Kent County teenagers and Washington College students sit together in the basement of an American Legion building, in Chestertown.
Phebe Wood, 17, stands up to explain her album cover and evolving project titled “Girls to the Front.” Although Wood grew up listening to folk music, she has spent the past five weeks diving into hip-hop as part of a time capsule project from Chesapeake Heartland, a humanities project from Washington College in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
African American history in Kent County dates back to the 17th century. According to the Chesapeake Heartland project, the ancestors of many present-day African Americans nationwide arrived in and around the Chesapeake region during the 17th and 18th centuries before dispersing around the country. Many were sold and relocated by force, while others moved as free people or freedom seekers on the underground railroad. This has left a complex, and often painful cultural legacy in Kent County that Chesapeake Heartland, Washington College and its Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience are trying to preserve. Part of that effort is the Hip Hop Time Capsule Internship, a summer program at Washington College, which concluded on July 22.
On July 15, the administration of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced that $1 million will go to Washington College to fund a new senior position within the Starr Center named after former Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., who died in January. The Miller Director of Civic Engagement will oversee future programs like the Hip Hop Time Capsule.
The paid internship program consists of six college students from Washington College and 10 high school students from Kent County. Equipped with their new emcee names, interns dig through the Chesapeake Heartland’s digital archive of African American history. From yearbooks to photos to speeches, they have learned about the history of the Eastern Shore while some have discovered their own family history buried in the archive.
The goal is to create original music and album covers inspired by Kent County history through the use of samples from the archive. They will eventually be published on the Chesapeake Heartland site. On July 22, interns presented their final projects to Kent County middle school students.
“The Kent County sound is full of blues and a cappella gospel music that is unique to this area. When you listen you realize that hip-hop couldn’t exist without the roots here,” said Kentavius Jones, the program’s music director. The works of Chestertown gospel vocalist Karen Somerville and her a cappella group Sombarkin’ are reflective of this sound.
Patrick Nugent has been at the forefront of the time capsule. The deputy director of the Starr Center and Washington College lecturer of history says he has been surprised by students’ reaction to the archive.
“In many ways, the students are pretty shy, so we didn’t know what to expect and what was going to come out of this,” Nugent said. “So when I was listening to some of their work for the first time, the depth and willingness to lay down some meaningful and introspective lines was truly eye-opening.”
Jones has spent the summer helping the students with their lyrics and performances.
One of the college interns, Faithlin Hunter, had no previous interest in hip-hop before becoming a part of this program. Although she is a music major at Washington College, she says never appreciated hip-hop because she was unaware of its cultural significance. “I used to think hip-hop and rap was just people talking really fast, but now I can see and appreciate the rich culture and history that’s behind it,” Hunter said.
Hunter is collaborating with a high school intern, 17-year-old Alana Fithian-Wilson, on their original song “Flying with Clipped Wings.” The beat, contributed by a friend of Nugent’s, samples a choir that repeats the words “until I die.” Hunter and Fithian-Wilson interpreted the sample into a record explaining the importance of social justice and protest. Their chorus goes “Until I die, flying high, spread your wings and fly, nonviolence for a life.”
“I feel like certain people are living with clipped wings, or things that try to keep them down in life,” Fithian-Wilson said. “Regardless of that, people can still accomplish anything and stand up for themselves.”
As the five weeks came to a close, Myona Moore, 17, and another intern, 17-year-old Sam Buckel, reflected on the program.
“I thought it was going to be boring, to be honest,” Moore said.
“Yeah, I thought we were just going to be interviewing people and looking through the archive and stuff like that, but now we are actually making music with the archive and taking it a step farther,” Buckel said. “It’s definitely a lot more interesting than I thought it would be.”