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Music

The Grammys’ wokest act? Meet the Alphabet Rockers, kids rapping about gender nonconformity

Alphabet Rockers: Maya Fleming, left,  Kaitlin McGaw, Tommy Shepherd III, Tommy Soulati Shepherd, Lillian Ellis and Kali de Jesus.
The Alphabet Rockers are, from left, Maya Fleming, Kaitlin McGaw, Tommy Shepherd III, Tommy Soulati Shepherd, Lillian Ellis and Kali de Jesus.
(Nino Fernandez)

There’s an interlude on the Alphabet Rockers’ latest album, “The Love,” that captures the spirit of the project in 50 seconds flat. In it, voices are layered on top of one another as they list off their gender pronouns: “I’m comfortable with ‘they,’ it speaks on my resistance to the binary,” one says; “I enjoy all the pronouns as long as they’re said respectfully,” echoes another.

Released in August 2019, the album is progressive in its celebration of gender diversity, but what makes it radical is that it’s a kid’s record — one that’s been nominated for best children’s album at the Grammy Awards on Jan. 26.

The Oakland-based collective is helmed by Kaitlin McGaw, 42, and Tommy Soulati Shepherd, 46, who met in the Bay Area arts scene in the early aughts and had respective careers in arts education and performance art before forming the Alphabet Rockers in 2007.

McGaw, who studied Afro-American Studies at Harvard University, was working at a music school in San Francisco when she began dreaming of creating a hip-hop show for kids. That’s when she thought of Shepherd — whom she’d seen perform in a play called “Beatbox: A Raparetta.”

For years, McGaw and Shepherd juggled touring as the Alphabet Rockers with their day jobs. These days, they’re largely focused on the Alphabet Rockers full time.

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The Alphabet Rockers’ roster has shape-shifted since its inception too, becoming a kind of a rotating door for DJs, singers and choreographers depending on the project. Its current lineup of performers includes 11-year-olds Lillian Ellis, Kali de Jesus and Maya Fleming, and Shepherd’s 12-year-old son, Tommy Shepherd III.

“The Love” is the Alphabet Rockers’ fifth album, and marks the group’s second Grammy nomination (the first was for 2018’s “Rise Shine #Woke,” a protest of racial inequality). This year’s nominees for best children’s album include Kacey Musgraves producer Daniel Tashian and Caspar Babypants, a.k.a. Chris Ballew, singer for Seattle pop-grunge band the Presidents of the United States of America.

In the last few years, while there’s been a steady rise in the publishing of children’s books celebrating gender diversity — Cheryl Kilodavis’ “My Princess Boy” and Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel’s “I Am Jazz” are two popular examples — children’s music centered around gender identity remains scarce.

“I don’t want my kids going to school where people are getting labeled for who they appear to be,” McGaw said over the phone while cooing to her newborn.

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Both McGaw and Shepherd, though allies and advocates, are cisgendered (meaning they identify with the gender they were assigned at birth). They knew that making this album alone wasn’t an option.

As Shepherd put it: “There’s language that just wasn’t supposed to be coming out of our mouths.”

So they tapped individuals who identify as transgender, two-spirit or gender nonbinary, along with organizations that work with these communities to shape and deliver the message. They also hosted “listening parties,” where people gave input on the topics they wanted to see addressed on the album.

In the end, over 60 people contributed to “The Love,” which was recorded at the arts incubator Zoo Labs in Oakland.

Alphabet Rockers’ “The Love” album cover featuring 12-ear-old member Tommy Sheperd III
Alphabet Rocker Tommy Shepherd III, 12, on the cover of the Grammy-nominated “The Love.”
(File)

Aris Wong, an 11-year-old from Alameda who identifies as gender nonbinary, belted out backup vocals on the self-acceptance anthem “I Am Enough.” Wong, who uses they/them pronouns, is glad “The Love” is creating visibility for kids such as them.

“There are lots of nonbinary kids out there without support,” Wong said. “It’s really important that they get the love that they need. The best thing that anyone can do is just to love them no matter how they identify.”

The Alphabet Rockers also received guidance from Our Family Coalition, a Bay Area organization that aims to create equity for LGBTQ families. Rick Oculto, the coalition’s education director, said he has heard firsthand from families how impactful “The Love” has been in their day-to-day.

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“The fact that Tommy and Kaitlin made such incredible efforts to not only get [families’] opinion about what should be on the album but also include their voices — their literal voices — meant that this can never be interpreted as a pity party,” Oculto, 40, said.

Take “Someday,” a sobering but hopeful track looking toward the future of diversity. In it, the young Alphabet Rockers rap, “By all rights, we should be angry / The elders say anger won’t save me / It’s so clear that fear breaks and separates families / Fear breaks and separates families / Then history repeats / History repeats.”

“I don’t think that there’s any reason to skimp of the detail of the subject,” says Mahawam, a.k.a. Malik Mays, a 27-year-old queer, Oakland-based artist who’s featured on the standout track “Just Be.” “These children — if they’re old enough to be questioning their own identity, they’re old enough to experience the wisdom of people who have gone through the same process.”

“Our kids are capable of understanding complexities,” McGaw said. “We know it’s a disservice to simplify it.”

McGaw and Shepherd are aware that not everyone will meet their project with applause. Although they haven’t received any real backlash yet, they see the potential of it happening as another opportunity to lean into their message.

“I think most of the pushback is going to be breaking people open,” McGaw said.

In that spirit, “The Love” doesn’t shy away from gender’s overlap with things like race or immigration status.

The album begins with a recognition that it was recorded on native soil in “This Is Ohlone Land (Introduction)”; “Black Gxrl Magic” is a celebratory ode to curls and culture; "#100kmasks” gets real about toxic masculinity; and “Until You’re Free” was made in solidarity with the thousands of migrant children being held in U.S. detention centers at the border, featuring lyrics in both English and Spanish.

The kids, as eloquent and woke as you’d expect, make no qualms about their role as Alphabet Rockers: They’re performers, yes, but mainly they’re activists — music is just one of their tools.

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“I really hope this music gets to people in a way that just talking about it won’t,” Lillian said. “I hope that people take us seriously because a lot of people don’t — especially because we’re a children’s album. But we’re talking about real things.”

To which Maya added, “Some kids may feel lonely or like no one supports them in the decision of what their gender is,” she said. “If they listen to this album, I think it will help them.”

On Jan. 25 at 2 p.m., the Alphabet Rockers are set to perform in L.A. at Hot & Cool Cafe in Leimert Park before hitting the Grammys the next day.

“We know we gotta get close to Lizzo,” McGaw said.


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