Alphabet Rockers is a community-based children’s music project helmed by Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Shepherd. With the help of a group of collaborators—some of them as young as nine years old—they write, produce and record songs that address the racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia that can make the lives of children so difficult. Their most recent album, The Movement, explores America’s racial history, with 13 songs that include hip-hop, funk, soul, R&B and dance music in their diverse arrangements.
Like their last two records, 2018’s Rise Shine #Woke and 2019’s The Love, their latest record was nominated for a Best Children’s Music Album Grammy. Shepherd, McGaw and three of their youthful collaborators, Tommy Shepherd III, 15; Maya Fleming, 14; and Kali Aurel de Jesus, 14, attended the award ceremony and were knocked out when they won.
“As I heard the announcement, time stood still,” McGaw said. “Then I started screaming. Tommy sat there looking around with an ‘Oh, we won?’ expression on his face.”
Shepherd adds, “We always felt that someday we’d bring home a trophy to share with all the people that bravely told us their truth, so we could address it in our music. If we win or lose, we know we did the work. This time, it paid off.”
On The Love, the band discussed issues of gender diversity. They knew it was risky and were surprised at how open people were about the subject, not only gender-nonconforming youth and their parents, but also the community at large. At the end of the process of making that album, 60 people of all ages, races and genders contributed, many of them singing, rapping and making music for the first time.
This time, the core group was smaller, due in part to the shutdown of the COVID-19 epidemic. “It was a tough time for us,” Shepherd said. “We’re used to connecting with the community—kids, parents and others—and meeting face-to-face with our support network. The discussions and engagement we have as we create songs are important.
“This time, we asked ourselves, ‘How could we pivot and take care of ourselves and others?’” Shepherd said. “We started Zoom meetings with families, kids and other collaborators [like children’s music stars Mista Cookie Jar and FYÜTCH]. We’d write music together, dance together and talk anti-racism together. We got cameras and mics for everybody. We helped people soundproof their bedrooms or living rooms, building tiny studios, so everything would be equitable and impactful. We showed them how to film themselves and light themselves.”
“We got an Othering and Belonging Fellowship from UC Berkeley to help pass on our way of writing music to our youth artists and keep asking questions around injustice,” McGaw said. “We’d ask people in the community, ‘When do you feel powerful?’ ‘When have you felt powerless?’ The young artists came up with the lyrics after long conversations with parents, grandparents and siblings. What they wrote about was based on listening and expressing their truth.”
The Movement lives up to its title with performances that provide insight into the effect racism has on the day-to-day lives of the performers. Onyx Austin, who is eight years old, recites her poem, “Do You Know My Power,” touching on love, oppression and ecology in 11 lines. FYÜTCH and Shepherd sing lead on “Juneteenth,” the story of the day in 1865 when the enslaved people in Texas found out they’d been set free. It combines funk, dance beats, hip-hop and pop to deliver a history lesson about the Black troops who fought for the Union in the Civil War and the racist language built into the Constitution that declared Black people were three-fifths of a human.
Tommy Shepherd III, Maya Fleming, Kali Aurel de Jesus and 14-year-old Lillian Ellis wrote “Strength in Numbers,” with the help of McGaw and Tommy Shepherd II. Backed by syncopated drum loops and melodies combining hip-hop and R&B, the young artists describe the hazards they endure, and the strength they draw from each other and their community as young people of color.
Although The Movement is marketed as a children’s album, the music and production are as polished as any rock, pop or hip-hop album aimed at adults. The album is a powerful counterbalance to the current wave of outrage against teaching children and teenagers about this country’s racial history, economic segregation, gender dysmorphia and other related subjects.
“The acts of violence against children that are being conducted around the country by state and local legislators affect us all, even if we’re not in those places,” McGaw said. “When we experience this kind of oppressive suffering, it affects everyone. It’s a signal to people that are not mindful of oppression that they can disregard the suffering of others. It makes it easier to act as if people are objects.”
“Some of the kids experience racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia every day,” Shepherd said. “I hear people say we shouldn’t be talking about this to our kids, but it needs to be discussed in some families, because of what the kids are experiencing. I’m wary of letting my son hang out with people who don’t understand that he might have to be protected, because of what he looks like.”
“As a young white woman, I didn’t experience racism, but realized I was somehow involved in it,” McGaw said. “I was disappointed in the grownups I knew for not talking about it. If I had the tools that Alphabet Rockers are creating today, I would have been able to stand up and interrupt the patterns of oppression that went on. I believe that compassionate people of all ages around the country will always know the truth, and share the truth, and help the community to survive these oppressive situations.”
Before they began collaborating as Alphabet Rockers, McGaw and Shepherd both had successful musical careers of their own. Shepherd was an actor, songwriter and producer, who led his own hip-hop group. “One of my day jobs was teaching kids about the elements of hip-hop,” Shepherd said. “Kaitlin wanted to do something for kids, even though she didn’t have kids when we started.”
“Hip-hop is poetry for the people,” McGaw said. “I’ve always been involved in the hip-hop space, finding my activist voice as a singer, sister and later, as a mother in the community. My stance, as a performer and a person, is connectivity.”
“When we tour, there are schools that boycott us because of some of our messages, mostly around gender diversity,” Shepard said. “Despite that, hundreds of people are still coming to the shows, even though some parents don’t like it. We do see a lot of parents that want their children to be able to live with love and face these problems. I think that’s hopeful.”