Geneiva Arunga, 17, loves a good argument, so this was a perfect fit. Malik McPherson, 14, hopes to carve out a career combining music and...

Share story

Geneiva Arunga, 17, loves a good argument, so this was a perfect fit.

Malik McPherson, 14, hopes to carve out a career combining music and business, so this was a natural for him, too.

And Isis Amen-Asia, 14, isn’t sure what life’s work she’ll choose, but she wants to be successful, and is confident this will help.

These three and about 20 other Seattle area teens have been spending much of the last 2 ½ months in an innovative program combining what might seem unlikely partners: hip-hop and debate.

“I was raised around hip-hop. It’s my culture, a way I can connect with the community,” said McPherson, finishing his freshman year at O’Dea High School. Blending it with debating techniques, he said, “helps us think outside the box, expand our minds and make our own views stronger.”

On the surface, hip-hop and debate may represent different worlds. Debate, as a school activity, has historically been the province of the elite. Hip-hop, in contrast, was born as a voice for the underprivileged.

But consider the basic activities of debate: researching a topic, framing an argument, presenting evidence, listening critically and speaking with conviction.

“All I Need Is One Mic — Hip-Hop Debate Showcase”

Debate rounds and performances by students and appearances by area hip-hop artists, 3 p.m. Sunday (doors open at 2 p.m.) Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, 104 17th Ave. S. Free admission.

“Those are life skills for whatever careers they eventually go into,” said Jen Johnson, executive director of the Seattle Debate Foundation, which organized the sessions in Seattle’s Central Area with the Seattle Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council and Remix Marketing & Communications.

Tapping into the hip-hop culture helps reach inner-city and minority youth.

“When we incorporated hip-hop into our debate summer camp last year we doubled the number of students who participated,” Johnson said. “It’s a way for the students to bring in forms of political and cultural thought and expression which exist in the community but have been absent from debate.”

The potential benefits are significant: National statistics show that high-schoolers active in debate are less likely to drop out and more likely to go on to college. And many colleges and universities have scholarships available for students active in debate.

In twice-weekly after-school sessions since early April, these students have been making their voices heard not just in conventional sessions, but in compositions they’ve prepared for community events such as one planned Sunday at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center.

Among the presentations on tap is “Apartheid II,” in which McPherson, Arunga and Amen-Asia voice concerns about racial profiling by police, and how anti-gang ordinances target youths of color.

“Why? Is it the only kinda sin is the color of our skin?” asks one line by Amen-Asia.

In that same piece, Arunga adds a point of “evidence,” noting that the rate at which blacks are imprisoned in the U.S. is much higher than in South Africa under apartheid.

Also Sunday, in a more traditional debate round, students will argue both sides of the question of whether citizen review boards to monitor and examine the actions of police officers actually do increase police accountability and public safety.

Students are also working on presentations for other community gatherings, including the Aug. 3-5 Umoja Fest, a local African-American celebration dating back to the 1940s.

In the “Hip Hop & Debate” sessions, middle- and high-school students combined their own observations about challenges in their communities with information they gathered from a variety of sources, then used the beat and creative rhyming patterns of hip-hop to craft their messages.

One technique they used to sharpen their debating skills was called, “Hold up. Wait a minute,” in which one student voices a position and the discussion goes around the room, with each person taking a counter position to something just said.

The use of hip-hop style in debate sessions started several years ago at the University of Louisville, an outgrowth of a national movement that spawned 20 urban-debate leagues to increase inner-city participation.

Local hip-hop artists assisted with the Seattle program, including Julie Chang Schulman, who helped students prepare and craft their compositions.

At an early session, Moorpheus Magnetik of the group dRED.i, traced hip-hop from its origins in the 1970s in the Bronx, N.Y., to its emergence as a national cultural and political force.

In Seattle, he said, hip-hop was among the community forces that helped secure the former Colman school for the Northwest African American Museum, due to open early next year.

“Pick an issue that affects all of us and deal with it,” he told the students. “Politics is local. It’s looking at the whole world and seeing what you can do about it right here.”

Some students added hip-hop touches to their debate rounds at a city urban-debate championship, in which Arunga took first-place honors in team and individual sessions.

“I like to argue, so I’m thinking about becoming a lawyer,” said Arunga, who is home-schooled in Renton. “Or maybe a psychologist, because I like to talk to people and try to understand their point of view, figure out how they see things.”

The students are taking away much more than just finished performance pieces, said K. Wyking Garrett, chief executive of Remix Marketing & Communications. “They’ve grown in their understanding that they have a voice, a powerful voice.”

Garrett expects their efforts to have a ripple effect. “Sometimes in their peer group there’s an anti-intellectual attitude. But now they can go back to their peer group and, by their example, show that it’s OK to be intelligent; it’s OK to be smart.”

As students in the Central Area program continue to refine their work, a similar twice-a-week program will begin July 10 in the Rainier Beach area (watch for details at

Both are funded by grants from the city of Seattle and the nonprofit Social Justice Fund.

Garry Owens, a project manager for the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, says he is encouraged by the students’ approach.

“They’re talking about poverty, drug use, crime and economic needs in their neighborhood — not as a lament, but a call to action. They’re looking for solutions.”

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or