Hip Hop Is Saving Teen Lives in Minnesota

By connecting with at-risk youth through music that is embedded in Twin Cities culture, one high school is getting students to learn — off the streets

When Cameron Keys was a teen living in Chicago, he was the victim of a random drive-by shooting. Despite being hit by 16 bullets, he survived. But he needed a change, and found his way to Minneapolis/St. Paul. Homeless for two months, in and out of shelters, he was introduced by a shelter coordinator to Charlnitta Ellis.

Charlnitta Ellis — also known as “Mama Chi” and the sister of David T.C. Ellis, who founded High School for Recording Arts — encouraged Keys to come to the school.

“This place is a safe haven,” said Tracy Seller, the parent of former HSRA students. “A lot of times, these kids get given up on.”

HSRA, nicknamed “Hip Hop High,” is a public school in St. Paul, Minnesota. T.C. Ellis, who had a long, storied music career growing up and recording with Prince, sought to connect with at-risk students through music — something that is deeply rooted in the culture of the Twin Cities. HSRA teaches core subjects through a musical lens, helping students develop skills and agency to tackle real-world issues.

Keys credits HSRA with saving his life, and for putting him on a pathway to be where he is in life now — living in Tennessee with his wife, and working a stable job as a Walmart manager.

“What high school that you know can make you take out all your anger on a beat?” Keys said. “There ain’t nobody getting hurt, that’s amazing to me.”

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