Lauryn Hill, Bob Marley Foundation Contribute Scholarships to Jamaica's Alpha Institute: Exclusive

do not reuse
Roy Sweetland
Jamaica Alpha Institute's boy band in 2017.

KINGSTON — Several high-profile music industry players have provided scholarships for the 2019–2020 academic year to students at Kingston, Jamaica's Alpha Institute, a Catholic boys school that has played a pivotal (if rather unlikely) role in shaping the sound of the island's music.

The Alpha Institute, formerly the Alpha Boys School, operated since 1890 by the Sisters of Mercy nuns, boasts several prominent musicians and vocalists as former students including drummer Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace; Grammy nominated, legendary deejay Yellowman; the late Desmond Dekker ("Israelites"); vocalist Owen Grey, the first artist signed to Chris Blackwell's then fledgling Island Records, and veteran roots singer Johnny Osbourne ("Mr. Marshall").

Alpha's director of partnerships and advancement, Joshua Chamberlain, speaking exclusively with Billboard, revealed 10 scholarships have been provided by Ms. Lauryn Hill through her MLH Fund; The Bob Marley Foundation; New York City based independent reggae labels Easy Star Records and VP Records; Jamaica's GeeJam Resort; Southern California reggae-rock bands Slightly Stoopid, and Pepper (with their label Law Records); Boston based reggae/dub outfit King's Highway and Steve Wilson/The Denizen JA.

Wilson is a part of Sean Paul's management team, and in 2017, the dancehall superstar donated approximately $11,000 to Alpha's music technology department, now called the Sean Paul Henriques Media Center, which includes a fully equipped recording studio. Stephen, Damian and Julian Marley's Ghetto Youths Foundation has also sponsored a 2019-2020 scholarship on behalf of Lonely Whale, a global leader in ocean protection. The Lonely Whale scholarship includes a paid internship for the awarded student to create, through his music training, PSAs about ocean health and the opportunity to present his work at Ocean Heroes Bootcamp in Vancouver, Canada.

The scholarships total $49,738.66 and will underwrite expenses for 10 returning music students, covering vocational and academic training, counseling, nutrition/meals, stipend/emergency and transportation costs between Alpha's Kingston campus and their respective homes. In addition to fulfilling school attendance, behavior and performance requirements, the awarded students' scholarship responsibilities include maintaining a dialogue journal to facilitate feedback from teachers, writing two blog posts per term for Alpha's online platforms and delivering public presentations about their experiences. 

Seventy students, between 16-21 years old who primarily reside in tough inner-city communities are enrolled at Alpha Institute. Rather than specific grade levels, Alpha's program parallels an individual education plan: students are assessed when they enter and organized according to literacy ability. Alpha's vocational program facilitates employment and career advancement in four areas: barbering, landscaping, woodwork and of course, music. 

"The generous scholarship support from friends of Alpha around the world is critical to the work that we do in Jamaica," Alpha Institute's executive director Sister Susan Frazer said in a statement sent to Billboard. "Financial support from accomplished music industry leaders is particularly encouraging. Likewise, the opportunity for music industry partnerships and vocational collaboration is very valuable to students and staff and could make the difference if Alpha is to continue for another hundred years." 

The 2019–2020 scholarships resulted from Alpha's March for Music Education (MME) Scholarship Drive organized in March 2019 by Chamberlain, Alex Beram, the current music director and trombonist with King's Highway and Alex Rivas, tour manager for Chronixx. The MME initiative also yielded a public jam session fundraiser, supported by the CHOR Foundation, which featured members of the popular young reggae star's band, ZincFence Redemption and a 5-day music residency at Alpha with Lauryn Hill's drummer George "Spanky" McCurdy, who led workshops and a master class for over 200 young musicians.

Founded in 1880 as Alpha Cottage, an institution for wayward boys, the school quickly gained a reputation for the discipline it instilled in its pupils and its stellar music education programs. One of Alpha's most motivating teachers, Sister Mary Ignatius Davies, lived at the school from the age of 17 until her passing at 81 in 2003. (Alpha eliminated its on-campus student residency in 2014.) An avid collector of jazz and blues records, Sister Ignatius encouraged many Alpha students to become professional musicians, which included four founding members of the seminal ska band The Skatalites: saxophonist Tommy McCook; trumpeter Johnny "Dizzy" Moore, who (reportedly) intentionally misbehaved so he could be sent to Alpha to pursue music; trombonist/composer Don Drummond, and the band's sole surviving founding member, saxophonist Lester "Ska" Sterling.

Other Alpha alumni include the late trombonist Rico Rodriquez, renowned for his playing on the 1967 original "A Message to You, Rudy," by Dandy Livingstone and the 1979 cover by two-tone ska band The Specials, and Winston "Sparrow" Martin, the school's now retired bandmaster. 

The infusion of nearly $50,000 in scholarships, Chamberlain says, has made an immediate, difference in the lives of the ten young musicians who are extremely grateful that the music industry has reached out and supported them.

"The MME's mission is to be a catalyst for music employment in Jamaica; as a result of the 2019 campaign, MME is producing educational videos about Jamaican music for the Jamaica Tourist Board, which will be released later this year," Chamberlain notes. "Each video is a learning and earning opportunity for a young music student, which could lead to expanded employment in entertainment and tourism and that's music to our ears!"


THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.