It was just after class started on a Friday morning at Mattawoman Middle School, and already about half the student population was fired up: not for the weekend ahead, but for their futures.
On Oct. 25, rapper Jason Lewis, who performs under the moniker “Humble Tip,” brought his motivational presentation The Beautiful Tomorrow Assembly to Mattawoman’s students. Lewis, a Capitol Heights native, used music, dancing and the kids’ own language to spend some time talking with them about everything from valuing one’s own individuality to the importance of staying goal-oriented without once lecturing the group.
In the morning, the school’s sixth-graders and half of the eighth-grade class spent time learning Lewis’ message. An afternoon assembly was held later for the remaining eighth- and seventh-grade students. Melissa James, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Mattawoman who helps coordinate school-wide events, said she was moved to invite Lewis to conduct the assembly for the students because of its relevant message for National Bullying Prevention Month.
James said they had hosted one of Lewis’s assemblies before. Now, James said, by returning to the school two years later Lewis had the chance to reach a new youthful audience.
“He just speaks a very positive message. …The kids talk about it afterward and they were really excited for it,” James said of the assembly. “So we knew that it would make an impact.”
And it did make an impact.
Shortly after 8:30 a.m., students began filing into Mattawoman’s gymnasium for Lewis’ music-filled presentation. It was early, but as they entered to find their seats the students seemed energized by the combination of upbeat hip-hop music and colorful lighting that made the space feel more like a concert than a school gym. Just before the presentation started, there was even an impromptu sing-along to “Old Town Road,” the ubiquitous Lil Nas X earworm.
For a little more than an hour, Lewis used his unique and youthful approach to impart important life lessons to an impressionable group.
“I’m here to celebrate y’all, because y’all are worth the celebration,” said Lewis, introducing himself to the pre-teen crowd as Humble. Lewis encouraged the audience to participate enthusiastically as they went along in the presentation. He first posed the question to the students of whether they intended to go to college: Many of the hands in the room shot up quickly. The follow-up question, regarding where they’d like to study, resulted in a deafening din of college choices. Aspiring doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals made their presence known.
Throughout the hour, the students were encouraged to repeat positive affirmations, both to themselves and to those sitting nearby. The presentation covered everything from the importance of uplifting your peers — “We build each other up, we don’t bully each other,” Lewis said at one point — to choosing one’s friends wisely.
“Some of y’all got dreams, you’ve got goals, you’ve got incredible things you want to do with your life,” Lewis said. “But because you ain’t never seen nobody else do it, you feel like ‘Maybe I can’t do it.’ We came to let you know you can be that difference. You can break that cycle.”
Through their lives, Lewis told the students, they’d be confronted with people posing as their friends who actually have anything but their best interests at heart. Recognizing that in someone and refusing to succumb to their influence is tough but vital, he said.
“Understand this: ain’t nothing wrong with you,” Lewis said of those who might ridicule someone for standing up for themselves and their beliefs. “If they don’t celebrate you, you don’t need those people in your life. Swerve ‘em and curve ‘em.”
Through the presentation, Lewis used the story of “Darren,” a dummy he introduced toward the beginning as a friend of his who’d been having some problems. Darren faced difficult but common choices that the students there would likely one day face: Study for an important test, or blow it off with friends to go drink, smoke and party?
At the end of the presentation, it was finally time for the students to say what they thought Darren should do. Overwhelmingly, they answered that Darren should take the test.
Lewis’ use of hip-hop music, the newest dance crazes and youthful slang helps him reach the kids more effectively, James said, than if someone were to just “talk at them” for two hours about the matters at hand.
“He got them engaged,” James said. “They were moving, they were participating, and he was sending a positive message.”
James expects the message Lewis left the students with to last what she hopes is a long while. Some students, she said, even told her after the fact they’d followed Lewis on Instagram and other social media to see more content from him.
A message like Lewis’ is especially important for young black men, James said, who unfortunately frequently receive overly profane and sexual messages from the normal media targeted toward them. But all middle school students, she added, “are seeking to be validated by their peers” and can benefit from such a positive presentation.
“They find out it’s OK to be you,” James said. “You don’t have to be a follower.”