It’s the night before students return from winter break, and Bavu Blakes is at Decker Middle School preparing for a unit on power he developed for his seventh-grade humanities students. Lesson one is the Children’s March. In 1963, thousands of black youths in Birmingham, Ala., walked out of their schools to join a crusade to end the city’s notorious segregation policies. “The parents didn’t want to take off work. They didn’t want to lose their jobs,” Blakes says. “So kids walked out of high school. That was 3,000 kids that were filling up the jails and filling up the camps outside the jails and getting all that attention for those rights to be changed. Those were teenagers popping off in the civil rights era.”
After Birmingham, Blakes’ students learn about the civil rights struggle in Selma, Ala., before taking a detour into fiction with “The Sneetches” by Dr. Seuss. In all they will cover eight texts ranging from persuasive papers to poems and films. In each lesson, Blakes has his students write expository essays to identify how pivotal moments of power shaped history or how proposed ideas about power could change history.
Ten years ago Blakes was the most prominent rapper on the Austin hip-hop scene, known for his syrupy Southern drawl and his formidable freestyle skills, his ability to spin witty wordplay on any topic off the top of his head. He had a commanding presence and intellect, and he seemed destined for musical success.
These days, he’s positioned himself as a rap scholar, reclaiming the energy of the urban art form to empower youth. He teaches WRLS, an educational acronym that stands for writing, reading, listening and speaking. He’s also working on a master’s degree in principalship at the University of Texas. The power curriculum and how his students respond to it are part of his research.
The language of hip-hop plays a central role, too. A few weeks into the spring semester, the class watches the 2014 film “Selma.” As the credits roll, Blakes goes to shut off movie.
“Let us hear the music,” a student protests.
Blakes shifts gears and finds a YouTube video of “Glory,” and together they listen to the Academy Award-winning song from rapper Common and singer John Legend.
On one wall of his classroom hang pictures of a rotating cast of pop culture writing heroes nominated by his students. Singers Beyonce and Romeo Santos and rappers J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar made the cut this year. His students analyze their lyrics in class.
Lamar, whose 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly” has been nominated for 11 Grammy Awards, is particularly instructive. Last year, Blakes showed his students a video of the 28-year-old rapper being presented with the Generational Icon award on the California Senate floor. They discussed his environment, growing up in the crime-ridden Los Angeles suburb Compton, how it compares to where they live and why he was inspired to be a writer.
“It’s way more relevant than whatever other generic English lesson we would be doing in here, so we do it constantly,” Blakes says.
Alina Adonyi Pruitt was a classroom teacher in the Austin Independent School District for 10 years, working primarily in East Austin schools. She’s working toward a doctorate in the College of Education at UT and has been studying Blakes’ work as part of her research. She’s impressed with the way Blakes makes his students feel “comfortable but challenged” with a difficult curriculum.
“It’s hard to make history seem relevant and seem fun,” she says. “He makes the curriculum very real.”
Decker Middle School is in what Blakes describes as the “easternmost hinterlands of Austin, Texas.”
“You go any farther east than our campus and you’re in Decker Lake,” he says. “You go any farther east than that and you’re in a different city — you’re in Manor and you need a towel.”
Though the campus is within Austin’s city limits, the school is part of Manor Independent School District. “The latest story (in Austin) is everybody is moving out. The black population is going down. People in the middle of town are getting pushed out, they’re getting priced out, etc.,” he says. “Well, I’m right here in one of the main places all of these people are going.”
Manor Independent School District has experienced big growth over the last decade. In the 2005-2006 school year the district had 4,548 students. This year’s enrollment is over 8,800. In the 2014-15 school year, Decker Middle School had 912 students: 62 percent were Hispanic, 27 percent were African-American and 78 percent came from an economically disadvantaged background.
“This same community that this school serves and is built around is this same community where (hip-hop) culture comes from in the first place,” Blakes says.
At the heart of Blakes’ work is identity construction. Seventh grade, he believes, is the time when kids begin to figure out who they are. WRLS skills are an essential tool kit to help them express themselves, and the language of hip-hop helps them interpret their experiences. “They’re heirs to a complicated world,” he says.
The edge of fame
Blakes’ classroom is littered with artifacts from his life as a musician: an album cover from his 2012 EP “Sanct”; a 2007 Austin Chronicle cover story; an old Austin American-Statesman portrait that shows Blakes shouting into a microphone, his face turned skyward, the cord coiled around his arm. The latter has been remade into an inspirational poster with the ethos of an Internet meme. The words “Get an education” are emblazoned across it.
Blakes burst onto the Austin hip-hop scene in the mid-’90s when he relocated to Austin from the Dallas area to attend UT. He returned to Dallas after graduation in ’97 but came back to Austin in 1999 to help kick off the Hip-Hop Humpday, a popular weekly event at Sixth Street club the Mercury Lounge. The Hip-Hop Humpday put four emcees in front of a live band that played improvisational grooves based on the experimental jazz and funk styles that the Mercury incubated. The emcees’ rhymes were predominantly freestyle.
The event was a watershed moment in Austin hip-hop. Traditionally Sixth Street clubs shied away from rap music, but the success of the Humpday helped the Mercury expand, moving from a small spot near Flamingo Cantina to the upstairs room where the Parish is now. One night, not long after the move, the Humpday crowd got so live, dancing wildly and jumping up and down, that the club’s floor cracked. A Hip-Hop Mecca show shortly after finished the floor off, forcing the club to shut down briefly for repairs.
