Updated Nov. 12 at 9:30 a.m.

Vista Grande High School (VGHS) invited Dr. Elliot Gann and Diné rapper Def-I for a two-day presentation and workshop on Nov. 2 and Nov. 3. Together, the pair taught high school students beat-making and rapping techniques, while explaining how music, in this case hip hop, can be a healing force in their lives.

The event was part of the Indigenous Education Initiative grant Vista Grande High School received from the New Mexico Department of Education.

Def-I's journey

In a VGHS classroom on Nov. 3, Def-I encourages a group of freshmen students to rap over a relaxed beat played in a 4/4 time signature. He teaches the students about basic concepts surrounding rhyming, wordplay, flow and metaphors to create a more dynamic rap. 

To encourage some of the other students to share their raps, he started to share what he wrote.

Coming live off the mind

My name is Def-I

Live with the vibes...

One of the students was then willing to share his rap. Before rapping, he started to get nervous. “I’m sorry I got butterflies in my stomach," he said. Def-I replied that he still sometimes gets the jitters when he performs on stage, adding, "It’s a good feeling, it makes you feel alive."

Def-I, whose real name is Christopher Mike-Bitdah, has been a mainstay in New Mexico’s hip hop scene for almost a decade.

Hailing from Albuquerque and Shiprock, his career has taken him to Nigeria as a state department "hip-hop ambassador," to a performing guest on the famed hip hop radio program Sway in the Morning, to being a top-10 runner-up contestant for the popular National Public Radio Tiny Desk Concert music series with the jazz group DDAT. He has opened for one of his favorite artists, “Sound of da Police,” rapper KRS-One and toured with the legendary Masta Ace.

He helped raise over a million dollars in crowdfunding for Standing Rock water protectors' legal defense funds with his music video “Water is Life.” Recently, he announced he will be a judge for the 2022 Grammys. He has released 10 albums over his career. His latest album, “Into The Unowned," came out in July.

But he doesn't pretend like it was easy. Forging a professional music career, he said, especially as an independent artist, has been difficult. In his music, Mike-Bitdah raps about topics that he has faced, such as grief, sobriety and trauma. 

He first emerged on the scene as a battle rapper. Simultaneously, he said he also battled an alcohol addiction. He believes he had a rocky beginning trying to become a fully actualized artist. 

“I was very shy at the beginning of my career and basically nervous, but how I overcame my nervousness in sharing my personal story of healing through hip hop, and starting out from basically almost rock bottom, where there really wasn't much opportunities in the industry,” said Def-I.

Sharing his story with students, and teaching them what he knows about hip hop is how he gives back to students. When he was a teenager, hip hop was a saving grace from the negative influences around him. It was then that he knew he wanted to create a career as a hip hop artist.

“As a teenager, I had some difficulties obeying rules. I was a good student at first, and then I eventually was led astray by hanging around ... I don't want to say the wrong crowd, but just individuals that were also just trying to find [themselves] at the time and were dealing with a lot of the obstacles that we face on the reservation and villages or remote areas,” said Def-I.

During high school he would immerse himself into any possible aspect of hip hop culture he could find, such as poetry slams, breakdancing shows. Eventually he started performing at talent shows.

Balancing a career as an artist and as an educator is something that came naturally, he said. He has been an educator for almost eight years and has taught students rap everywhere from elementary schools to Ivy League universities. Coming from a family of educators (his mom, dad, and grandparents were all teachers) becoming one himself made sense. He believes that doing workshops with students – whether they be in a rural New Mexico or in a village in Alaska – is integral to keeping the tradition and culture of hip hop alive. 

“Since [hip hop] helped me ... as a younger person, now as an adult, I feel like I have some responsibility to give back to younger students,” said Def-I.

Today’s Future Sound

On a projector screen, the same group of freshman students from Def-I’s class attend Dr. Gann’s workshop directly afterwards. He demonstrates how to use his drum machine and the audio program Ableton Live.

Each student took turns adding an element to the track such as a snare, a high hat, bass and other elements. 

“That slaps,” said several different students in the classroom after hearing the track they made. 

Miles Bonny, a VGHS staff member, is another hip hop artist who relocated to Taos several years ago. He leads a music club after school and helped put the two-day writing and beat-making workshop together. Bonny was able to arrange the workshop because he had a prior connection through Dr. Gann.

Dr. Gann is a clinical psychotherapist, producer, beat maker, and DJ by the name “Phillipdrummond.” He is also the the executive director of Today's Future Sound, which helps uses hip hop as therapeutic method and uses hip hop to empower students and heal serve as a creative outlet for mental health. The organization serves individuals at schools, mental health facilities, juvenile detention centers and various community settings.

Dr. Gann and his organization have traveled all over the world in several different countries, from Aboriginal communities in Australia to a small town in Mississippi. Next year, he will be hosting a workshop in Poland. 

Mental health connection

The Nov. 2 presentation focused on the ways in which people (particularly young people) can heal from trauma through music. Young students connected with the idea and shared some of their own experience with trauma and other mental health issues at the presentation.

“I was literally presenting on trauma, and the nature of trauma and ADHD, and...it was great. The kids literally piped up,” said Dr. Gann. 

Dr. Gann said that the word "trauma" is in danger of becoming a buzzword, but he explained that it can mean different things for different people. He differentiates between "major trauma" (or "capital T trauma," he said), and "smaller trauma" which involves stressors that have a tendency to repeat.

“There's capital T trauma, which is like, PTSD, like you see someone get shot, and you have flashbacks. Until there's some kind of intervention or until your nervous system settles down, if ever, you'll continue to have trauma symptoms, flashbacks, dysregulated sleeping,” said Dr. Gann. 

"So, but there's also little T trauma, that builds up ... so like, repetitive exposure to smaller stressors and trauma, living in poverty or ... parental stress and conflict ... divorce,” added Dr. Gann. 

During the presentation, Dr. Gann explained how even the origins of hip hop culture can assist with healing. 

“Hip hop comes out of trauma, marginalization, disenfranchisement,” said Dr. Gann.

According to an article published in Slate magazine in 2014, DJ Grand Master Caz stated that the blackouts in New York City in the 1970s were a "catalyst" for the development of hip hop music. During the blackouts, people looted stores with musical and audio equipment that predominately people of color in lower income neighborhoods never had access to previously.

Elements of hip hop culture, which then developed in the 1970s and 1980s, can teach verbal, logical-mathematical, visual and spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, intrapersonal and interpersonal skills. Hip hop elements, such DJ-ing, MC-ing, graffiti and B-Boy-ing, have aspects that almost every student can connect with creatively to heal from trauma.

“Kids are not going to learn if they can't access their prefrontal cortex. And if they're worried about someone hurting them, abusing them, danger in the environment ... it's preposterous that we would expect kids to be able to learn, if they're worried about being bullied or if they're grappling with trauma and interpersonal and interpersonal struggles,” said Dr. Gann.

Teacher response

Assistant Principal Jenny Lewis thought that students were really engaged with the two-day workshop. At the end of the second day, Dr. Gann gave a trauma-informed talk to students. He gave teachers tips on how to recognize trauma and techniques to help students.

“[Dr. Gann] was showing some simple movement techniques and breathing techniques that teachers can use, either at the beginning of a class to settle kids down, or, conversely, to energize them if they're sleepy,” said Lewis. 

VGHS Director Isabelle St. Onge also thought the workshop was a success, even though hip hop isn’t her favorite genre of music. 

“I'm hoping to bring back February to follow it up and do some actual recording with the beats and the music the kids made. I hope it's gonna be an ongoing relationship,” she said.

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