Alameda father-son duo still basking in Alphabet Rockers’ Grammy win
By Lou Fancher
Expressions of mighty power, individual acts of magnificent courage, raw truths and hard work led Oakland-based Alphabet Rockers to triumph Feb. 5 at the 2023 Grammy Awards.
Nominated three times in prior years, a fourth nomination for Best Children’s Album for “The Movement” (alphabetrockers.com/themovement) clinched it. Founded in 2007 and led by Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Soulati Shepherd, the multigenerational, racially mixed group partners with communities and leaders in the music industry to not just create but to be, see, say, rap and sing about social justice.
During the pandemic, the group worked to have a positive impact on children worldwide through initiatives involving their 1 Tribe Collective, a Black artist collective. They also recorded the Grammy-nominated album “All One Tribe;” created “We Got Work to Do,” an anti-racist musical curriculum; and published a picture book entitled “You Are Not Alone.”
Also during the pandemic, they participated as artist fellows at UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute while crafting their fifth and Grammy-winning album featuring 13 new songs composed in whole or in part by youth songwriters and lead singers Maya Fleming, Kali de Jesus and Tommy Shepherd III, Tommy Soulati Shepherd’s son.
With a parent and child winning the same Grammy award for only the second time (Blue Ivy and Beyonce won in 2021), the Shepherds, who live in Alameda, participated in separate, back-to-back interviews a month after their Grammy win.
Tommy, 15, is a freshman at Oakland School for the Arts and has been an Alphabet Rocker since age 3, when he appeared in a video. He said winning the award “still hasn’t hit” but that putting out an album that pushes for liberation is “beautiful.” Songs on “The Movement” developed from interactions with restorative justice practitioners like Angela Davis and raw investigations of real-life experiences involving power, racism, gender bias, systemic oppression and avenues leading to unity, love and community care.
“The album’s putting out a message and exposing things,” he said. “It makes someone look into themselves and their practices and who they’re affecting. It creates tensions and exposes problems people don’t want to deal with.”
On the new album, Tommy wrote “The Change Up,” a song about the U.S. prison system.
“It talks about who gets to make mistakes and who gets to learn. It asks if it’s OK to put people away their whole lives because of one mistake. The government profits off of those people’s failure. They make the system for (monetary) purpose and keep people in prison so they keep failing and they can profit off of them.”
Tommy says the conversation with Davis was a rare opportunity to meet someone whose shoulders he and his generation of social justice activists are standing on.
“It’s beautiful I can live in the rights I have now and meet a person who sacrificed so their community could have it better,” he said.
Asked to name other civil rights leaders — living or no longer alive — he’d like to talk to, Tommy names Malcolm X, W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King Jr. (“but not the whitewashed version people have created,” he emphasized), Tupac Shakur, Laralyn Davis, Cat Brooks and more. Tommy said working with his father is sometimes tough and often inspiring.
“We’re both stubborn and hard-headed. When we think something’s right, we think it’s super-right. What I like about my dad is that he raps and plays drums; I rap and play sax. I’m gonna be a role model who’s successful at rapping and instrumental music. I can see being even better than my dad. Like him, I want to be kind, bring joy to all situations and be a revolutionary who changes things for the better for a long time.”
His father says winning the Grammy was humbling but also redemptive in a world and industry known to denigrate or simply dismiss the voices, talent and wisdom of today’s youth.
“As a human, you want to highlight it to the naysayers,” Soulati Shepherd said. “On the other side of that, it’s fuel to keep doing the work. To be very honest, we deserved it. We did the work. It’s hard to say that yourself. It’s different when someone else says it. But it was our fourth nomination, and we’ve been on that path. I said we were going to do this, and we did.”
The elder Shepherd said Alphabet Rocker’s youngest members exceed his expectations every time.
“Youths are doing something brave by writing, dancing, giving songs to us. We know how hard it is to put yourself out there. If you do that, you’ve succeeded. If you allow us to share it for you, that’s brave too. Talent-wise and as humans, the biggest moments are kids who are too shy to talk, and (when) you get them writing and putting their words out, that’s a huge success.”
He points to Maya, who originally joined as a dancer, as an example of individual achievement.
“We noticed she had a flare, glow, shine. One day she said, ‘I like singing too.’ We gave her a microphone, and now she has a Grammy.”
When he and co-founder McGaw are asked if the focus or content of the topics they address are “too mature” or “might scare kids,” Shepherd speaks about having complex thoughts as a kid and not understanding why conversations about those ideas were withheld. As an adult, he says his primary role is deep listening.
“I shut up — literally. Instead of trying to give them advice, I just let them tell me what they’re thinking. A lot of parents are bringing that gift to their families. They ask questions instead of telling. Instead of fixing things, they ask children how they see their way out of this or that thing.”
As Alphabet Rockers moves forward, Shepherd takes his cue from “Power Up,” an energetic track on the new album promoting the flow of power as a radical experience.
“We have to go back out to the community, ask questions, write more music, do collaborative projects centered around tough subjects and bringing joy. What we’re not going to do is hold back. We’re going to be in the game of taking even bigger risks.”