Alphabet Rockers on Using Activism to Inform Their Grammy-Nominated Children's Album

Alphabet Rockers
Nino Fernandez

Alphabet Rockers

On night in early 2019, as Kaitlin McGaw was working on putting together her hip-hop group's album, she had a conversation with a mother who wanted to make sure that the image being portrayed in the music was representative of reality. 

"Their eldest son told them he was a boy when he was like 18 months old," McGaw recalls during a conversation with Billboard. "The mom kind of advocated for her song and said, 'Look, I want to make sure, on this album, you have a way to let our young trans kids know how to take care of themselves as they walk through schools. My son has a lot more complex emotional skills as a seven-year-old than the school is necessarily prepared to reflect."

From that exchange, "Be Strong" was born, one of the many empowering tracks featured on Alphabet Rockers' Grammy-nominated children's album The LoveFounded over a decade ago by McGaw and producer Tommy Shepherd, and consisting of the pair plus a number of child rappers and singers on each track, the group makes hip-hop music as a means of change, highlighting issues facing the world with each new song. Their previous album, 2018's Rise Shine #Woke, focused on fighting against hatred (and earned them their first Grammy nod), while The Love aims to uplift transgender and gender non-conforming youth around the world. 

To accomplish that goal, both McGaw and Shepherd (who identify as cisgender) knew they needed to get involved with those communities and bring in underrepresented voices to help guide and write their new album. One such voice was Malik Mays, better known as Mahawam, a rising gender-nonbinary hip-hop star, who helped pen and is featured on one of the album's standout tracks, "Just Be." 

Billboard chatted with Kaitlin McGaw, Tommy Shepherd and Mahawam about earning a best childrens' music album Grammy nomination for The Love, the importance of representation in children's content, and why activism and music go together hand in hand. 

What does the recognition from an institution like the Recording Academy mean to you guys as artists?

Kaitlin: It's super validating that the messages we are shaping and reflecting from our community are both received as the best of children's music, and that they're of value to listeners. I think because we really care about every lyric and message and human that we're reflecting in our work, for me, it means both that industry shine, but also like that people want more of this. 

Tommy: To hop on that point, it's also just validating that the music is so ... comparable to the other music that's happening in hip-hop. We have a really good team of folks that are taking it seriously, not taking it like it's kids -- it's just good music. That's very validating.

Kaitlin and Tommy, when you two set out to create this collective, what was your vision for Alphabet Rockers?

Tommy: When we started the project, we had three key points we wanted to convey; visibility, celebration and advocacy. Those were the seeds of how we wanted to go forward from there. We really just listened to our old motto of what people would like to hear, what lessons they need to hear, what things they need to hear to help themselves, and what things they felt their 5-year-old selves needed to hear. 

At no point in The Love are punches pulled or messages dumbed down because it's for children. How is that something you approach while putting the music together?

Kaitlin: Over the last five years in particular, Tommy and I have committed ourselves to authenticity in our communication to young people. We knew that the conversations we were having backstage about race, gender, racism, heterosexism, were also being absorbed in the room. We weren't the only ones in the room experiencing it.

What we know is that kids... they're not glass. We don't need to create language that separates us. Like, you can scaffold how you talk about things, but if you tell the kids that kindness is the only way that you can create change, then let's make sure to be clear about how there are systems of oppression here. How do you explain that to a five-year-old? Maybe you just use the worlds, and let it be another world that they're contextualizing.

TOMMY: Also, some of these things we would have had to pull punches on, if we were to pull punches, were coming out of kids' mouths. So how do we pull punches to kids when, actually, it's the youth speaking these messages? That gave us permission and a platform to say these things, because they were coming from the mouths of babes. [Laughs.]

MAHAWAM: When the Alphabet Rockers initially reached out to me about writing this song that would become "Just Be" on the album, I had a moment of deliberation where I was thinking, "Okay, I'm writing a song for children, what does that mean?" And I really had to wrestle with the idea of writing a song for a child that exists in real life, versus writing for a song that exists in the imagination of America, of what a child is, and those are two very different concepts.

