“These aren’t two different worlds for me,” he says over afternoon brews at Cambridge Common. “I’m working on my new album, and I’m sure that it will resemble my earlier music in some ways, but these days I’m really interested in expanding people’s knowledge of hip-hop. What drives me is that I see tons of revolutionary potential in this music — I believe hip-hop can teach kids about self-reflection and creativity. Hip-hop is a language that people can use to express their personal identities — even if their personal identities have nothing to do with hip-hop.”
Many people — and, more important, many well-endowed corporations and institutions — agree that hip-hop is the bee’s knees, and they want to be in the Kabir business. This year alone, in addition to his full-time gig teaching music at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, he performed for the UN Human Rights Council, penned an urban anthem for Masterpiece Theatre (getting permission to sample all the show’s stuff), composed a youth rap disc for IBM investors, and was hired by Brandeis and the University of Chicago (among others) to teach seminars. Kabir also gives 20 private music lessons every week in interests ranging from rhyming and production to classical piano, and he has a waiting list of 80 kids who want to be down.
“A lot of people are teaching hip-hop in this city, but I’m not sure they’re looking through the same sort of holistic lens that I am. Beyond the fundamentals, elements, and history, I’m teaching life skills and using music as a way to get kids into things beyond hip-hop. It can teach them to love writing. It can help them get comfortable in their own skin. Anyone can do it — you don’t even have to play an instrument.”
Although teaching children to spin records and write lyrics has become a steadily evolving routine for Kabir over the past half-decade, he met a new and demanding challenge this year when the Cambridge company Rhythm Rhyme Results approached him to record some (hold your nose) educational rap songs. The eager start-up — established in 2006 by former high-school friends Robert Mitchell and his Harvard-educated linguist buddy Ben Jackson — is committed to making didactic hip-hop that doesn’t completely blow. Lucky for Mitchell and Jackson, the Tupac of that peculiar subgenre lives minutes away from their Porter Square headquarters.
“Kabir is a teacher and an artist, so he’s got the whole package,” says Mitchell, who commissions roughly 25 producers, lyricists, and rappers to create tracks on topics ranging from the founding fathers to photosynthesis. “He’s the only one who makes beats, writes his own lyrics, and raps the songs too.”
Mitchell isn’t some wide-eyed dork who’s bent on making classroom rap cool. He does, however, believe that with such proven talents as Kabir, Lyrical, Roxbury MC DL, and beatmaker the Arcitype involved, cuts like “The President’s Cabinet” can at least bang hard enough for kids to listen. “We had to admit early on that it wasn’t going to be not-cheesy at any point — I mean it is educational music. But so far kids have been willing to accept that and still listen — even if they’re rolling their eyes — and we’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much they like it.”