not feeling “good enough” so they can achieve their dreams.
The song’s production was managed by a talented teen. Justyn Andrade worked as a youth intern with R.H.Y.M.E. and now works as a program manager at R.H.Y.M.E. and is majoring in music at Lehman College.
“Before I started, I didn’t know much about production,” said Andrade. “Working with them helped me improve my skills.”
Over the summer, Toledo led R.H.Y.M.E. sessions at the Point CDC. At their final showcase, students performed the raps they created and reflected on their time in the program.
“This showed me how to express my voice even more”, said student Hailey Rodriguez. “because that used to be an issue for me.”
Stephanie Adjepong, a returning R.H.Y.M.E student, also felt the program helped her find her voice. “Before this, I couldn’t rhyme to save my life,” she said. “I opened up and now I am able to not only connect to the music I already listen to but make my own music as well.”
Earlier this year, Mason helped fifth grade students at Bronx Charter School for the Arts record rap songs and videos that detail the histories of Important figures, including DJ Kool Herc, the South Bronx DJ credited for being one of the creators of Hip Hop.
Asked about the importance of that experience, Mason’s eyes lit up.
“It’s empowering to teach the students that these hip hop pioneers were kids just like them,” said Mason. “And it’s great to see the students having fun making music, because I’m that emcee that was inspired in the fifth grade.” he said with a smile.
“If just a handful of these kids come out of this program working in the arts to push the culture forward, that would make it all worthwhile,” he added.