Imagine learning to beatbox and breakdance in a college class. Imagine watching lectures and performances by hip-hop artists like Chuck D and Janelle Monáe as program requirements. Students studying as a part of the University of Wisconsin’s First Wave program don’t have to imagine. It’s what they do.
First Wave is the country’s first and only scholarship program that provides financial support for students from spoken word and hip-hop communities, according to Executive Director of the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives at the University of Wisconsin Willie Ney, who founded the program.
Strong spoken word and hip-hop communities are defined by a network of support that allows artists, producers and promoters to collaborate and create cutting-edge creative works, according to First Wave spoken word artist Michael Penn II.
The program creates a learning community dedicated to hip-hop arts and theater and is designed to help participants grow as artists and succeed as students, according to Ney.
“It was really time for universities to openly recognize that the youth of a spoken word and hip-hop generation really had a lot to offer, or had a lot to say, that should be valued in university space,” said Danez Smith, a member of the program’s inaugural class and First Wave student liaison.
The Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives launched First Wave in 2007 to fuse arts, academia and activism, Ney said. High school or second-year transfer students who are accepted into the program receive full, four-year scholarships funded by the university.
“We take our academics seriously, and we take our art seriously. It teaches you to juggle both,” said Penn.
Students apply for the program by submitting samples including audition videos, mp3s or design pieces. If selected, students can choose to pursue any major but gain access to exclusive arts classes and performance opportunities around the UW campus and the country.
While Mercy College, Adelphi University and St. John’s University also offer scholarships for spoken word through the New York Knicks/Urban Word NYC poetry slam, First Wave remains unique.
No other college instructs a group of students in the study of hip-hop arts and theater, though other universities have expressed an interest in establishing derivative programs, according to Smith.
Expanding the definition of art
Participants are required to attend the Summer College Experience, a University of Wisconsin bridge program uniquely available to First Wave students. There, mentors challenge students to expand their definitions of art, Penn said.
Freshmen continue to take introductory arts, theater, dance classes together and create a showcase for the annual Linebreaks festival in the spring, a weeklong series of lectures and performances on spoken word and hip-hop. They also take an intensive physics course during their first semester at the university.
“First Wave students are some of the most creative artists that I’ve seen in the country, in the world even. It’s a really tight-knit group of people that are here to get better as artist but also to succeed academically,” Smith said.
First Wave poets have performed at the New York Knicks poetry slam finals at the New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway, the Contacting the World Theater Project in Manchester, England, and Madison Square Garden through their touring group, the First Wave Hip Hop Theater Ensemble guided by Assistant Professor of Dance Chris Walker.
This summer, select participants will also perform the showcase at the slam poetry competition to accompany the Olympics.
Besides creating an academic community to help students maintain the 3.0 grade point average necessary to keep the scholarship, First Wave creates an instant feeling of camaraderie for students.
“When I say that First Wave is like a family it’s really because the program and our students really look out for each other,” Smith said.
Incoming freshman are paired with mentors. Members of older cohorts, or classes, also symbolically adopt younger students creating feelings of kinship, according to Penn. At any given performance, audience members might hear First Wave students referring to each other as children, grandchildren or even grandbabies.
“We care about each other. We understand each other,” said freshman participant Sarah Bruno.
First Wave students hail from New York to Salem, Ore. and twenty states in between. By blurring racial and cultural boundaries, First Wave attracts students that diversify the University of Wisconsin campus and drive participants to embrace new cultures, Penn said.
“They bring people from everywhere to one epicenter. So it’s this gigantic community of people with a whole bunch of different ideas, a whole bunch of different personas [and] perspectives all together,” Penn said.
The program graduated its first group of students last spring. Many First Wavers have stepped outside the realm of spoken word and are attracting recognition in the local hip-hop scene including J. Dante, who has garned positive press for his work.
After the intensive freshman year, some members chose to focus exclusively on their majors. Others like Michael Penn II, also know as CRASHprez, continue to record songs and assemble mixtapes.
“Everybody’s putting tapes together,” Penn said. “Somebody’s going to change something sometime soon. That’s a guarantee.”
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