Eastern Wake News

R&B singer Usher’s music leadership program debuts in Wake County

Reginea' Teachey (right) and Fatimma Kurney react during one of the rap battles in the introduction to Music Leadership 101 clas. Instructors encouraged students to show off their talents, which included rapping and singing.
Reginea' Teachey (right) and Fatimma Kurney react during one of the rap battles in the introduction to Music Leadership 101 clas. Instructors encouraged students to show off their talents, which included rapping and singing. mhankerson@newsobserver.com

A presentation punctuated by impromptu rap battles introduced Wendell Middle School eighth-graders on Wednesday to a new Wake County program — backed by R&B star Usher — that looks at careers in the music industry.

The students got a taste of the Music Industry Leadership 101 curriculum developed by Usher’s youth organization, New Look Foundation, that will be the foundation for a new career pathway for high schoolers in the Wake County school system.

Wake is introducing the program this week to Wendell Middle and the Wake Young Men’s Leadership Academy. The program will also be piloted at eight other Wake schools: Holly Ridge Middle School; Cary, Enloe, East Wake, Heritage, Millbrook, Phillips and Southeast Raleigh high schools.

If all goes as planned, said Marlo Gaddis, the school system’s director of instructional technology and library media services, Wake County will offer the full program by the 2015-16 school year. Wake is one of six districts nationally, and the only one in North Carolina, that’s piloting Usher’s program.

“We have a unique opportunity in Wake right now that we can take and be a part of this initial team,” Gaddis said about finessing the curriculum that will follow Music Leadership 101. “You don’t always have the opportunity to be a creator on the front end.”

During the 2014 academic year, Gaddis said, the program will be used as supplemental material while the state Department of Public Instruction certifies the complete career pathway for a high school career and technical education program.

“This is something (current middle schoolers) should look forward to and start seeing in their classwork,” she said.

Meeting students halfway

Getting students engaaged, though, seems to be the easiest part of the new program.

Shawn Wilson, president of New Look, said the curriculum was developed with students’ interests in mind.

“We’ve taken a traditional marketing course and wrapped it around music because that’s where (students’) interests are,” Wilson said. “Talking about brands of artists like Usher, Jay-Z and Beyoncé is more fascinating to kids and, to be honest, more relevant to them than talking about other brands that really have no relevance in their lives.”

In a morning session with New Look trainers, Wendell Middle 8th-graders did basic brand analysis by talking about celebrities like Oprah and former “American Idol” judge, Simon Cowell.

The session also got students thinking about their own personal brand – a lesson Gaddis said she’s excited to see worked into the full curriculum.

“One of the things that excited me as much as everything else is the constant reminder of your digital footprint,” she said. “They’re really talking about your brand and how that fits in.”

Wilson said the program will also emphasize “soft skills,” like speaking in front of crowds, another lesson New Look trainers imparted on students in the form of “Expressions.”

During “Expressions,” students could perform a talent in front of their classmates, a practice that Wilson said is done repeatedly in the Music Leadership program.

By the time students become alumni of the program, Wilson said, they should feel comfortable giving professional presentations or be a leader in other group settings.

The Usher connection

The short sample of the class was well-received by students like Cameryn Crise, who sang for her classmates during “Expressions.”

She said she sings for fun and always wanted to pursue it in the future, but wasn’t too sure she could build a career on it.

The presentation, which featured the roles of all kinds of professionals in the entertainment industry, reminded her “you can do anything with your talent,” she said.

For other students, like Kevonne Woods, it just reinforced existing goals. Woods said he would consider pursuing the pathway in high school, but ultimately, he wants to be a professional basketball player or an engineer.

Woods said one of the things that made him most excited about the program was the connection to R&B singer Usher, although Wilson said that connection is just a hook for students.

“I think celebrities bring something very important to education,” Wilson said. “They have the ability to endorse education. If they can endorse a car or soft drink or food or clothing line, why can’t they endorse education?”

But Wilson is quick to make sure students and instructors aren’t expecting any visits from Usher himself.

“When a celebrity endorses a shirt, you don’t expect the celebrity to come and put the shirt on you,” he said.