Students Use Hip Hop to Cope with Personal Trauma in New Documentary

A virtual screening and panel discussion is scheduled for May 13.

Taumontae Johnson rapping
Photos courtesy of Nathan Willis.

Taumontae Johnson was a sophomore at Central High School in Helena-West Helena in 2017. As a student, Johnson was part of the Central Rap Squad, which he says gave him friends and a brotherhood.

“The set of individuals I was around, it just gave me the right kind of energy to be able to produce the right type of energy I wanted people to hear from me,” he says.

Johnson’s story is featured in Rap Squad, a documentary about Arkansas high school hip hop artists seeking healing for themselves and equity in their community through their art. Arkansas PBS is hosting a virtual screening and panel discussion about the film Thursday evening. 

Victor Sellarole and Jess Rossoni co-founded Rap Squad while teaching at Central High School. The concept for the group, Sellarole says, was a response “to the lack of opportunity students had to express themselves artistically in ways that felt genuine or culturally relevant.” 

Johnson describes Rap Squad as “a team of underdogs,” students who didn’t fit in with other groups.

“Mr. Sellarole basically gathered all of us up and just gave us that chance to speak on different things, different subjects that high school do to you,” he says.

While he was teaching in the Arkansas Delta, Sellarole noticed many students who weren’t completing essays in English class were filling out notebooks with lyrics. He wondered if students weren’t completing academic work because it wasn’t relevant to them, not because of a gap in learning, and thought perhaps Rap Squad could provide these students with a creative outlet.

“The idea of a rap squad in a high school shouldn’t be as novel as it is —  the students showed interest, expressed a need and their teachers rose to the occasion,” Sellarole says. “If the interest had been in poetry, or short fiction, or journalism, we would have started that club, and I doubt one of those clubs would have been seen as novel.” 

When forming the club, Sellarole says they faced resistance from a lot of adults who saw rap as “a negative, often violent, often misogynistic art form.” The group also faced some resistance from students who were concerned they’d be forced to be “Nickelodeon rappers.” Sellarole and his students found a balance by following a rule that nothing was off limits as long it was a lived experience.

“This generated a lot of raw, real work that also managed to avoid industry stereotypes that adults were worried about, and presented an opportunity for students to process their emotions in a way that felt culturally relevant to the young people who chose to join the Rap Squad,” Sellarole says.

The rap squad was an after school club, but it never officially received school support and was funded entirely through crowdsourcing or personal funds. Through its own ingenuity, the club built a recording studio in Rossini’s closet using audio foam and a microphone.

Students are shown rapping original lyrics in the makeshift studio throughout the documentary that was directed by Nathan Willis, a commercial and documentary filmmaker based in the American South. Willis initially planned on producing a short 10-minute film on the club because he thought it was “a really cool story.”

“It’s one of those things where you hear it and you’re like why are there not more of this because it’s such a unique [idea],” Willis says. “But also so many kids are into hip hop music, so why not create a platform for them to create their own music?”

Central High School students protesting

Once Willis started filming, he became aware of a political battle in the community about raising property taxes to fund construction of a new high school. Several people were against the millage because their kids attended a private school or a charter school, he says.  Proponents of raising taxes said students deserved a better facility than the one they were attending, which had fallen into to disrepair. Willis includes several shots of the dilapidated building throughout his documentary.

“They were just surrounded by it, surrounded by this rotting building and moldy ceilings and exposed wires,” he says. “So definitely wanted to create that subtle feeling, give you the sense of what they’re seeing every day.” 

When the debate surrounding the millage escalated, Johnson and his classmates took action.

“We started seeing vote no signs and we started feeling some type of way,” he says. “I mean why would you even discourage the advancement of education?”

Students became involved in the election by organizing a walk out during school. They also passed out flyers around town encouraging community members to vote yes. Once students became more active in the debate, Willis realized the story was bigger than he originally thought and the project morphed from a short film into a feature length documentary, Willis’ first.

Filming lasted for about six months in 2017 and resulted in more than 100 hours of footage that mostly sat on the shelf until the COVID-19 pandemic. With several of his professional gigs cancelled because of the public health crisis, Willis turned his attention to editing the film. Even though a few years had passed since filming wrapped, Willis says he wanted to complete the project because of how gracious the documentary’s subjects had been in opening up their lives and allowing him to capture vulnerable moments.

“They were just so open with letting me film everything and I just felt like I owed it to them,” he says.

The documentary premiered at the Hot Springs Film Festival in October 2020 and because of the pandemic, an in-person screening has not been held in Helena-West Helena. However, Willis has organized virtual screenings and talk back sessions with documentary participants and stakeholders, and says the feedback has been positive.

Montae and Ray hugging

Taumontae Johnson has seen the film and at 20 years old, he says it’s been crazy to look back at that time in his life. He also says it’s an honor to have been included in the film. While he’s no longer a part of the Central Rap Squad, Johnson still writes and performs for himself as a form of “self-soothing therapy.”

“I’m still trying to find myself with my lyrics,” he says. “I know what people want to hear and at the same time I know what people need to hear, and it gets complicated when you try to mix the two.”

Through Rap Squad, students got an opportunity to be understood, and were given the chance to process trauma and pain, which was valuable, Sellarole says. For example, the first song they created together was a memorial for a student who had passed away in an accident the night of prom.

Rap Squad was always a team effort, he says. Jess Rossoni helped organize, Morgan Ragland produced the music, and Sellarole focused on student development, writing, and finding opportunities to perform.

“What I most cherish about the memories of Rap Squad was our sense of connection and family,” Sellarole says. “It was always goofy and fun and scrappy, and always resulted in something beautiful.”

Viewers can witness some of those beautiful moments during a free virtual screening and panel discussion hosted by Arkansas PBS May 13. Rap Squad: Where Music, Arts & Education Converge begins at 7 p.m. Thursday and registration is available here. The documentary will air again at 10 p.m May 16 on Arkansas PBS. It’s also streaming on Reel South through July 5.

To listen to some of the music produced by Rap Squad and watch their music videos, visit their Youtube channel

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.