So when I settled down to write the lyrics, I really had to think about writing a song for me -- thinking about myself if I were a child, a real child. What did I need, what did I want, what was the information I was looking for as a queer child? I wanted to know as much as possible, I wanted the adults in my life to speak to me about the things I was experiencing. And through that lens, it felt important for me to not pull back. 

There is this larger discussion going on about LGBTQ issues' place in children's content, but the people who are largely left out of that conversation is children -- you always see parents and adults talking about it, but hardly ever kids themselves. 

KAITLIN: Have you listened to that track, "Us"? That's all of the queer voices on the album giving advice, and it starts with a five-year-old who wrote a poem about fighting for freedom, and how no matter what, we should still march on. I was sitting there in the studio like, "Whoa, adults need this, but this is a five-year-old's perspective." 

You guys actively participated in dialogue with a lot of different members of the trans and gender non-conforming community in order to make sure that you got The Love "right". What did those discussions look like? 

TOMMY: Basically, we put a call out to the community right after the Grammys in 2018. There was a lot of discussion about gender, and Kaitlin and I knew very little about it. So, we hosted this listening party in Oakland, where our studio is, and it was an event where we had people write on these whiteboard walls and Post-Its, just messages that they would like to hear, things they didn't want us to touch. We just compiled all of that information, started writing lyrics and coming up with song concepts.

We constantly were trying to get out there, speaking with the community, just so we weren't othering anyone. We treaded lightly at first, until we got some real confirmation that we were on the right side of things, and the community was saying, "Go hard, and we will bring you back if you take it too far."

KAITLIN: I remember eight years ago, we were having a Fathers' Day show, and somebody emailed us saying "Will I be welcome?" It was a queer mom, so I was like, "Yes." That was an indicator to me that it still didn't feel like a safe space. So, we've had indicators along the way that we need to make our community even more inclusive, so I think that's an important note. We partnered with Our Family Coalition to perform songs, and we said, "What if we created something with you, with your families at the center of it?"

We sat around a room that had all of these trans artists' artwork on the wall, and it was just really clear that the visibility of trans artists is a real problem -- we need more. All of us need to appreciate a very under-resourced group of talented artists in our country. I remember at the end of that session, one of the educators called us and said, "You know what, I just want to feel like I am enough. Can we just have that? Like, enough already!" [laughs] I was like, "Wow, I think you're already inspiring a whole song."

So, Tommy and I, we listened and we interrupted our own biases in the process. We made mistakes in the writing that we corrected. And also, this music is a moment in time. So we're going to keep growing, keep listening, and hopefully keep doing better. 

Both you guys and the kids in your group have described yourselves as "activists first." How does that stance change the way you approach the actual music-making process?

TOMMY: Kaitlin and I come from the hip-hop world -- and like, hip-hop has had a political view from the beginning of it. So it feels very hip-hop to me, more than activism, because I just thought that's what we were supposed to do. I didn't even think that I was being an activist when I was younger, I was just living in the world and the aesthetics of hip-hop. This is a culture that is very free, and it also gives you freedom to speak your mind. What I think our music is doing is giving us a chance to have a thought of activism and activation, versus "Smack my booty" [Laughs.] It's the real call that we have.

MAHAWAM: Another point to make about this music being activism is just the fact that it exists -- specifically this record. Going back to a point you made earlier about possibly receiving pushback and backlash from people who are not interested in the message, is that one of the main weapons they had with that backlash is fully erasing trans and queer people.

When you're thinking about what it is that children want and need, being able to have the power to obscure the contributions from queer and trans people is what affects that negative opinion. So if you go your whole life and never see a trans person create a beautiful work of art, write a beautiful evocative novel, you will think that trans people don't have anything to offer society when that's not true. It's easy to erase the contributions of an adult, but if you see a child offering those same beautiful gifts of the world, there's not much you can say to oppose that truth, to oppose that gift that the child is offering you.

I think having these children give their contributions is the best weapon you can use to fight the resistance. That is the activism: creating a document of trans and queer beauty, of youth beauty, of indigenous beauty, of immigrant beauty. That's the weapon we need in order to move forward.