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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

Hip Hop Architecture Camp Inspires Teens To Meld Design and Music

How do you get teens to spend part of their summer vacation thinking about architecture and public policy? The Urban Land Institute of Charlotte turned to something that might sound a bit crazy: Hip Hop Architecture Camp

There’s a serious purpose to the camp: It’s designed to steer more women and people of color into architecture and urban planning.

But camp planners don’t want the 40 middle and high school students who gathered at Johnson C. Smith University this week to feel like they’re getting a lecture. Instead the group talks about how both architecture and hip hop lyrics reflect and shape their communities.

Amare Harris, a Harding High football player, already had an interest in architecture. But at first he thought the hip hop connection was forced.

"If you would have told me that you could take a song and make a building out of it, I would have said you was crazy," he said.

So, how do you make a building out of a song?

Jasira Jzar, an 11th-grader at J.T. Williams Montessori School, explained: "We used the lyrics from songs to make staple cities, like mini staple cities."

Students at the ULI Hip-Hop Architecture Camp at Johnson C. Smith University used staples to design cities based on lyrics they composed.
Credit Dashiell Coleman / WFAE
Students at the ULI Hip-Hop Architecture Camp at Johnson C. Smith University used staples to design cities based on lyrics they composed.

Yeah, you almost have to see it to understand. Think about the rows of connected staples you take out of a box to load a stapler. The students get rows of staples, with the length of each row based on words in their lyrics, then glue them sideways on a cardboard base to make what look like collections of tiny skyscrapers.

While they’re doing that they brainstorm lyrics.

The camp is new to Charlotte, but the idea originated several years ago with Michael Ford, an African American architect and planner who’s a founder of the Detroit-based Urban Arts Collective.  His weeklong camps, which are free to students, take place around the country. In Charlotte, almost all the students are black and just over one-third are female, according to Theresa Salmen, executive director of the Urban Land Institute's Charlotte office.

The mood at camp may be light, but the topics get heavy when students talk about the challenges facing their communities. 

"They’re talking about gun violence," Salmen said. "They’re talking about affordable housing, or homelessness. We’re hearing both. Those are probably the two biggest conversations, safety and homes."

The students, who range from 11 to 17, hear from professionals in the architecture and planning fields. Then the campers polish their raps.

Harris, the Harding student, read a draft from his phone: "We talking building. Cause this is the city we live in. Affordable homes and better costs so all the kids can live in. You already know. Building up from the ground so our city can grow."


Charlotte hip hop artist Yung Citizen listened to a "rap battle" to pick the best lyrics and performers for a music video, which the Urban Land Institute plans to release in September. A group of students that included Harris rattled through solos.

"It’s funny how black and white shows your true colors. You say you want justice but you turn and kill each other. Bam! Somebody shot somebody’s sister or their brother. Robbing people for money but would you rob your own mother?" one young woman rapid-fire rapped, drawing a whoop of approval from one spectator.

"Taking our pedal to the medal. Can be hot or cold like a kettle," another young man said. "Charlotte's Number One. That's it, I'm done. Put down the guns."

Each verse was followed by a group chorus: "The build-up! The build-up! 704 we gonna lift it up.  The build-up! The build-up! 704 we gonna fix it up."

So that’s the thing: The tiny staple skyscrapers were cute, but pretty generic.  The students’ lyrics, like great urban architecture, reflected a real sense of place.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.