A Shawnee Mission East High School Teacher Gets Serious About His Teenage Dream
In room 309 at Shawnee Mission East High School, social studies teacher David Muhammad and his students tackle some of humanity's most difficult subjects — on a recent Tuesday afternoon, for example, his international relations class was studying the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights.
After class, he's also known for encouraging respectful debates about topics confronting America — a video of one of those debates about the Confederate flag last year has close to 50,000 views on YouTube.
Lately, however, Muhammad has embraced challenging material in a much more personal way: He's just released a rap record.
"Being in the environment of teaching school, you’re around a lot of kids who are super motivated, super active," he says. "I thought, man I need to do something to leave behind a voice."
"I’ve always wanted to make a music project, a hip-hop project, since I was in high school, and it never came to light," he says. "Different things in life would divert me from actually sitting down and achieving it."
When he heard Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly last year, Muhammad knew there would be no more procrastinating. He decided to write a record based on The Hunger Games trilogy, which he read a few years ago and had been thinking about ever since.
It's something he's wanted to do since he was his students' age.
"It really spoke to me with its message," he says. "It's super socially relevant."
But at 31 years old, making a record was something new. Muhammad had to buckle down and do a lot of homework.
"I approached it almost like a lesson plan. I looked at every book, pulled out all the themes I wanted to cover, and in the order that how the book presented them. Then I pulled out all the characters and what they represented to me."
Then he went to work figuring out how to incorporate the books’ themes and symbolism.
For example: "In the beginning of the book, you have Katniss and Gale out in the woods hunting for food when they shouldn’t have been. They weren’t allowed to do that and it was illegal for them to do so. But that represented something even bigger: Life in itself is a hunt, and you have to constantly fight for your own survival."
The results of Muhammad's writing process are intense. The record's first lyrics are: "Have you, have you, heard about the tree?/There’s dead bodies swingin’ swayin’ in the Southern breeze."
That image is a very real one in American history, and the song's title, "Estranged Fruits," echoes Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," about the victims of lynching.
But for Harper Mundy, a junior at Shawnee Mission East who is among the students Muhammad recruited to sing on the record, that wasn't what the image evoked.
"I was thinking it was pretty symbolic," she says. "I didn’t take it literally. It reminded me of imagery from The Hunger Games."
Which means Muhammad's writing process worked, because he wanted to make sure people who hadn’t read the books or seen the movies would still get his messages.
"They will sense relevance to society today, to what’s happening on global scene today, regardless of whether they read the books or not," he says. "Everybody is familiar with post-traumatic stress, anxiety, feelings of being oppressed, or revolution, or being monetized."
When it came time to actually record, in addition to asking students to sing, Muhammad recruited established artists like the poet Natasha Ria El-Scari, rappers Stik Figa and Barrel Maker, and producer Conductor Williams.
"I went to people I’m fans of," he says. "Everybody on the album, I’m a fan. Even the students, I had heard them sing at different events, and I was a fan of their work. I looked at it as an opportunity to create something grassroots and organic, and possibly we can all grow together."
First, however, he had to learn how to actually perform. Conductor Williams helped.
"It was almost like going to rap school," Muhammad says. "I had never done anything like this before, and he coached me."
The record ends with a conversation between Muhammad and his wife. Putting himself out there, making himself vulnerable, is likely to inspire even more respect from the students who affectionately call him Mr. Mu.
"This generation, more than any other I’ve noticed, they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, and (Mr. Mu) really exemplifies that," says Shawnee Mission East Principal John McKinney. "He speaks to them with respect and as young adults. I think they recognize that he respects them, and they reciprocate."
"I’m really proud of Mu for all the work he’s put into this," says Mundy. As a singer on the record, she says, "I’ve been informed and involved since close to the beginning, and I’ve known how much this means to him and what the messages mean to him."
That, and achieving his high school dream.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.