Five emcees cycled through the Humpday during its three-year run, and they were all very talented, but Blakes was unusually adept with lyrical wordplay, and his flow had a distinctive singsong flair. Bryan Mitchell, who raps under the name D.O.S. with the Austin hip-hop crew SubKulture Patriots, was barely out of his teens at the time, but he did frequent guest spots at the Hip-Hop Humpday. Blakes’ ease with the microphone made a memorable impression.
“He was so confident and comfortable on stage, and it was very impressive that he remained that way while freestyling, since an emcee technically doesn’t know what he’s going to say when coming up with rhymes off the top of the head,” Mitchell says. “I definitely learned that from watching him in those days. I’d practice in the mirror until I looked confident like that. Bavu was and still is the man.”
Throughout the aughts, Blakes enjoyed regional success, but a larger national breakout never came.
“I always knew as an artist I was kind of a gateway drug,” he says. “Look at my résumé.” He rattles off a list of artists including Gary Clark Jr., guitarist and producer Adrian Quesada, Waco-based rapper Symbolyc One and Houston emcee Chalie Boy who once clamored to work with him. All have eclipsed his stature.
In 2010, Blakes moved to Los Angeles with his wife, Tifani Jones Blakes, who was working on research for her doctoral degree. From an external view, his ascendance seemed like a done deal, but internally he was grappling with a shifting sense of purpose. In January 2011, he recorded “Sanct,” and the first track, “Don’t Turn Me Down,” spelled it out: “Your man ’Vu here to transition, went into the furnace, emerged with a different ambition.”
Immediately after he wrapped recording, he found out his wife was pregnant. “As soon as that happened, I couldn’t care less about the things I was pursuing,” he says.
Blakes and his family returned to Austin in 2012. In collaboration with Charles Peters, a San Antonio emcee who rhymes under the name Easy Lee, he started a blog called Hip-Hop Grew Up. The site was a collection of reviews and essays that brought a critical eye to modern hip-hop culture. Working on it helped him define his new identity as a rap scholar. It also birthed the central question that is now Blakes’ academic thesis: “How does the original hip-hop generation leverage its resources for today’s generation?”
Hip-hop as an art form is still very young, but now that it’s been around for 40 years, it is multigenerational. It’s grown from an urban street phenomenon to a multibillion-dollar industry, and many old-school heads would argue it’s strayed too far from its roots.
“Are the mainstream and corporations going to determine (hip-hop’s) legacy?” he asks. “Or are all these different practitioners and people who identify as part of the hip-hop culture and hip-hop generation going to get their hands dirty and determine that legacy based on what really happens among the people?”
‘The Courage to Love’
On an unusually warm and bright January afternoon, Blakes takes the stage at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at Huston-Tillotson University in East Austin. He comes with a seven-piece band. They open with a slowed-down riff on Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” the ubiquitous hit of summer 2015. Blakes’ band plays a looped R&B rendition of the song’s lead verse, “Ever since I left the city you …” harmonized into an emotional lament by a trio of backup singers.
“The talk about Austin these days is always about who left the city,” Blakes says from the stage, referring to a series of articles about a 2014 report from UT professor Eric Tang that found Austin’s black population is in decline despite the city’s enormous growth. “But what about the people still in the city? What about the people who love the city?”
Earlier in the day, as the MLK March and Celebration kicked off on campus at UT, Blakes spoke eloquently on the theme for this year’s program, “The Courage to Love.” With the cadence of a preacher, he talked about how King was stabbed in 1958 and left “within a sneeze” of his life, long before the landmark civil rights accomplishments that built his legacy.
“No one would have been mad — we all would have understood if Dr. King had said, ‘You know what, I’ve got a Ph.D. I’ma just run a church. I’ma just teach college; I’ll teach at a university, all right,’” he said. But the courage to love carried him on to do the things we remember him for, Blakes said. “The courage to love is what we need to remember about Martin Luther King. If you’re with me, say, ‘Yeah,’” he said in closing.
“Yeah,” the crowd yelled in response.
The ideas Blakes explored at the MLK Celebration align with his thesis on leveraging the resources of the original hip-hop generation to build the future for the next wave. “First and foremost, we are the resources,” he says.
Austin is loaded with artists who “feel like they failed because they never got big.”
“In reality, they have this experience and all of these skills that may not be important to Billboard Magazine, but they’re huge resources,” he says. Take these artists and put them in a room with young people, and suddenly they realize they have a wealth of knowledge to offer.
He hasn’t given up on the idea of being an artist. It’s part of who he is. He describes the desire to perform as an itch. Events like the MLK Celebration rekindle his fire. But he also burns with motivation on his new path as a rap scholar. “To take that (hip-hop) attitude and experience and apply it in a way that affects learning outcomes of many generations. … I think that’s every bit as major as being a cool artist,” he says.
“I think it would be impossible for Mr. Blakes to do anything but incorporate a huge part of his own identity as a hip-hop artist,” Pruitt, the researcher, says. “He’s very poetic and very much a wordsmith with the ways in which he interacts with his students.” She says his students are big fans. They YouTube him and beg him to freestyle more in class.
Right now Blakes’ focus is on finishing grad school, building his curriculum and becoming a great teacher. “I’m not going to say I’m one yet, but I’m heavily trending in that direction,” he says.
From his early days on the Austin scene, when he wove academic knowledge into his freestyle rhymes, Blakes was a hip-hop artist defined by his deft intellect, but now he understands it in a broader context. “I realize that really is a thing, to stand kind of in the gap between education and the music community,” he says.
The newfound sense of purpose is driving him forward in a way that is powerful and profound.
“I’m not trying to do anything anymore. I’m just straight manifesting,” he says. “It’s really exciting.”