Most parents wouldn't pair hip hop music with teaching their children their ABCs and 123s. A nonprofit in Tacoma, Washington, is showing that it's the perfect way to engage children who would otherwise be left behind in school.
Rodney Raccoon is "that cool, hip, relatable character, that can engage young kids through music and educate them at the same time" and is the brain child of Jerome "JD" Davis. After dreaming up the character one night in 2005, Davis decided that, thanks to his background in music and running an independent record label for years, he could make a difference to children's lives.
Davis knew that there were many children who were struggling to keep up with learning at school, not from a lack of intelligence but from a lack of connection to the work. "The kids weren't learning, they weren't recalling information and we didn't necessarily believe that was the issue, that it may have been the delivery of the lesson."
"That was the whole idea ... 'how can we educate young kids?' and, Rodney Raccoon was the solution," says Davis. "We felt that through music and multimedia, kids could learn."
From that simple idea has grown a character that is larger than life. "We do music, CDs, and DVDs, which are being used in the school districts. They have them available in libraries and also some national distribution," explains Davis.
There's also the live character Rodney that goes into schools to give live performances. He visits local parks to meet children and encourage them to learn, and he is instantly recognized by children and parents alike.
Alex Davis, JD's brother, was an important part of the project from the start. As a music producer, he knew what they would need to accomplish to make the production side a reality.
JD approached him when he had the idea and, as Alex recounts, told him "we're going to do children's music. And so immediately, I mean when I say immediately, immediately we went to the studio and started working."
Some parents were initially wary of using hip hop as a means of educating their children. Alex explains that, "parents felt hip hop was negative and so this idea of putting hip hop music ... to kids' songs" was taken to very slowly at first.
When parents were unsure about the hip hop element, saying that it was 'polluting our kids', the Davis brothers would emphasize, "No, we're just grabbing their attention."
The brothers believed that the key to engaging children was to use music and admit that it didn't have to be hip hop. With an established independent hip hop label, however, that was what they knew best.
The popularity of hip hop at the time they started recording songs for Rodney Raccoon was also a contributing factor. This music was being listened to by children of all ages and from all backgrounds so it was an excellent way of engaging children by using familiar rhythms and catchy beats.
Far from remaining simply a theory, the Davis brothers can now see the fruits of their labor. "To go into a classroom and see a bunch of three-year-old kids singing their ABCs to Rodney Raccoon in Spanish was a shock. And then that lets us know that our concept and the idea of it, worked," says JD.
"I've heard parents say, 'You know, my kid wouldn't have made it through Head Start' or 'my kid is doing so much better at Kindergarten because of Rodney Raccoon'," says JD. "Hearing those type of things when they're saying most of minority kids are falling behind in some areas, and getting to hear they're actually ahead of the curve, is quite exciting."
Rodney Raccoon keeps growing and teaching. The latest initiative, "Go Green with Rodney", takes advantage of the connection Rodney has built up with children to teach them that they can have an impact and make a difference to the planet. There is even a television show in the pipelines to engage children across the country.
The Davis brothers work hard to make sure that as many children as possible can benefit from Rodney Raccoon's educational hip hop. The fact that they see children doing better in school every day only spurs them on to produce new music that will help more children excel.
"I love to see the emotion on the kid's face, I love to see how it's helping them, I love to hear the great stories and most of all," says JD, "I love to hear how it's helping them get to another level."