February 27, 2017
By Katherine Richardson
FamousDC – November 17, 2016 – What’s the best way to teach young girls about leadership, teamwork, and self-confidence? According to James Watkins, Office Manager at the Living Classrooms Foundation, music is the answer. Watkins helps lead Queen Beez, a hip-hop program for young girls in the DMV. Throughout the program, participants write and produce a song about a topic of their choice — from voting rights to bullying — and make a music video. They also meet weekly with female mentors, who serve as role models and sounding boards for the girls. The results? Inspiring music videos and a strengthened, empowered community of young girls.
FamousDC asked Watkins a few questions about his experience with Queen Beez:
WHY WAS QUEEN BEEZ FORMED AND HOW DOES IT FIT INTO THE GREATER MISSION OF LIVING CLASSROOMS?
Queen Beez was formed in 2014. It uses hip-hop as a vehicle to build self-esteem and teach STEM and leadership development. The idea was that if we used hip-hop in the classroom, it would get students engaged and they’d be interested in the material they were learning. Additionally, we wanted to offer mentorship for young women who weren’t troublemakers, but who needed extra guidance and a platform to express themselves positively. Living Classrooms strengthens communities by inspiring young people to achieve their potential through hands-on education, and what better way to inspire young people than by having them create public PSA’s in the form of captivating music videos?
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO WORK WITH THE GIRLS? DO YOU HAVE ANY PARTICULAR FUNNY STORIES ABOUT THEM?
Working with the girls is a humbling experience. They’ve made me a much better person and mentor. I tell them that every chance I get. I think the funniest moments, for them at least, is when I try to imitate their dances. They’re so advanced at creating their own choreography that when I try to learn it, they joke about my lack of rhythm. I think ultimately, it’s me not taking myself too seriously and letting my guard down that makes them more comfortable around me. I showed them my sense of humor early on and it’s been a huge factor in nurturing a relationship with them so that they feel comfortable coming to me for counsel.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE LYRICS THAT STUDENTS HAVE WRITTEN?
“I only rap the life I live, when times get darkest, that’s when I come up with bright ideas.” – Yung Nija.
“I’m the one and only Queen Kali, on fleek. Got a destiny, my creativity won’t peak.” – Queen Kali.
“Only gravity can pull us down.” – LA.
Each of these lyrics come from a song we recorded titled “Gravity.” The hook “only gravity can pull us down” sort of became Queen Beez’s mantra. These lines are compelling because it speaks to the confidence that they have developed over time. Two years ago, some of them were afraid to even look at a camera and to see their transformation from then to now is a thing of beauty. They’ve grown in confidence and they’re adamant in not allowing adversity or negativity deter them from achieving their potential. Having that sense of optimism in a world that breeds cynics is very refreshing to hear.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE MUSIC VIDEO AND WHY?
There’s so many to choose from! We’ve filmed videos at different museums, inside of a boxing ring, a Trapeze school and even a cemetery. If I had to choose, I’d probably say “(You Ain’t Gotta) Lose Yourself.” The song encourages students not to sacrifice their grades for the sake of being popular; that being cool and being smart aren’t mutually exclusive. We filmed the video last Halloween outside at the Smithsonian. There were so many great visuals and performance shots. Everything from the weather to the girls’ energy was perfect. It was like one big party and I think their energy was captured perfectly on camera. That song ended up being one of their most popular videos and they even performed it live on Good Morning Washington this past June.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO BRING MUSIC, WRITING, AND PERFORMING TO THESE GIRLS?
I believe it is important to promote creative expression. We’re giving the girls a platform to use their voices and do so in a way that is not only informative and empowering, but therapeutic as well. We recorded a song about empathy [titled “Walk A Mile”] and that particular session was challenging because some of the girls touched on some personal issues that they rarely, if ever, spoke about. However, they walked out of that session feeling like a huge weight was lifted from their shoulders and that is the true definition of catharsis.
They’re not only creating public PSA’s, but they are taking ownership in the things they say. In “Clark Kent,” one of the girls said, “no matter who you elected, as long as you’re there to represent, maybe one day you’ll vote for me.” We were obviously referring to the presidential election, but a few weeks later she walked up to me and told me she was voted class president at her school. You can’t write a better story than that.
Queen Beez represents a demographic of young girls who were stigmatized and written off as children whose voices didn’t matter. They’ve taken all of that as motivation to break through that ceiling and prove that their voices do matter and that they can inspire young people to do the same.
IS THERE ANY WAY THAT THE D.C. COMMUNITY (AND OUR FAMOUSDC READERS) CAN HELP QUEEN BEEZ ATTAIN ITS GOALS?
Please spread the word, share the links to our videos, talk about it in your schools; every ounce of support matters. Living Classrooms is a nonprofit organization and we’re always actively searching for funding. A strong support system from the community would suggest that there is a need for this type of service.
And of course, we’re always looking for female professionals who are interested in mentoring our young ladies and helping them along the path of achieving their potential. This is a community effort and we appreciate everyone who has helped us along the way. Queen Beez is all about developing future leaders and making a difference one song at a time.