The 48th annual NAACP Image Awards took place last month, and in the audience in Los Angeles were some very special nominees from the state of Minnesota.
Going up against artists such as Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Bruno Mars, and Common were students from St. Paul’s High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) — for their collaboration with Sounds of Blackness on the song “Royalty.” The anthem, written to empower African-American youth, was nominated for both Outstanding Duo, Group or Collaboration and Outstanding Song. Although they didn’t return home with an award (no shame in losing to Beyoncé), the opportunities “Royalty” has created for the students of HSRA is what really makes the song so remarkable.
“Royalty” is the brainchild of Gary Hines, director and producer for Sounds of Blackness. Hines wrote and produced the song, which was released in February 2016. The song was written with the intention of uplifting and empowering African-American youth both here in Minnesota and worldwide. The lyrics feature the affirming message, “If you never been told, time for you to know — you’re royalty.”
Not only does the song preach empowerment, the creation of “Royalty” provided an opportunity for just that. Students from HSRA were involved in several different elements of the song’s creation. The song was recorded at the school in Studio 4, where students helped with the recording as well as provided vocals. The music video that was later released was also produced with the help of HSRA students and features them performing alongside Sounds of Blackness.
One of the students involved in the recording of “Royalty” was Ishy Juan, who wrote and performed the rap. At the time of the “Royalty” project, Juan was interning at the studio as an audio engineer, meaning he was actively involved with many of the projects that came through the studio. It was only after learning who Gary Hines was that Juan realized how unique this opportunity was.
“When I found out who Gary was actually was what made me even more interested and wanted to stick around because I kind of grew up on the Sounds of Blackness.”
However, it was when Hines started mentioning he might need a rapper that Juan became particularly motivated to be a part of the production of “Royalty.” Juan explained that he made a point to always be at the ready for the opportunity to write the rap for the song and his efforts eventually paid off.
“He mentioned it a lot and then one day he was like ‘we need the rapper right here,’ and I was like, alright, give me five minutes. I just wrote as fast as I could and went in there to record and it was like a perfect take right off.”
When asked how he managed to write the rap so quickly and on the spot, Juan explained that he had been writing since he was around nine years old and at this point it’s just something that comes naturally to him. He also credited his family as part of his inspiration for this particular song.
“I grew up in a political home, in a politically conscious home you know, just knowing who I am and knowing my history, knowing where my people come from.”
Juan was also one of the four HSRA students to be able to attend the NAACP award ceremony, which for him was a particularly eye-opening experience.
“It was the first time I felt free. I just felt like that should be something that I’m doing on a regular basis.”
Not only has “Royalty” opened doors for those who were directly involved in engineering the song, but even a year after its release students today are still being empowered by “Royalty,” with the help of Rock the Cause. From the onset of the project, Rock the Cause was involved consulting with the school on the digital delivery of the record. The organization continues to be involved through the creation of a special class taught by the label’s Scott Herold. The topic of the class is the business of music, and the curriculum centers around the promotion of the school’s musical projects, including “Royalty.”
The class imparts to students the skills of the music business, as well as provides them an opportunity to interact and take pride in the school’s projects. Herold takes a very hands-on approach to his teaching, which includes having students research and contact radio stations and media publications from across the country.
“I open up my book of contacts to them and the students contact Rolling Stone and they contact Billboard and they contact the LA Times — I mean, wouldn’t you rather hear from the students than hear from me?” Herold continued, “This is an incredible story for that school to continue to tell and we will continue to promote ‘Royalty’ and share the story. There’s still a lot of life left in the song.”
Lillian Speakman is a senior at Hamline University and a DJ for HU Radio.