The artist: Brotha Newz
The Song: Fallen Roses
Background: Brotha Newz is the stage name of David Muhammad, a social studies teacher at Shawnee Mission East High School and martial arts instructor who has wanted to be a rapper since his own high school days at Shawnee Mission South. Last year, Muhammad released his first record, a concept album based on The Hunger Games trilogy. Because many of his students and former students are talented singers, he invites them to participate in his projects.
The story: "Unfortunately, at the school where I teach, we had several cases of sexual assault last year," says Muhammad. "One of those cases sparked a citywide demonstration, the #WearBlackToStopAttacks movement. That young lady was in my class."
Muhammad is also a regular guest on the No Wrong Answers education podcast.
"One of the teachers suggested that I make a song that speaks about the issue," Muhammad says, "because my feeling was men needed to speak to men about it. We hear women discuss it but as men we sweep it under the rug. Music became a vehicle to reach more people, instead of just talking to friends or students."
Muhammad delivers the message in four parts. In the first two parts of the song, he tells the story of what is essentially a date rape.
"I wanted to write a story that spoke to the reality that many times the guy who does it isn’t always a stranger. It's someone a girl knows. Or he’s intoxicated and he’s had feelings of attraction for a while and it escalates. I took time to try to tell that story in a genuine way that was honest and didn’t let the guy off the hook."
For the chorus, Muhammad says, "I wanted something that sounded as innocent as the female is typically, and the male sounding innocent in his ignorance – I wanted his innocence to match his ignorance."
The first voice on the song is that of Muhammad's student Harper Mundy, a senior at East who also sang on his first album.
"She has a voice that is powerful but at the same time delicate. I said, 'This is the topic, it’s a heavy topic. Are you OK with it?' She was 100 percent with her name being involved in something with such a powerful message. You can hear it in her voice: She’s advocating, she’s crying out."
A male voice comes in on the second chorus: Muhammad's former student Charlie Jensen, now a sophomore at the University of Missouri.
"He’s a member of a fraternity, and he felt like this was a message that needed to be heard amongst his peers," Muhammad says. "The first thing I asked him was, 'How do you feel men will take it?' He thought they were ready for it. At least on the campus he goes to, there's been a lot of effort so spread awareness about sexual assault on campus. The first thing he said was: This is exactly what they’re trying to do as a fraternity, because they've been embroiled with these issues."
A third voice on the song isn't easy to hear, but it's Davis Vaughn, also a senior at East, singing bass tones as the song progresses.
"We were in the studio late one night and the producer, Conductor Williams, said we needed a heavy deep voice on the third portion of the song. Harper said, 'I know just the guy.' I said, 'Can he get here in 20 minutes?' She called him and he showed up in 20 minutes a did a phenomenal job," Muhammad says.
"Those three young people really epitomize what I wanted," he adds. "They had the integrity for what the song stood for, and didn’t just want to be part of it because it was a cool song."
For the melody, Muhammad wanted to get away from traditional hip-hop sounds — he didn't want to just make a beat with samples. He and Conductor Williams thought about using drums, guitar and a horn, but decided too many instruments would distract from the words. So they went with an acoustic guitar.
"I wanted something that would just carry it, and get heavier as the song got heavier," Muhammad says.
The guitar player is Andrew Telthorse, a senior at Piper High School who is in a band with Mundy.
"I told him, 'I’m going to rap my verses and I want to see where you take it.' He said, 'Well, what sound do you want?' I said, 'Just see where it takes you, but don’t overpower me.' Within two takes he completely nailed it."
For the last part, all accompaniment stops for Muhammad's spoken-word message to men.
"We cut all sounds, so there was no excuse for not hearing my message," he says.
"I didn’t make a song for people to dance to or to blast out of their cars," Muhammad notes. "I made it to listen to. I made a song someone sits down, maybe in solitude or in a group, and listens and reflects."
The experience, he says, was humbling.
"I'd never gotten that vulnerable in music. As a man, it makes you reflect on your positions, what imperfections you’ve had with women. I’m a husband, I’m a father of a daughter and I have another daughter on the way. I thought, 'Wow. This is heavy.'"
Story of a Song is a monthly segment on KCUR 89.3 in which Kansas City musicians tell the story behind a song they have written or are performing.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.