Local students tackle global issues on 'Stay Safe'

Andy Downing
Album art for "Stay Safe"

Early on “All of Me,” musician Kashis Keyz rap-sings that he’s “got a big voice and something to say,” an exclamation that could serve as the tagline for the rest ofStay Safe, a new compilation album written and recorded by Columbus students in coordination with the nonprofitWe Amplify Voices (WAV).

Working with local musicians including Keyz, Nick D’Andrea, Sarob and Honey & Blue, among others, participants in the program constructed songs from the ground up, collaborating on lyrics and arrangements and then following the track through the recording and mixing processes. 

On “All of Me,” for instance, Keyz worked with kids from the Homeless Families Foundation, gathering their hopes, fears and dreams, which the rapper then weaved together in a track that touches on pained issues such as police violence (“Black men get shot even when he got hands up”) but that ultimately celebrates strength. “Look in the mirror, know who you are,” Keyz raps. “Black kings, Black queens, please shoot for the stars.”

As a student at St. Sebastian, Andy joined the rest of the school in recording and releasing the album Through the Eyes of the Children, archives of which still exist online. Sign up for our daily newsletter

“We’ve done several workshops with [Homeless Families Foundation] in the past, and usually you get different kids in each session … given how transient the lives of the kids can be,” said WAV executive director D’Andrea. “So it was a different group of kids joining Kashis online each day, and it was just like a tapestry of different stories that he strung together for that song. … Some of those individual accounts are really impactful, and I think they really allow you to attach a name and a face to something that can be politicized and pulled out of context. You can see that these are kids, and these are their perceptions of what is happening.”

This happens throughoutStay Safe, which frequently wrestles with issues inspired both by the COVID-19 pandemic (WAV halted programming for nearly two months after schools shut down in early March, rebooting as an online-only affair to complete the album, which will be released Friday, Sept. 25) and the new wave of Black Lives Matter protests, making it clear that even the smallest among us is affected by the current onslaught of big problems.

“The nature of the way we ask the kids to share is from their personal experiences, and because of that I think it brought a new perspective to some of those global events,” said D’Andrea, adding that this was the first collection of songs released by WAV where every track felt thematically linked in some way. “We like to think there’s a trauma healing that happens during the workshops. … Because they’re able to share in that way with each other, it can relieve some of that.”

While the tendency might be to focus on the end product, D’Andrea said the most important work often takes place in the earliest days of a workshop, when the kids, who sometimes differed greatly in age (D’Andrea recalled one group where the ages stretched from 7 to 19), take time to get to know one another, developing a rapport that allowed them to approach the songwriting with required openness.

“What happens in the workshops is that you develop a recognition that everyone has their struggles, and you’re not alone in feeling like you’re having a hard time,” D’Andrea said. “We ask a baseline series of questions before each workshop starts, and then we ask the same questions at the end, and the nature of the questions is, like, ‘How much do you respect other people’s opinions in the group?’

“They’re basically questions about empathy, compassion and understanding of others. And the biggest takeaway the kids tend to have is, ‘I’ve gone to school with this kid for three years and never talked to them once, and now I’ve learned so much about them and realize they’ve been going through a lot of the same stuff that I was.’ And then the hope is that compassion applies broadly moving forward from there. So it’s great the songs are created, and that we get to share them with other people, but I think at the end of the day the biggest takeaway is that the kids in these groups are hearing these stories for themselves and for each other.”