The motto of the Alphabet Rockers is: "We make music that makes change." On its most recent album, The Love, the Oakland hip-hop collective lives up to that promise. The record is a celebration of gender-nonconforming children growing up in today's increasingly fragmented world. The record was recently nominated for a Best Children's Music Album Grammy, as was its last effort, Rise Shine #Woke.
The Alphabet Rockers are a constantly expanding, community-wide musical project, helmed by fellow songwriters and producers Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Soulati Shepherd, Jr. In the end, more than 60 people of all ages, races and genders contributed — producers, rappers, singers, songwriters, poets, dancers, lyricists, activists, and musicians — many of them making music for the first time. McGaw said it took a lot of community building to get everyone comfortable enough to let their creativity flow.
"At our first concerts, about 10 years ago, people were not aware that hip-hop culture was part of children's culture, and children's music in particular," she said. "With Tommy and our artistic collaborators, we created a children's hip-hop culture of freedom.
"When we did concerts and workshops preparing for The Love, and saw the way 10-year-olds answered questions about gender oppression, we wanted to go deeper into that conversation. We wanted to let trans kids know that we were hearing them and advocating for them, and with them. You hear voices on the album of trans kids and kids that are gender-nonbinary, alongside adults who are gay, nonbinary, trans and gender-nonconforming. Hearing the dialogue between them inspires connection and resilience. The album lets kids hear people who are like them. That's empowering."
Shepherd and McGaw knew that making a children's album that discussed gender diversity was risky, but it never gave them pause. "That's what we do," Shepherd said. "We're opening up the conversation for uncomfortable subjects. We want people to be comfortable with being uncomfortable."
"The hard work you put into a project doesn't always pay off," he added. "It's hard to penetrate the music industry at this level, especially with music that's challenging racial and cultural biases, but we believe in advocacy. We knew we were taking a risk, making music about things that have nothing to do with the two of us, but we didn't let that stop us. Advocacy has many colors and facets. If we don't speak up for people who don't look like us, or act like us, then our advocacy would be pointless. We definitely represent ourselves as cisgendered, but we're advocating for a community of people whose voices need to be amplified."
"As we were making this album, we kept thinking about three things — visibility, celebration and happiness. Through all the collaborations we did with gender-nonconforming kids and adults, learning about their lives, we talked about creating songs full of love and joy. We decided to call the album The Love to reflect the unconditional love we're trying to implant into our audience."
The duo started working on The Love in early 2018. "Right after The Grammy ceremony, we came back and did a concert at Ashkenaz," McGaw explained. "We told people what we were going to be doing and asked them to come and start talking to us. We wanted them to tell us what was on their mind and control the album. We wanted the community to decide what the album should be, not the people with the mics. It took six months of networking and work shopping before we got people to open up to us."
The first song they finished for the album was "Live Your Life." They asked people in the trans community what they would have liked to hear as a child. Those memories and desires became song lyrics. As the song took shape, they played various versions of it for trans and gender-nonconforming parents and kids to get feedback on the process.
"There's a line in the song that says, 'Don't worry, it'll get better,'" McGaw said. "A gender-nonconforming parent told us that things don't get better just because you like yourself. Kids can handle this. We took that in, and incorporated that complexity into the record, a combination of hope and reality. You can hear a five year old on the album echo it on 'Us (Interlude)' when she reads her own poem, 'we fight for freedom and no matter what happens or what people do, we still walk on — yes we still walk on.' She understands that the world is not fair. ... Working with young people, you see so much complexity. It's not all day or night. There's morning and evening and twilight, so we have to give them room to share their experience."
"We were constantly aware of the community building we were doing during the process of creating the music on the album," McGaw said. "When you hear a song like 'I Am Enough' performed by The Singing Bois, a quartet of trans and gender-nonconforming young people, you let folks know at a young age that they have people they can look up to, people who might be like them, who use they/them pronouns, just like they might want to do."
McGaw said that 11–year-old Aris Wong, who identifies as gender-fluid/nonbinary, sang the back-up vocals on the track.
"If you open up the album booklet, you'll see pictures of 50 people who are sharing their images and pronouns. As a young person, you can look at them and say, 'Who do I relate to? Who might I want to be like, even if they don't look like me?' That's what the power of real community organizing is."