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.”
Shepherd said he wrote “100kMasks” to talk about the process of raising healthy boys and the emotional and societal pressures that keep them from reaching their full potential. The ballad combines R&B smoothness with a hard-hitting rap, encouraging young men to rise above the limitations they may perceive. He was inspired by the work of Ashanti Branch, an educator whose innovative ideas about helping young Black and Latino males achieve their full potential in the school system is captured in the documentary The Mask You Live In. He also referenced the writings of Dr. Joy DeGuy, who speaks about the effects of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. “A lot of research went into every song,” he said. “Everything is rooted in knowledge and innovative ideas from people who want to amplify these ideas and pass them on to the next generation.
“The lyrics were written and performed by Black fathers who want to project images of healthy masculinity,” Shepherd said. “We also had a nice verse from Zumbi Zoom from the group Zion I. When you say the word ‘masculinity,’ some people get really tense. They think you’re trying to define and limit the trait. They don’t hear you saying ‘healthy masculinity,’ but once we perform the song, they realize you can feel positive at any time.”
McGaw agreed: “The song flips the concept and allows you and leave your baggage behind.”
“Until You’re Free” also manifests the idea of becoming who you are. The song blends the voices of adults and children, with an uplifting rap and a soulful chorus. “This song began with a simple notion,” Shepherd said. “There are people who are not free to be who they are and, until they are free, none of us are really free. As we were working on it, it turned into an anthem for a different project were doing, The Butterfly Effect. Two of your young rockers came up with a project to advocate for children in detention centers at the border. They asked people in Oakland, and other cities, to make 15,000 origami butterflies to signify the detained kids. They took them to the Senate in DC and displayed the butterflies in the rotunda. They went to Congress and spoke to Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Lee, and the Black Caucus. The other caucuses came out and promised to go to the border with these kids and their butterflies, so that song has helped these kids gain their political legs, which is kinda dope.”
Lily Ellis and Maya Flemming wrote the lyrics that inspired “Black Gxrl Magic” when they were 9 and 10. The track blends elements of R&B, hip-hop, and soul into a smooth, flowing track that discusses female beauty and power in all its manifestations. The vocals are delivered by Ellis and Flemming, Oakland rappers RyanNichole and MADlines, and drag superstar Honey Mahogany.
“That’s another song that came to us from the community,” Shepherd said. “The Alphabet Rockers created segments for XM Radio around Black History Month. Lily and Maya did a skit for the program called ‘Black Gxrl Magic.’ They did a rap at the end of it. Then they went looking for collaborators. They were 10 and 11 when they sang on the album. We gave the entire track over to them and other Black women and girls, of all ages and pronouns, who did all the singing, writing and production. There’s a trans woman on the song too.”
The Love may be a children’s album, but its lessons should be learned by people of all ages. The opening track, “This Is Ohlone Land,” is a reminder that all land in North America once belonged to native people. Two hundred and fifty native cultures still exist in California and their names are recited against a drumbeat performed by two spirit artists and percussion by Kanyon “Coyote Woman” Sayers-Roods.
“Kanyon is a force of nature in the Bay Area,” McGaw said. “She speaks everyday about land acknowledgement and represents her Ohlone people in every way. She told us she had stuff she wanted to share. It’s her song, and when Tommy and I walked into the room, we realized what it meant to be an advocate. Six native, two-spirit drummers came in that day and gave us permission to hear their music. If they played songs that were not meant for us, they stopped playing. They found the songs and melodies that were for the greater community to hear and that’s what we got to share. That process itself was sacred. What Kanyon did was play all the percussion instruments native to the Bay Area. We sampled them, with their permission, not only on the opening song, but throughout the record. Every time you hear voices on the spoken interludes that link tracks together, it’s a mix of indigenous music and performance with hip-hop production, which is a most beautiful sound.”
McGaw said those rhythms are there as a reminder of the debt we owe to the country’s native population.
It took a full year for Shepherd and McGaw to coordinate the writing and performing of the music. “We do over 100 shows a year,” Shepherd said. “Because of the process, it seemed like it took a long time to incubate and gather material. We had to immerse ourselves in the world we wanted to speak for, and with. We really dove into the community and allowed them to become part of the process.”
Then they arranged, produced, mixed, and mastered the album, working closely with all their collaborators and the Oakland community they’ve been creating, along with integrating the youth Rockers (Ellis, Fleming, Kali de Jesus, and Tommy’s son Tommy Shepherd III) who were in the studio weekly, recording vocals across all of the songs.
“When we go to The Grammys to perform, you’ll see our kids — along with many people from the album on stage — all races and gender identities, McGaw said. “Everyone in the community enjoys it, not just the kids who get the spotlight.”
“I’m honestly amazed to be a two-time Grammy nominee,” she admitted. “We’ll have this to look back on for the rest of our lives. The fact that so many voices of the children in the Alphabet Rock community are integrated into every song on the album, and mentioned in the nomination, is fantastic. I felt like the first nomination was for the city of Oakland and its diversity. This one goes even further and acknowledges that our beloved, diverse community is being seen and heard.”