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Two students wearing face masks make a heart sign with their hands.

Fatou Thioune and Julyssa Pelliton, both juniors at Hill-Freedman Academy, participated with 58 of their classmates in producing the album “Love & Healing.”

Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat

‘Music can help us heal’: Philly students express dealing with COVID, racial injustice in album

In the song titled “Home Screen,” Jehmir Nixon, a junior at Hill-Freedman World Academy, raps about his fears of not making it to graduation: 

“Can’t count the number of times I thought about dropping out, because I doubt that I can make it to graduation with my friends because my hesitation to be productive is destructive to my future. I’m stressing, I need to decompress.”

Rayanna Jones, also a junior at Hill-Freedman, sings in “Northern Lights” about her surroundings during virtual learning:  

“Everyday feels like it’s on replay. The same view, same skies, same room, same eyes looking. I gotta move, I gotta find something new. I gotta do something to improve my mood. I wasn’t always in a bad mood.”

And in “Fallen Soldiers,” a group of students rap and sing about the dangers of street life after school:

“My brother is never coming home, Mom she is all alone. Got me writing all these lyrics on my iPhone. Plus my uncle got killed, now he’s dead and gone. Rest in peace Uncle Bob that’s in every song. Raj gone, Nas gone, what’s really going on?”

These are lyrics from “Love & Healing,” an album written, produced, and recorded last year by students at Hill-Freedman located in Mount Airy. The project features 32 original songs aimed to bring comfort for classmates who may be down about the state of schools and life in general.

The past two years have been anything but normal for Philadelphia students as COVID-19 has shaken their world.

District schools were forced to close in March 2020 due to the pandemic and shifted to virtual learning for 18 months. Most recently, almost half of the schools in Philadelphia were forced to go remote due to staff shortages caused by the omicron variant.

“The whole idea of the album is about love and healing, living with COVID, and how everybody needs to lift up each other and work together and to make sure each other is alright,” said 11th grade student Julyssa Pelliton. “I just wanted to come up with a message that will influence them to do something positive.”

The students’ views on racialized violence are also featured on the album – a reflection of the  protests against police brutality and the national reckoning on racial injustice spurred by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Walter Wallace at the hands of police in 2020. 

Those incidents were the catalyst for a song titled “Problems.”

“Woke up this morning, with pain in my heart, wondering why people are living the way that they are. Where do I start in the interest of reality? We need to stop police brutality,” sings Shyla Whitaker-Kelly, a junior.

Not everyone in music technology teacher Ezechial Thurman’s class at Hill-Freedman was willing to come into the recording studio to complete the album that was part of their required curriculum. 

After all, they began working on the project in the fall of 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. And they were scared.

“As we began, the idea of collaborating with a brand-new group of students in an entirely virtual environment was quite a daunting prospect,” said World Cafe Live teaching artist Andrew Lipke who worked closest with the students.

How could they record songs together if they were isolated at home? How could they accomplish such a task?

Would this even be possible?

It was.

The album is a component of the school’s International Baccalaureate, or IB program, where students are required to create music. The project involved 60 students who made up the entire 10th grade class when they began working on the album and are now juniors. School leaders, artists from World Cafe Live, and fellows from the national service initiative ArtistYear and WHYY Media Labs also lent a hand.

Hill-Freedman, located at 1100 East Mt. Pleasant Ave. near Mount Airy, is a special admission middle and high school.

“Our music hopes to meet a need in our community as we focus on the importance of more love and healing after a year of virtual learning and navigating through the pandemic,” said Thurman. “In difficult times, music can help us heal.”

The school’s recording studio, Hill-Freedman Records, was founded by Thurman in 2016 and is run by students. This year’s album is the school’s fifth, but viewed as its most significant due to the pandemic. 

The biggest hurdle for the students was recording and producing the album over the 2020-2021 year when Philadelphia schools moved to remote learning – and fears of COVID kept some students out of the recording studio.

“Not everybody’s voice is in the album, but they do contribute. The pandemic definitely made school harder,” Pelliton said. “And I’m very surprised that we did this whole album online. That was very cool to me.”

Despite the challenges brought by the pandemic, the students had a good support system, said Fatou Thioune, a junior.

“The teachers were always there to be encouraging, which made everything a lot easier,” Thioune said. “We had people we were partnering with to work with the student producers and made amazing music.”

The school also had a few setbacks with staffing and funding, related to COVID, and being apart from each other for a year and a half, Thurman said 

“But we’re learning that just making music by itself is a powerful way to create an influence in our community,” he said.