CMU's Arts Greenhouse gives kids a chance to write and perform their own hip hop while learning about college life.

For kids with hip hop talents and nowhere to use them, Paul Crocker has the answer. The Arts Greenhouse opens the door to a real studio experience—and to college.

The Arts Greenhouse at Carnegie Mellon University offers Saturday classes during the school year for teens 13 and up; Crocker is its program coordinator. With local hip hop artists as guests, he and main instructor Amos Levy gather middle- and high-schoolers each weekend to write and perform their own tunes, culminating in a mix tape and a live performance.

At the same time, these kids get a glimpse of college life that other kids in their Pittsburgh neighborhoods may be missing. Crocker has watched several students graduate from the Greenhouse to CMU already.

“They get an opportunity to take their passion and create something tangible with it,” he says. “It’s a great way for them to be more open-minded and engaged citizens in general, finding their own voice and the confidence to express themselves creatively.”

Each hip-hop class begins with students discussing the issues of life in their neighborhoods–“a little bit about social inequality and about the more inspiring artists” from the past decades, he says. The decade-old program is run by CMU professors Riccardo Schultz, its founder, and Judith Schachter. It also offers a once-weekly afterschool program to 7th and 8th graders at Pittsburgh Colfax.

The Greenhouse encourages kids to write socially relevant hip hop more than club and party anthems. In hip hop, Crocker notes, “a lot of what’s popular is boastful—whoever can brag the best.” But Greenhouse teens don’t have to work too hard to choose song subjects that are more constructive, thanks to those class discussions, he says. “Everyone seems to get involved in all those talks,” he says. “It’s a great way to break the ice.”

Then they enter the beat lab to write and produce their music. “And they get to collaborate with a whole lot of like-minded teens from around the area that they wouldn’t have met otherwise,” he says.

As Tairey Perez, Domnick Hall and Hussein Salim sing on last year’s Greenhouse compilation, in a song called “Love and Hate”:

“They say God made heaven in seven days.

Give me an hour to write a heavenly verse …

Got a purpose … so open up them curtains,

Let me rhyme on stage for my biggest show ever,

Or crumple this page and say, ‘I can do better.’”

Marty Levine's journalism has appeared in Time, and throughout Pennsylvania and has won awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, The Press Club of Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere. He teaches magazine writing for Creative Nonfiction magazine.